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Cook Islands - History

Cook Islands History

It is thought that 40,000 years ago the Pacific Region was totally uninhabited. Around that time people started to move down from Asia and settled Australia and Melanesia. The Australian Aboriginals and the tribes of Papua New Guinea are the descendants of the first wave of Pacific settlers. After thousands of years of migration throughout the South Pacific, the Cooks Islands were first inhabited around 1500 years ago. Actually, the oldest archaeological item found in the islands is a dog skull from Pukapuka, dated at 2300 years old.

The Spanish explorer Alvaro de MeƱdana was the first European to sight one of the islands in the group - Pukapuka - in 1595. There is little record of further European contact for over 150 years, until Captain James Cook explored much of the group during his expeditions of 1773 and 1777. Cook set foot on just one island - tiny, uninhabited Palmerston - while overlooking Rarotonga, the largest. The first Europeans to sight Rarotonga were the mutineers on the HMS Bounty, who committed their crime while sailing among the Cooks.

Captain Cook inflicted the wonky name of Hervey Islands (after a British Lord of the Admiralty) on the southern group, though the indignity was softened when a Russian cartographer renamed them fifty years later in honor of Cook himself. It wasn't until the turn of the century that both groups were united under the same name.

Missionaries followed the explorers, establishing firm control over the islands' religious life throughout most of the 19th century. They imposed a rigid system of laws and penalties in which fines were split between judges and policemen. As a result, in parts of Rarotonga one person in six was a member of the force. The strongly religious bent of the legal code led to such 'Blue Laws' as that requiring any man with his arm around a woman after dark to carry a light in his other hand.

While the missionaries made Rarotonga their administrative centre, they generally ignored the outer islands, leaving them to govern themselves under individual tribal chiefs, or ariki. The ariki kept traditional island culture, language and religion alive. Where the missionaries held sway, however, the result was often widespread disease (to which native islanders had no immunities). Three decades after the missionaries' first appearance, the native population had shrunk by two thirds. Dysentery from Tahiti killed 1000 people in one year alone. Not until the early in the 20th century did a real population increase begin.

The British didn't take control of the islands until 1888, when they were declared a protectorate. After a decade of at first inept and then draconian British rule, some of the islands came under New Zealand's control. By 1901 all the islands were annexed to New Zealand. Attempts to make the islands a self-sustaining unit in the larger trade of the region met with repeated failure. Part of the reason lay with the ariki, who controlled most of the land and tended to leave it idle.

The USA built airstrips on Penrhyn and Aitutaki during WWII, but the Cooks were pretty quiet until the 1960s. The islands became internally self-governing in 1965, with foreign policy and defence left to New Zealand. In return, islanders received New Zealand citizenship and the right to come and go at will from both New Zealand and Australia.

The Cooks' first prime minister was Albert Henry, leader of the Cook Islands Party and a prime mover for independence. Although knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974, Henry got himself thrown out of office and stripped of his knighthood for electoral fraud. After nearly a decade of seeing fragile coalitions form and crumble, the Cook Islands found some political stability in 1989, when Geoffrey Henry (Albert's cousin) became prime minister, a position he holds to this day.

Economic stability, however, continued to elude the islands. When New Zealand pulled the plug on aid in the mid-1990s, Henry announced a drastic austerity programme. He sacked about 2000 public servants, and in a country of fewer than 20,000 people that was a huge proportion of the working population. The programme forced many to emigrate to New Zealand and Australia, where they have working rights.

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