Salient: Victoria University Students' Newspaper. Vol. 24, No. 11. 1961
Pacific Paradise a Myth
Pacific Paradise a Myth
A Report on the Cook Islands
Sun-drenched lagoons, coconut palms curving in the gentle breeze, unhurried and uninhibited folk with flowers in their hair, laughter and plaintive song drifting through mysterious tropic nights . . .
Is this your idea of life on a tropic isle? If so, you live in a dream world of cheap novelists and Hollywood film producers—a world created to allow us to escape the frustrations and disciplines of our modern civilisation. The picture is half truth and half fantasy and, like all such creations, is misleading in the aspects it does not portray. In Polynesia, as in modern civilisation, there are frustrations and resentments and, further more, there is poverty and malnutrition, despair and dismay. If we neglect to notice this important part of Polynesian life, we are left with a hollow caricature. But when we look on its "wholeness" Polynesian life, while not losing any of its natural charm, takes on rounded depth and added reality.
In the summer vacation, two Geography Honours students spent 12 weeks in the Cook Islands trying to understand Polynesian life in Its wholeness. Rarotonga, the largest Island and centre of administration in this scattered, far-flung group of Islands is 1600 miles from New Zealand. Ranging from 110 to 737 miles from Rarotonga are a further 10 inhabited islands. Those in the south, Rarotonga, Mangaia, Atlu, Mauke, Mltlaro and Aitutaki are volcanic Islands whose moderate soil fertility supports large population densities. The five northern islands, Manihiki, Penrhyn, Rakahenga, Palmerston and Pukapuka are coral atolls, which, although providing only the bare necessities of life, also have high population densities. Since the beginning of this century, the Cook Island Maori people (numbering now some 18,500) have been citizens of New Zealand. Their economic and social development is being guided by the Department of Island Territories.
We visited only two islands in the group, staying three weeks in Rarotonga and nine weeks in Aitutaki. Our precise research task, "An Investigation into the Pattern and Form of Village Agriculture" was centred in Amuri village, Aitutaki. Attention will be given here to some rather more general impressions of Cook Island life, as we experienced it in Aitutaki and Rarotonga.
• Attractive Cook Islander
Relaxing In the sun, as we steamed northwards on the new government vessel, the "Moana Roa," we were given some mixed insights into what might lay ahead of us. A rather attractive Cook Island half-caste girl warned us of the wiles of the Aitutakian maidens.
"The Aitutaki girls are the fastest in the Cook Islands," she remarked with a glint in her eye, adding, "especially with young single men."
In a more serious vein, a European resident of Rarotonga, a man of political and economic importance, warned us thus:
"Don't expect too much. Some people come to the Cook Islands with preconceived visions of a community, thriving under the benevolent hand of the New Zealand administrator. When things don't turn out to be quite like this, they become critical and write scathing articles to the New Zealand papers. When you've been in the islands for some time you find things aren't so simple. You don't see problems in terms of black and white solutions.
• Islanders have problems too
And of course, as we were to learn, he was largely right. Problems which involve people—problems of social, economic and political development—are complex. All of the Pacific, along with the South-East Asian world, is experiencing similar problems. They are faced with problems that emerge from rapid cultural change. New forms of leadership are still challenged by old forms, new attitudes to land and money still compete with pre-European attitudes. It is a society in transition, divided within itself.
Naturally, the people reflect the disturbing change through which their society is going. Occasionally, the feelings of frustration are channelled on to the administration. Tere (the names are false) whose family, prior to New Zealand administration, possessed high social rank and who has since been displaced by traditionally lesser personages, puts it thus:
"Our family used to have much land. But since the Land Court came other people have taken it from us. The Land Court has cheated us."
Contact with elementary education has brought frustration. Metua, a school teacher of 38 years, who has passed examinations equivalent to standard six, has reached a salary bar of £420 p.a. Although this is high by Cook Islands standards, he nevertheless keenly feels the injustice of having to pass School Certificate to gain a higher salary.
"Why should this be so," he said, "They did not tell us this when we began teaching. They said we would be paid on our experience. My head is too old to pass examinations."
On the other hand, there is the almost universal frustration of the administration, whose efforts at improvement are so often blocked. All too often their response is expressed thus, as one administrator, to whom we showed our project, exclaimed:
"While you're looking at 'attitude to land', you might look at attitude to work as well. You would be getting to the crux of the problem then."
The same thought was expressed by a rather dynamic Maori leader who said to us:
"The Aitutaki people are lazy. They are playing people, not working people."
What do these frustrations mean? On the part of the people, and all too often on the part of the potential Maori leaders, they lead to a focusing of their ambitions outside of their own muddled environment. The voice of Urirau is one among many:
"I have two brothers in New Zealand. They work at Tokoroa and get £20 a week. They send me letters and tell me of the good life in New Zealand. Soon they will send me money for my fare to New Zealand."
• Administration Scapegoats
Some of these attitudes are based on misunderstanding, some on ignorance and some are justified. They are expressions of contact between two cultures which are basically different. The administration, it is true, has made mistakes, but it has often been criticised by the people for events outside of its control—events perhaps inherent in the process of change. There is no secret formula which the development of the Cook Islands should follow. Radical measure while straightforward to European eyes, may be quite foreign and even resented by the Cook Island Maori people. The situation demands an intelligent and sympathetic understanding on the part of both administrators and native people.
This is only one side of the Cook Island picture. To the average mind, it Is the side least, known and yet, the one most Important for future development. But the more traditional aspect of Cook Island life is still strong. For this Is the side of Polynesian life shown to us so vividly in the Tahltlan paintings of Gauguin and the Pacific writings of Robert Louis Stevenson.
It is difficult to be objective of the traditional feature of present-day Polynesian life. We were aware that the European in Cook Island society Is granted elevated social status. We were on our guard against attaching values to the Polynesian way of life, for such values so easily become conscious or unconscious reactions against contrary features in our own society. Furthermore, the features which might appeal to the European, will probably have an almost completely different function and meaning in the lives of the indigenous people. But, in our minds, we could not resist making such values, despite their limited geographic value.
• Free from "mass-anxiety"
How pleasing it was to escape the tensions and anxiety which is a by-product of our industrial civilisation. Of course, Cook Island life is not free from tensions. Within their own cultural fabric, people strive for prestige and standing and factions often spilt the village. But the mass anxiety which surrounds our society has not yet penetrated to the Cook Islands.
• Cook Islands: the pleasant side
How pleasing it was to escape the frosty morning-milk bottletram car atmosphere of Wellington. The proverbial friendship of the Cook Islands people was a reality to us. We were accepted into their homes and regarded as sons of the village. We could smile and speak to strangers, without being thought "fresh" or insulting.
How pleasing to feel oneself far away from the hypocrisy and clamour of international politics and to relax in a society where simple concerns still predominate. Occasional rumours and reports of civil war in the Congo and fighting in Algeria seemed so far away and almost unimportant. It is true that the unstimulating temper of life could rapidly develop into boredom but for three months, we found it a refreshing experience.
The picture of the Cook Islands which I have tried to describe is one of a society in a process of metamorphosis. Deep and disturbing changes are hiking place. What we would like to remember is not the disturbances and bewilderment of a changing people, for these we hope will pass in time. What we will remember will be the infectious charm of their life, which, we hope, will emerge in an even more beautiful form from the cocoon of change.