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Polynesian settlement

Cook Islanders are Polynesians: people of the poly (many) islands of the South Pacific. They are closely related to the Maoris of New Zealand and Tahiti (Cook Islanders can happily converse with their Maori cousins from overseas, despite differences in vocabulary and dialect).

The Cook Islands were first settled around 1500 years ago by travellers from the Society and Marquesas Islands (now known as French Polynesia). Polynesians had been trekking across much of the South Pacific in huge ocean-going canoes for a couple of millennia before they arrived in the Cooks. The first settlers arrived in Melanesia from Southeast Asia around 2500 BC, before heading on to Fiji, Samoa and Tonga; French Polynesia was then settled somewhere between 200 BC and AD 200. From there, canoes travelled thousands of kilometres in all directions, reaching Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Hawaii, South America, and finally Rarotonga and the Cook Islands in around AD 500.

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Early cook islands society

Although written records only began with the arrival of the Europeans, oral history on Rarotonga traces its ancestry back about 1400 years. One of the oldest legends tells the tale of To'i, the great chief who built the Ara Metua (the ancient inland road) on Rarotonga somewhere around the 11th century, suggesting that there was already a sizable population living on the island (probably settlers from present-day French Polynesia). Traditional history, however, begins in the 13th century with the arrival of Tangi'ia and Karika, great chiefs from Tahiti and Samoa, who arrived aboard mighty ocean-going vaka (canoes), conquered the resident population, and founded Rarotonga's six main tribes.

Every island in the Cooks was ruled by several ariki (high chiefs). Beneath the ariki were mataiapo (chiefs) and rangatira (sub-chiefs). Land was divided into sections called tapere, each governed by one or more mataiapo, and home to a large extended family who used the land to build houses, farm crops and raise livestock. Each tribe had its own marae (sacred meeting places) and worshipped specific gods. The koutu was the most important meeting place of all - it was the official seat of a ruling ariki, and the place where the main sacrifices, offerings and annual feasts were made.

A chief's authority depended on his mana - a complex term signifying not just physical or hereditary power, but also confidence, victory, prestige, knowledge, spirituality and all-round star quality. Mana ariki was the hereditary power of a chief; mana atua was the divine authority of the priest; and mana tutara was the ruling power of a mataiapo. Mana could be gained as well as lost; great deeds in battle and cowardly acts could all affect a person's mana, and the way he was regarded by the tribe.

Ta'unga (literally 'experts') were also important figures. There were ta'unga in many fields, including woodcarving, agriculture, medicine, canoe-making and navigation. The tumu korero (speaker) was responsible for memorising tribal history and genealogy, but the most powerful ta'unga was the high priest, who was seen as the main bridge between the people and the spirits of the gods and ancestors. The high priest could declare certain acts or places tapu (forbidden), either by order of the gods or the ariki; the chief would decide when tapu had been violated and what the punishment would be (generally it was likely to be fairly unpleasant).

Like their modern-day descendants, early Cook Islanders never passed up the opportunity for a party. There were elaborate ceremonies for all kinds of occasions - coming-of-age ceremonies, marriages, deaths, harvest festivals and victories in battle - so the islanders had plenty of opportunity to perfect their song and dance routines.

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European explorers

The Cook Islands had over a thousand years to develop its distinctive culture and customs before any Europeans finally pitched up. The first Europeans to sight the islands were both Spanish explorers: Alvaro de Mendaña glimpsed Pukapuka in 1595, and in 1606, Pedro Fernández de Quirós stopped at Rakahanga to take on provisions.

In 1773, the English explorer James Cook sighted the islands from his vessel The Resolution (among his crew was a young Cornish sailing master by the name of William Bligh, who went on to lead the infamous mutiny aboard The Bounty in 1789). Between 1773 and 1777, Cook charted much of the group, and following a fine English tradition of attaching dull, irrelevant names to wonderful places, dubbed the Southern Group islands the 'Hervey Islands' in honour of a Lord of the Admiralty. Fifty years later a Russian cartographer (Admiral Johann von Krusenstern) published the Atlas de l'Océan Pacifique, in which he renamed the islands in honour of Captain Cook.

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Once the explorers had sailed on to new discoveries (or sticky ends, as was the case with Captain Cook, who was stabbed to death in Hawaii in 1779), it was left to the missionaries to establish long-lasting contact with the people of the Cook Islands. Reverend John Williams of the London Missionary Society (LMS) sailed from Ra'iatea (near present-day Tahiti) to Aitutaki in 1821. There he left two Tahitian preachers, including a newly converted Society Islander named Papeiha. By the time Williams returned two years later, plucky Papeiha had managed to convert practically the entire island, which spurred Williams on to take the gospel to the rest of the Southern Group.

The Cook Islanders probably wished he'd stayed put. For the next 50-odd years, Williams and his Bible-happy followers ruled the islands with an iron rod, imposing a catalogue of draconian doctrines, which even by contemporary standards seemed ridiculously strict, and frequently bordered on the unhinged. Offenders were clobbered with heavy fines, ensuring a steady stream of enforced labour for the missionaries' building projects and a handy source of revenue for the local riko (police) and judges.

The influence of the missionaries wasn't all bad, of course. They left the Cook Islanders with some beautiful churches, mostly built from crushed coral and lime, and often intricately decorated with sennit rope and carved wood. Several of the missionaries (especially William Wyatt Gill, a British missionary who spent much of his life on Mangaia) wrote detailed accounts of their experiences, providing a fascinating window onto life in the Cook Islands in the 19th century. But the arrival of the missionaries also spelled the end for many traditional customs in the Cook Islands. The missionaries were keen to suppress the islands' pre-Christian past (especially anything relating to sticky subjects such as ritual sacrifice and cannibalism). Carved idols and hallowed artefacts were burned, marae and paepae (meeting grounds) were razed to the ground, and many of the old stories and legends were outlawed or forgotten.

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Disease, population decline & slave traders

The missionaries brought more than just Christianity and churches to the islands of Polynesia: they inadvertently also brought devastating new diseases, including smallpox and dysentery, the latter of which killed nearly 1000 people in 1830, and caused a drastic population decline across all the islands. To push their cause further, the missionaries cited the mounting death toll as a message from above, and many islanders desperately abandoned their old religion in the hope that they would be spared. But of course, most weren't - as a matter of fact, the population in Rarotonga fell to about one-third within 30 years, and throughout the 19th century deaths exceeded births in the Cook Islands. It wasn't until the early 20th century that the population on Rarotonga began finally to level out, bolstered by migrants from a number of the outer islands.

Disease was not the only thing Cook Islanders had to fear. Brutal Peruvian slave traders, known as blackbirders, took a terrible toll on the Northern Group between 1862 and 1863. At first operating as genuine labour recruiters, the traders quickly turned to subterfuge and outright kidnapping to round up their human cargo. Rakahanga and Pukapuka suffered terribly, but Penrhyn was the blackbirders' main port of call - some estimates reckon that up to three-quarters of the entire population was taken from the island. Few of the 'recruits' ever returned - over 90% died either in transit to Peru or during enforced slave labour.

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Protectorate, annexation & independence

The late 19th century saw a headlong rush of colonial expansion over much of the South Pacific. Following several requests for British protection from Makea Takau, the ruling ariki of Avarua, Rarotonga was officially made a British overseas protectorate in 1888, mainly in order to avoid a French invasion. The first British Resident (the representative of the British government in a British protectorate) arrived in 1891, but the relationship soon went sour. As a tiny country of little strategic or economic importance, the Cook Islands held little interest for the British, and following a request from the New Zealand Prime Minister, Richard Seddon, the Cook Islands was annexed to New Zealand in 1901.

The next 50 years were largely quiet ones for the Cook Islands. During WWII the USA built airstrips on Penrhyn and Aitutaki, but the Cooks remained largely untouched by the wider war, unlike many of its neighbours in the South Pacific. In the 1960s, as colonies became increasingly unfashionable, New Zealand leapt at the chance to off-load its expensive overseas dependency and in 1965 the Cook Islands became internally self-governing.

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Post-independence politics

The first leader of the newly independent Cook Islands was Albert Henry, leader of the Cook Islands Party (CIP), who had been a prime mover in the push for self-rule, and was the first in a long line of 'colourful' characters in Cook Islands politics. Sir Albert (he was knighted in 1974, as were many of his successors) did much to unify the country in the initial years of independence, but fell spectacularly from grace during the 1978 elections, when he became embroiled in a massive scandal involving overseas voters (the CIP flew hundreds of supporters back to the Cook Islands in exchange for a vote in the election, bankrolling the tickets with revenue from the sale of postage stamps by the Cook Islands Philatelic Bureau). The election was handed to the opposition party, the Cook Islands Democratic Party, and Sir Albert was stripped of his knighthood. He died soon after, in 1981; you can see his characteristically ostentatious grave in the Avarua CICC graveyard.

Power seesawed over the ensuing years between the two rival parties, and the political landscape of the period is littered with spats, scandals and larger-than-life personalities - notably Dr Tom Davis, author, canoe-builder and zero-gravity medicine specialist with NASA, and Geoffrey Henry (a cousin of Albert Henry), who only lasted a few months in his first period as leader, but returned as an influential prime minister from 1989 to 1999.

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Financial woes

If there's one thing that the Cook Islands have never quite managed to get to grips with, it's balancing the books. In order to finance domestic growth, successive governments were forced to borrow and borrow…and borrow. A series of bad investments (including the massive Sheraton resort on Rarotonga's south coast, which ultimately fell through and left the government about NZ$100 million in debt), and a major scandal involving the country's offshore-banking industry, set the stage for financial meltdown.

In the mid-1990s, foreign debt spiralled out of control, and with bankruptcy looming, the government was forced to take radical action. The economic-stabilisation programme, initiated in 1996, eventually resulted in the sacking of about 2000 government employees - 50% of the public service - a huge proportion of the working population in a country of just 20, 000 inhabitants. Masses of redundant workers left the country in search of jobs elsewhere (mostly to New Zealand or Australia) and never returned, and the country was only saved from the brink thanks to an emergency aid package implemented by the New Zealand government.

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Recent history

The Cook Islands still has an eye-watering trade deficit, importing far more than it exports, but thanks to the huge expansion in tourism over recent years, foreign investment is currently flowing into the Cook Islands and keeps the financial wolf from the door. The issue of offshore banking remains a thorny topic; other pressing matters include the ever-accelerating population decline from the outer islands and the gloomy spectre of global warming, which was brought into sharp focus by the unprecedented number of cyclones that swept through the islands in 2005. But it is the implementation of the Unit Titles Act on Rarotonga in 2005 - an act enabling foreigners to lease specific sections of a property in the Cook Islands, rather than the surrounding land - that has really set the cat among the political pigeons. Present prime minister, Jim Marurai, would do well to strap himself in - he looks well and truly set for a bumpy ride.

The roles of ariki, mataiapo, rangatira and tumu korero survive to the present day. Arguments over who should be holding which title are still as fierce as ever - just check out the daily newspapers.

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