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Discoverers of the Cook Islands and the Names They Gave


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Somewhat west of the centre in the triangle of the Pacific's “Many Islands”—Polynesia lie fifteen scattered islands and atolls which form politically but not geographically a group known as the Cook Islands. They are inhabited by Polynesians, “tell, robust, and well-developed specimens of mankind. “The nose is large and flashy, and the lips full. They are moderately brown-skinned with black straight or wavy hair. The eyes are full and dark brown (1).

The consolidation of these fifteen islands into one political unit came about as a by-product of the struggle of the European Powers for control in the vast Pacific Ocean, called “Mare Pacificum” — Peaceful Sea by the Spaniard Vasco de Balboa, when he sighted the Great South Sea towards the end of September, 1513. This Ocean with some 10,000 islands covers almost one third of the earth's surface: 165,759,000 km2, and a volume of 708,136,620 cu.km (2). An old theory thought it to be the cradle of the moon. From Peru to New Guinea is some 11,000 km, that is the distance between Paris and Tokyo.

Great Britain proclaimed a protectorate over these islands in the late 1880s, and in 1901 permitted New Zealand to include them within its boundaries. “A small reward for half a century of pleading” (3). They were literally the crumbs that wear left after the choicer morsels had been swallowed up” (4). After sixty-four years of Colonial Rule the Cook Islands became a semi-autonomous mini-state with internal self-government in 1965 as one of the new-awarging nations of the South Pacific (5). Linked to New Zealand, the islands can be said to be part of the Southwest Pacific, but their culture and language are part of East Polynesia, with the exception of Pukapuka.

The political unity of these island, however, is not solely the result of the interference of Great Britain and New Zealand at the end of the 19th century. The process of unification started with the coming of the Christian missionaries in the third decennium of that century. They made Rarotonga the mission headquarters, first of what is now the Lower Group, and later also of the atolls in the North. Of special importance was the creation of a standard language through the use of the Rarotongan version of the Bible (6). At about the middle of the 19th century Rarotonga bacame also the commercial and “nesopolitan” centre of the Cooks. Thus the way was paved for bringing together the rather solitary and scattered islands, which now bear the name of the greatest of all Pacific explorers: Captain James Cook (1728–1779).

It is interesting that links between the various islands existed in pre-historic times. Mangaia was probably settled from Rarotonga. The inhabitants of Rakahanga-Manihiki and Penrhyn claim a common descent from a Rarotongan warrior. Taruia and Ruatapo, famous Aitutakian ancestors visited Rarotonga. Taruia is also a Tongarevan ancestor. Ruatapu paid a visit to Atiu and Mauke. Tangiia of Rarotongan fame married two Maukean beauties, and visited Atiu. The Pukapukans knew about Rakahanga and Rarotonga, and probably about Tongareve. Nassau was a dependency of Pukapuka. Rakahanga and Manihiki were alternatively inhabited by one and the same people. Atiu, Mauke, and Mitiaro formed one unit, known as Nga-Pu-Toru. Takutea was in the possession of the Atiuans. Manuae was popula-page 7ted by Aitutakians, but seems to have been subject to Atiu too at one stage of its history. That leaves only the in-between islands of Palmerston and Suwarrow as the unknowns in the pre-history of the Cook Islands.

The islands of the Cook Group had many names in the past, both Maori and Papaa (European). Some of these names, still used today, go back to the mythical past, others are traditional names and date from pre-historical times, while others are historical. A list of these names (see: no. 22) is quite impressive. But names are given by people. The giving of a name was a means by which man claimed possession or lordship (7). This attempt, therefore, to enlist as many of the ancient and present-day names as possible tries at the same time to list the names of those who have given or who might have given these names: the Polynesian and European discoverers of the Cook Islands.




27:14–17; 92:10–11






99; 139; 152; 165; 166; 167; 168; 173




Genesis 2:19–20

Vatea or Avatea. The father of gods and men in the Mangaian myth of origin. (after a wood carving by Raphael of Mangaia)

Vatea or Avatea.
The father of gods and men in the Mangaian myth of origin.
(after a wood carving by Raphael of Mangaia)