Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 27, No. 8. 1964.
...Cook Islands — Behind The Coconut Curtain
Behind The Coconut Curtain
If we are to understand the problems confronting New Zealand's administration of the Cook Islands, and the problems arising out of the United Nation's demand that these islands should have self-government, then we must acquaint ourselves with the story of how we acquired these islands .. . For the purpose of this article it is necessary to briefly sketch New Zealand's foreign policy over the last thirty years of the 19th Century.
What was this policy? New Zealand was to be the king pin in a federation of the peoples' of the South Seas. The islands would supply the raw materials, New Zealand would produce the finished articles. This plan for a Greater New Zealand was to include Polynesia and part of Melanesia.
First elaborated by Sir George Grey, it was vigorously pursued by Vogel, and then by Seddon. Vogel bombarded the British Government with demands for the annexation of Fiji, Samoa, indeed almost all the islands of the South Pacific. Seddon added New Caledonia and Hawaii, in fact almost all Pacific Territories that he could find on the map.
But it was not to be. New Zealand was herself only a colony and the Colonial Office would have none of it. In 1899 the British Government "betrayed" (Seddon's term) New Zealand when it renounced its right to Samoa In favour of Germany and America in order to secure benefits elsewhere for Britain. And in 1900 when it finally refused to cede Fiji, the plan for a greater New Zealand came to an end. We had to be content with the annexation of the Cook Islands, in the estimation of the Colonial Office, " a remote and worthless group" (1).
From then on, New Zealand thinking on world affairs as typified by Grey. Vogel and Seddon, with their solid knowledge of New Zealand's interests and feeling for our geographical position, was replaced by a "little" New Zealand policy, wherein we lost our national identity, transferred our loyalties to the North Atlantic, took pride in being dubbed "more English than the English." strove to marry our daughters off to naval officers, and made London the Mecca of our dreams.
In 1891 a British Resident (Frederick Moss—a New Zealand politician) was sent to Rarotonga. Though he had no executive authority, he organised a Federal Parliament with representatives from each of the southern islands of the group. The members were the high chiefs and their nominees, with the resident acting as advisor . . . This period, which lasted until New Zealand annexation in 1901, saw more development of native enterprise than the group has ever seen since.
Native owned and operated schooners traded throughout the Group, as well as to Tahiti and down to New Zealand. While some had European masters, others were manned from the captain down by Cook Islanders. They were all owned by tribal groups and operated by the respective chiefs who also organised much of the production and most of the marketing.
Within a few years of the annexation, all significant powers were assumed by the Resident (In 1898 Colonel W. E. Gudgeon replaced Moss). The native judges were dismissed and their powers delegated to the Resident's agents.
Island Councils were subordinated to their Presidency . . . native officials, the postmasters and police were dismissed. Within five years not one of the native schooners was still running and production and marketing on tribal lines had virtually ceased . . . The High School was closed down, and scholarships offered by the New Zealand Education Department were refused by the Resident who was strongly opposed to the education of the natives beyond an elementary level. (2).
Gudgeon was a veteran of the Maori Wars and Seddon decided that to impress the natives the first Resident after the annexation should be a "strong man." He was perhaps the most forceful personality that could be found.
In September 1898 he arrived in Rarotonga on a British warship. He was introduced by the naval commander, the ship's guns were fired and with ceremonial pomp. Gudgeon landed to take up his duties. With his increased powers after the annexation Gudgeon tightened his grip or administration.
Independence and self-government gave way to the crushing of chiefly authority and the imposition of control from Wellington was inauguarated through the Resident Commissioner, With slight modifications this administrative machinery set up under Gudgeon was to govern the Cook Islands for the next fifty-six years.
Gudgeon's dislike of the Islanders intensified over the years. He was of the opinion "that the native of the South Seas (unless he had some European blood) is a selfindulgent animal and after nine years I have neither respect for his character nor hope for his future. To educate him above the resources of the islands would be nothing short of criminal. He should learn to read the bible in Maori and sing hymns. If he wants to learn English he can go to a European family as a houseboy and learn enough for his needs."
Gudgeon feared that the educated native would end up a drunken loafer in New Zealand. (3). He was also strongly opposed to Cook Islanders having any contact with Papeete "the Cairo of the Pacific" although there was considerable trading between the Cooks and Tahiti at the time of annexation.
With the consolidation of New Zealand rule. Ordinances and Regulations fell thick and fast. Some of them were plainly ridiculous; "Every rider of a bicycle shall sound his or her bicycle bell continually when approaching any person. Any person wandering about after 9pm may be arrested. No native singing, dancing or drum playing shall take place after 9pm. "No public entertainment shall be held or given after 10.30pm without the consent of the Resident Commissioner. Any Maori in the island of Rarotonga is liable to be called up for work on the roads and bridges."
As recently as September, 1962, Pacific Viewpoint reports: "The Administration operates on colonial lines. The senior official of each island is president of the council of that island, head of the public service, chief of its police staff and magistrate. With the exception of Rarotonga, more than 90 per cent of regular wage and salary employment is paid by the government and the selection and promotion of most employees is done either by the Resident himself or is subject to his recommendation. Paid employment is keenly sought after and in most instances councillors or some members of their households are employees of the government.
"In his Judical capacity the Resident dispenses punishments for all but the most severe offences and in view of the fact that there is an average of one criminal charge for each adult male each year, there are few households indeed where some member is not brought before the Resident during his term of Office. (Over the past three years there has been an annual average of 3041 criminal charges per year. The bulk of the charges are for the consumption of home-made beer)."
Pacific Viewpoint continues: "'As an example of the many powers invested in the Residents, the people of many of the islands must request the Resident's permission if they wish to hold a dance, pictures or other evening entertainment, and the Resident, if he grants permission, will set the hour at which the function must cease. There appears to be little Justification for such comprehensive powers being vested in the Residents, almost all of whom are Europeans imported from New Zealand and none of whom have received any training for the posts they hold."
|(1) NZ and the South Pacific. F. H. Corner||1962|
|(2) Pacific Viewpoint. R. G. Crocombe||1962|
|(3) A. P. P. Journals, House of Representatives A-3||1908|
|(4) A. P. P. Journals, House of Representatives A-3||1919|
|(5) A. P. P. Journals. House of Representatives A-5||1920|
"During the past two years there have been repeated complaints by the natives of the operation of combines. A combination of four or five traders has for a long time past been strong enough every season to set the price the natives must accept for their fruit. The natives complain that the prices fixed by this organisation have been unreasonably low. The traders have also fixed the price of copra. Hitherto if the natives objected the traders have been able to reduce them to subjection by cutting off the supply of fruit cases and copra bags and they have always held a stronger card in the practical monopoly of steamer and schooner space. This feeling, of resentment against the traders has been strengthened since the return of the soldiers."
Four Rarotongan contingents served overseas in World War 1. In March 1919 the returned soldiers rioted, attacked one of the largest trading stores in Rarotonga, looted it and destroyed most of the contents. That night another store was looted and for 24 hours the settlement (Avarua) was at the mercy of the rioters (4). It is worth noting that no Rarotongan units were asked to volunteer during World War 11, and the few who did service in the New Zealand forces were prevented from returning home in one body.
In 1919 the island traders offered 2/6 a case for oranges, the Maori growers asked for 5/- and when this was refused decided to ship direct to Auckland. The traders cut off the supply of fruit cases. The Maoris appealed to the Resident Commissioner who found shipping space and cases. The orange crop brought an average of 10/a case on the Auckland market.
In March 1920 a Parliamentary Party, led by Sir James Allen, visited the Cook Islands. They received several deputations. The first request of the Rarotongan (native) Fruit Growers Association was "That we want Platts to remain as Resident Commissioner for some years to come because we have experienced his goodness and forebearance and help in trying to put our fruit trade on a good footing, so we get good prices.
During the hearing of the case brought forward by the island trading firms, there was long and bitter wrangling and it was evident that the traders deeply resented the Resident Commissioner's efforts to help the Maoris. (5). There could be only one outcome to this dispute, the government of the day asked the Resident Commissioner to resign and there is little doubt that the traders used their connections in Auckland and their lobby In Wellington to achieve this purpose.