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Narrative of Charles James Ward

My First Visit to Rarotonga

My First Visit to Rarotonga.

The 'Auroro' had been chartered to run down to Rarotonga for oranges. That mysterious, romantic region, vaguely referred to as the 'Islands' had previously remained a blank page in my log of sea voyages and now I was to turn over that page to record on it the happenings of the remaining years of my life. My first trip to Rarotonga in the 'Auroro' was about the year 1881. We picked up a shipment of oranges and returned to Auckland in eleven days.

Looking back at the Island of Rarotonga in those days, I see that things have changed very much indeed. Oranges were picked in native crates called 'barrels', 300 oranges to the barrel. The method of packing wad to tie three oranges together and to place one hundred of these bundles in a crate. At that time, Chilian money was the currency at Rarotonga and a barrel of oranges was paid for at the rate of one dollar and a half (6-Od.) per barrel. Usually the amount was taken out in trade goods. Labour was however paid for in cash - Chilian money - at the rate of 4-Od. per day.

But the most noticeable change which has taken place is in the nature of the exports from the Island. It is almost unbelievable to those who see the Island today that it was once a garden of cotton plants and very beautiful it appeared to me when I first saw it from the deck of the 'Auroro'. I well remember the charming aspect of the cotton plantations all along the flats between the foreshore and she foot of the hills.

There was a cotton-spinning establishment at Avarua, a small yet vivid reminder to me of that vast, humming industry of cotton which together with coal and steel, was then the life surge of Britain and in which she was the supreme head. The sight of that small ginning plant took my mind back to the city of my adoption, Manchester, and to the thousands of men and women of my native land earning their bread and butter at the cotton industry. How different was their lot,

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Labouring in the factories on the cold, bleak days of the English winter compared with the lot of the native people of the Island, growing cotton amidst the green verdure of the hillsides under the gently cooling heat of the tropical sun and the worker free to bathe in the lagoon or to lie under a tree as his whim dictated.

It was no wonder that the sight of the cotton ginning plant, the cotton fields and the entrancing surroundings of the island broke the spell of my sea-going activities. But something else about the island appealed to me. It was the spirit of pioneering which animated the small community of Europeans. Here they were on a mere dust speck in the ocean struggling to fashion out a means of providing a measure of better ment for the native inhabitants of these islands. And so it came about that I merged myself into the Island community by taking over the management of the cotton ginning plant at Avarua, when shortly afterwards I returned to Rarotonga in the 'Auroro'.

Before I proceed further, I would like to digress and say that, at this time, a cloud of impending disaster to the cotton-growing industry had appeared on the horizon. Scotland had produced an engineer (I forget his name) who saw in the river Nile the wonderful possibility of converting Lower Egypt into a vast cotton-growing field. Plans had already been settled upon for erecting a huge dam across the Nile, but for the outposts of cotton-growing such as the South Seas, the position was still secure for a year or two.

Two instances will suffice to show that the pioneers of the Cook Islands had the welfare of the native people at heart and the confidence thus created in the native chiefs did much, I believe, to clinch the annexation of the Islands to Britain without protest either at the time of annexation or subsequently.

The firm of Donald and Edenborough owned the cotton-ginning at Avarua and this firm, at its own expense, introduced from Fiji of the long staple variety of cotton, a variety which originated Sea Island, (Southern States of America). This was the best cotton grown. The firm carried out much experimental work and experienced failures which involved themselves in losses. It might be thought that the firm was working only in their own interests but proof of their good faith was given by their desire not to monopolise in any way the cotton-growing industry. They extended their help to other islands of the group.

There was also a Mr Henry Nicholas, then a fairly old resident, (a half-caste Maori from Thames, New Zealand), living at Rarotonga. Mr Nicholas had but one single purpose - to place the interests of the native people before his own. In my opinion, no man either before or after him has done more for these islands than Mr Nicholas. He, together with the firm of Donald and Edenborough, has set an example of generous help to the native people here. Mr Nicholas expended thousands of pounds on experimenting with the sole object of promoting the welfare of the islanders. He organised the cotton-growing industry and set up the first cotton ginning plant in conjunction with Donald and Edenborough. But he also worked largely on his own account.

Latter when the cotton industry was no longer a paying proposition, and had to be abandoned, Mr Nicholas became the driving force behind the fruit industry. He left me with the very definite impression of being the most brainy man with whom I have ever had the privilege of coming into contact. I admired his integrity, his wholly unselfish spirit and his fine brain. He died a poor man.

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At that time, the Island was in charge of its native chiefs of whom Makea Takau appeared to hold the most prominent position. But each chief was the head of his own district and in practically everything they ranked equally. Queen Makea Takau resided at Avarua.

Britain had appointed a Consul at Rarotonga, a Mr Exham, who was connected with the firm of Donald and Edenborough. Mr Exham was an Irishman, a native of Dublin. The previous Consul was a Mr Goodman, who married an Arorangi woman. Mr Goodman returned to England and later on, following his death, the children were sent for from England and all went Home with the exception of one whom I believe is still resident at Rarotonga.

Through the good work of the missionaries, the old tribal establishments, "Maraes", had been abandoned and the natives lived under more modern conditions. Several European houses had been erected and stores had been established. There was no hospital and no doctor with the exception of a very old practitioner, Dr. Hassell, who had stowed himself away at Ngatangiia and who lived with the native chief, Pa Ariki. The doctor might, in a very serious case, give what medical attention he was able.

(At this stage, I was obliged to discontinue my narrative as I had only a short time before been in hospital and felt rather exhausted. On 31st July, 1933, Mr Davis asked me if I felt able to resume the narrative which I do now.)

My second visit to Rarotonga in the 'Auroro' was made I think in July 1884 and I have resided here permanently since then. I have therefore been a resident here for some 49 years. The cotton ginning establishment which I took charge of was situated at Avarua, on the site on which now stands the Public Works buildings. I stayed at this job for about three years until the plant was removed to Avatiu At this time, the price of cotton dropped disastrously and it came about that, owing to the freights to England being so proportionately high compared with the actual cost of the product, cotton growing became an uprofitable proposition. This unfortunate position was created as the outcome of the completion of the Nile dam following which Egypt quickly became a vast area of cotton fields producing cotton at a very cheap rate. Thus the cotton industry at Rarotona disappeared and the islands had to turn to other ways and means of building up an export trade. The fruit trade expanded.