Aug 042015


The Constitution of the Cook Islands took effect on this date in 1965, when they became a self-governing territory in free association with New Zealand. The anniversary of these events in 1965 is commemorated annually on Constitution Day, with week-long activities known as Te Maevea Nui Celebrations locally.


The Cook Islands were first settled in the late 6th century by Polynesian people who migrated from Tahiti, 1154 km to the northeast of Cook Islands. Spanish ships visited the islands in the 16th century; the first written record of contact with the islands came with the sighting of Pukapuka by Spanish sailor Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira in 1595 who called it San Bernardo. Pedro Fernandes de Queirós, a Portuguese captain working for the Spanish crown, made the first recorded European landing in the islands when he set foot on Rakahanga in 1606, calling it Gente Hermosa (Beautiful People). British navigator Captain James Cook arrived in 1773 and 1777 and named the islands the Hervey Islands; the name “Cook Islands”, in honor of Cook, appeared on a Russian naval chart published in the 1820s.

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In 1813 John Williams, a missionary on the Endeavour (not the same ship as Cook’s) made the first recorded sighting of Rarotonga. The first recorded landing on Rarotonga by Europeans was in 1814 by the Cumberland; trouble broke out between the sailors and the Islanders and many were killed on both sides. The islands saw no more Europeans until missionaries arrived from England in 1821. Christianity quickly took hold in the culture and many islanders continue to be Christian.


The Cook Islands became a British protectorate in 1888, due largely to community fears that France might occupy the territory as it had Tahiti. On 6 September 1900, the leading islanders presented a petition asking that the islands (including Niue “if possible”) should be annexed as British territory. On 8–9 October 1900 seven instruments of cession of Rarotonga and other islands were signed by their chiefs and people; and by a British Proclamation issued at the same time the cessions were accepted. These instruments did not include Aitutaki. It appears that, though the inhabitants regarded themselves as British subjects, the Crown’s title was uncertain, and the island was formally annexed by Proclamation dated 9 October 1900. The islands were included within the boundaries of the Colony of New Zealand in 1901 by Order in Council under the Colonial Boundaries Act, 1895 of the United Kingdom. The boundary change became effective on 11 June 1901 and the Cook Islands have had a formal relationship with New Zealand ever since.

When the British Nationality and New Zealand Citizenship Act 1948 came into effect on 1 January 1949, Cook Islanders who were British subjects gained New Zealand citizenship. The country remained a New Zealand dependent territory until 1965, when the New Zealand Government decided to offer self-governing status to Cook Islanders. In that year, Albert Henry of the Cook Islands Party was elected as the first Premier. Henry led the country until he was accused of vote-rigging. He was succeeded in 1978 by Tom Davis of the Democratic Party.

The Cook Islands are now primarily a tourist destination with much of the economy based on tourism. Wood carving is not so common now as it was 100 years ago, but it is undergoing a revival. Polynesian carving was an important component of the European art style generally labeled as “primitivist.”

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Due to the island location and the fact that the Cook Islands produce a significant array of fruits and vegetables, natural local produce, especially coconut, features in many of the dishes of the islands as does fresh seafood. While most food is imported from New Zealand, there are several Growers’ Associations, which provide produce for local cuisine. Typical local cuisine includes arrowroot, clams, octopus, and taro, and seasonings such as fresh ginger, lime, lemon, basil, garlic and coconut, and the local dishes share much in common with the rest of Polynesia. Rukau is a dish of taro leaves cooked with coconut sauce and onion. A meal of octopus is known locally as Eke, and suckling pig is known as Puaka. Ika mata is a dish of raw fish marinated with lemon or lime and served with coconut cream – rather like a Polynesian ceviche.

Poke is not technically a dessert although it can be eaten as such. It is commonly made in one of two ways, either with banana and coconut milk or with pawpaw (papaya), but any tropical fruit will work. It is essentially mashed, poached fruit – commonly banana – hand mixed with double the amount of fruit of arrowroot starch, baked, and then served with warmed fresh coconut cream. Arrowroot is rather expensive to buy in supermarkets but you can get it online in fairly large quantities. Some cooks add sugar because it can be a bit bland for Western tastes without it. On the other hand, unsweetened poke is a good addition to a main meal of steamed or baked fish.


Papaya and fresh coconut are available more or less anywhere in the world these days, so you could make a simple island breakfast by halving a papaya, scraping out the seeds and filling the center with shaved coconut. Delicious.