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Narrative of Charles James Ward

Hoisting of the British Flag at Rarotonga and other Islands

Hoisting of the British Flag at Rarotonga and other Islands.

Of the several European houses at Rarotonga, there was one situated at Avatiu owned by Mr Henry Nicholas to whom I have already made reference. By a process of habit, Mr Nicholas's home became the rendezvous at which the Europeans met in the evenings to talk over the affairs of the Island and to recite their experiences of the world generally. It became a kind of club house.

The number of Europeans on the Island was small - there being about six all told. At this time, I was a young man in the prime and full vigour of life and I was, together with the others, eager and active for the welfare of the islands. I gave my support to any scheme for the betterment of the native people as a whole. My sea voyages had taken me to almost every part of the world and in oceanic isolation, I was able to give accounts of my experiences of the outside world, and this, I felt, gave me a somewhat unique standing in the community.

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The spirit of pioneering appealed to my vigorous disposition. The rugged, hearty character which only the sea can create had shaped itself round my frame and an initiative, bred possibly of the raging sea storms which I had been through, was still latent in me so that I was always prepared for what might crop up at any time.

I had a very good friend in a sea captain who came regularly down to the Island from Papeete, Captain Elliot, of the schooner, 'Nassau'. His vessel belonged to the German firm, the Society Commercial at Tahiti and which later removed to Samoa. It was his custom to come down to the Cook Group between the months of March and November to pick up cotton and to make tracks for Tahiti early in December so as not to be caught in the hurricane season. He generally returned to Papeete via Borabora, his home island.

In December, 1889, he thus departed from Rarotonga carrying with him our best wishes to see his sturdy frame again in the following March or April. In April of 1890, he arrived back at Rarotonga, secured his ship off Avatiu, came ashore and joined us at our so-called club, the house of Mr Nicholas.

Amongst those present on that occasion were Mr Exham, (British Consul), Henry Nicholas, Arthur Browne, (father of W. P. Browne, Picture House Proprietor, Rarotonga), Miss Nicholas and myself. It was a Sunday. Captain Elliot made a breezy entrance into our midst and made a startling announcement. He said, "Do you fellows want to become French?"

"What are you getting at, Skipper?" someone asked.

"A French man-o-war," replied Captain Elliot, "is on her way down here from Papeete, and, if you fellows wish to remain British you had better get busy pretty quickly."

None of us of course had anything against the French but we thought that, if a warship of the tricolour was on her way to the Cook Islands to force an issue of citizenship, we would do what we could to get the Islands under the British flag. This unexpected announcement came like a bombshell to us. I raised my voice loudly in the matter of what ought to be done. It was decided that someone should go, there and then, and interview the old Queen, Makea Takau. We all went along, Captain Elliot with us and informed Queen Makea of what was in the air. We told her that a French warship was approaching and that the French would probably take possession of the Islands. We enquired what she proposed to do about it.

The old lady was, however, very wary. She 'um'd and ah'd [sic: andah'd] about things, but it was only her suspicion that perhaps the whole story might be a fabrication to trick her into unfurling the British Flag and thereby surrender her power in the eyes of the native people. But eventually we were able to satisfy here that our fears were genuine. With her consent it was decided that the British Flag should be hoisted at Avarua, with this stipulation, that she, herself, would do the actual unfurling of the flag but not until the expected warship had put in an appearance.

That the French warship was speeding on her way to plant the tricolour at the Cook Islands was very certain to us and we knew that she might appear off the island at any minute. The main obstacle, that of hoisting the Union Jack, having been overcome, we went back to the house of Mr. Nicholas and discussed the position of the other islands of the Group.

The British Consul, Mr. Exham, had only two flags. The line of action suggested by me was that Captain Elliot should proceed at once to Mangaia and leave one of the flags there and then go on as speedily as possible and drop the other flag at Aitutaki, and, further, that we at Rarotonga should manufacture our own flag for hoisting by Queen Makea. page 7It was rather an amusing situation when one thinks of it after so many years but such was the position. I argued that, if this were done, and the warship found the British flag hoisted at Rarotonga, and again at Mangaia or Aitutaki, the two larger islands of the Lower Group, the warship might conclude that the whole group was under the Union Jack. This contention proved by a lucky chance to be right.

Captain Elliot and the British Consul agreed to this plan and the 'Nassau' hoisted sail and hastened to Mangaia. The first job at hand was the making of a Union Jack and as, I suppose, I was deemed to know something about flags by virtue of my sea exploits, this job fell to me to put through. That same Sunday night we took down some rolls of materials from the shelves, a roll of calico, one of red cotton material, and the other, a roll of blue muslin or something. With tape and scissors, I cut out a blue back-ground about five or six feet square, shaped out the crosses and pinned everything together. Mis Nicholas, with the aid of a sewing machine, ran the pieces together and seamed in a cord for attachment to the lanyard.

The completed flag was a very fair model of the Union Jack, It is somewhere in existence still, but it is a disappointment to me that it has, so far, not been recovered by the authorities. I saw the selfsame flag on one occasion in 1926 but its whereabouts have since completely eluded me. I am hopeful, however, that it will someday be given up to the New Zealand Government. I feel certain that it will, for, if it has passed into the hands of any of the native people, they will preserve it as they would an article of their own tribe.

Sunday night was now far spent and I am not certain whether we took the flag along to Queen Makea that night or early the following morning. However, I folded it in correct man-o-war style and hoisted it to the top of the flag pole which stood in those days outside of what today is the Royal Hall. I showed Queen Makea exactly what to do to unfurl the flag. The flag remained furled all that day but the next day, Tuesday, (not quite certain) the French Man-o-War appeared on the horizon, Mr. Exham, myself and others waited in the vicinity of the flag. The warship approached the island and, when she was about two or three miles off, Queen Makea gave the lanyard a pull and my home-made Union Jack fluttered out in the breeze.

The warship came along opposite the flag but made no signal of any kind to us on shore. Seeing the flag, the captain slowed his ship round and steamed away and we knew later that he had made his course for Mangaia. The 'Nassau' had however reached Mangaia in time and the British Flag was at the mast-head when the French ship arrived. After this, the man-o-war returned to Papeete without calling off any of the other islands as far as we knew.

The act of ceding the islands to the British had now been made and since that event, the Cook Islands have continued to enjoy the protection of Britain. The act seemed the most natural thing to do in the circumstances but, on looking back at the event, I recall how near a thing it was that the opportunity of making the Cook Islands part of the British Dominions was not missed.

I see today the results of the efforts made by my countrymen to avoid the influx of races that would quickly destroy the possibilities of the native people here improving themselves. I see how much has been done in the direction of education, medical and other services for the Cook Islands people and I am indeed proud that I was associated with the event of ceding the Islands to my native country. And throughout that long period since the annexation, nothing has occurred to upset the harmonious state of things that has from the beginning, existed between page 8the native people and the Europeans. To my mind, the islands have been wisely administered and a credit to the British Crown.

Official action was taken shortly after the hoisting of the flag. The British Consul communicated with the Home authorities, the outcome of which was that a British warship, H.M.S. Hyacinthe came down to the Group from British Columbia. She was under the command of Captain Burke. Upon the arrival of the warship, Captain Burke read a Proclamation from Queen Victoria and handed the document to the British Consul. The document was then handed over to Queen Makea.

Some years later, Lord Glasgow, then Governor of New Zealand, came to Rarotonga and hoisted a flag annexing the Cook Islands to New Zealand and thus the Group has become part and parcel of the Dominion of New Zealand for administrative purposes.