the Cook Islands from the Great Polynesian Migration until today
Tipani Tours
A carved memorial to the seven canoes that sailed to Aoteaaroa New Zealand
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It was during the Great Polynesian Migration, beginning around 1500BC that swept across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, when the fifteen islands making up the Cook Island archipelago were discovered, sometime between 500 and 800AD. This tiny string of islands, centred in the heart of the Polynesian triangle, were subsequently inhabited by those same skilled navigators who had made their epic voyages across the vast oceans in giant double-hulled canoes, or Vaka, guided only by the stars.

Much later, European explorers would begin to venture into the region, with the first sightings of the Northern Group islands of Pukapuka in 1595, and Rakahanga in 1606, made by the Spaniards Alvaro de Mendana and Pedro Fernandez de Quiros.

It would, however, be a further 160 years before the illustrious English sea captain, James Cook – whose name the islands would ultimately be associated with– sailed west from Tahiti in the Royal Navy barque the Endeavour during his quest to locate the “Great Southern Continent.” Discovering Manuae atoll in 1773 he dubbed it Hervey Island, after the then Lord of the British Admiralty. On a return voyage in 1777 Cook also discovered Palmerston, TakuteaMangaia and Atiu. Around the 1830s, in recognition of those discoveries, the Russian cartographer Von Krusenstern gave the title Cook’s Islands to the entire Southern Group. The name Cook Islands was finally settled upon during New Zealand’s rule, and was extended to include the entire chain of 15 islands.

It was however the ill-fated Captain William Bligh who first brought notoriety to these islands, in 1789, a fortnight after making landfall on the “charming” island of Aitutaki. In what became known as the infamous “Mutiny on the Bounty,” most of his crew disobeyed his command to set sail for home and cast him adrift in one of the ships longboats. The mutinous sailors, under the charge of Fletcher Christian, chose instead to drop sail, scuttling the ship at their first opportunity, and remained marooned in the tropics to live out the rest of their days.

By 1821 Christianity reached the island of Aitutaki, brought about through the efforts of Rev John Williams of the London Missionary Society, and with him the young Tahitian Papeiha. The islanders embraced the Christian message, and by 1828 construction of the first CICC church had begun. The resolute building still stands to this day in the township of Arutanga, with memorials to Papeiha and Williams at its entrance.

In the 1850s the Cook Islands had become a favoured stop for whalers and by 1888, when fears were expressed by the LMS missionaries that the French were looking to annex them, they came under British protectorate, later given over to New Zealand to administer from 1901 until self-governance was declared in 1965.

During the Second World War hundreds of New Zealand and American servicemen arrived on Aitutaki to build an airstrip as an allied base. The first flight landed in November 1942, opening the island up as an international gateway and when the war ended a number of those servicemen would stay on, marrying local women they had developed romantic relations with.

The glory years of aviation that followed the war saw Aitutaki’s expansive lagoon used in favour of that airstrip as a refuelling stopover for the Sunderland and Solent flying boats on TEAL’s fabled fortnightly Coral Route, between Auckland and Tahiti. This was the heyday of truly glamorous air travel, with only one class –first– reserved for the well to do and even a few movie stars. John Wayne and Cary Grant were some of the well-known celebrity passengers to frequent the islands during that fabulous era.

Ever since, these South Seas islands have held an unequivocal association with romance and escapism, conjuring images of mood setting sunsets and couples lovingly entwined beneath swaying palms, making intimate pledges to remain together for a lifetime.

Today, visitors to the Cook Islands are offered daily connections disembarking at Rarotonga’s international airport, which is serviced by Air Rarotonga with flights to a number of the outer islands. And just as in the days of those flying boat stopovers on Aitutaki, it is still good advice to carry swimwear in your carry-on, so that on arrival there’s no delay taking a dip in the breathtaking turquoise lagoon.

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