Skip to main content
Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



Related Images


There are 15 islands in the Cook Group with a total land area of less than 100 square miles. They lie in an 850,000 square mile area extending from 8° south to almost 23° south, and from 156° west to 167° west. The islands can be divided into a northern and a southern group. The eight southern islands include two volcanic islands, Rarotonga and Aitutaki, four raised atolls of varying size and elevation (Mangaia, Mauke, Atiu, and Mitiaro), and two tiny coral atolls, Takutea and Manuae. The seven northern islands are all coral atolls – Penrhyn, Manihiki, Rakahanga, Pukapuka, Palmerston, Nassau, and Suwarrow.

The Southern Islands

Rarotonga (16,602 acres), the administrative centre and main port, is a circular island with a central volcanic basalt core rising to more than 2,000 ft, surrounded by a low lying alluvial and coral lowland half a mile wide. Beyond this is a shallow lagoon surrounded by a coral reef. The uncultivated interior is bush-clad and steep. The population lives on and cultivates the fertile coastal lowlands which have rich alluvial soils.

Aitutaki (4,461 acres) is an atoll-shaped volcanic island. The island lies at the north-western corner of a roughly triangular lagoon. Here again the people live on the coast.

Mangaia (12,700 acres), Mauke (4,552 acres), Atiu (6,654 acres), and Mitiaro (2,594 acres) have plateau-shaped interiors of rough coral which were originally lagoon floors. Low volcanic hills in varying stages of dissection lie in the middle of the islands. A plateau, up to a mile wide (the “makatea”), surrounds the interior. A fringing reef juts out from a jagged coastline and there is no surrounding lagoon.

Takutea and Manuae are small atolls (302 and 1,524 acres respectively) which are planted in coconuts and worked as plantations.

The Northern Islands

Penrhyn (2,432 acres), Manihiki (1,344 acres), Rakahanga (960 acres), Pukapuka (1,250 acres), Palmerston (1,000 acres), Nassau (300 acres), and Suwarrow (600 acres) are typical low-lying coral atolls with small “motus” on a reef surrounding an interior lagoon rich in fish. The soils are sandy and sparse and support mainly coconuts. The inhabitants live a simple subsistence existence.

The Cook Group lies within the hurricane belt but severe hurricanes are rare. The climate of the southern islands is mild and equable, the mean annual temperature being 75° and the annual rainfall about 85 in. There are streams on Rarotonga and Mangaia. The climate of the northern atolls is hot and, because of the porous nature of the soil and the absence of any surface water, water supplies are precarious.


The Cook Islands Maoris are Polynesians with similar language and customs to the New Zealand Maoris. The population of the group increased by a startling 10·1 per cent in the five years between the censuses of 1956 and 1961. The populations of the various islands at the most recent census (25 September 1961) were – Rarotonga 8,676, Aitutaki 2,582, Atiu 1,266, Mangaia 1,877, Mauke 785, Manihiki 1,006, Pukapuka 718, Rakahanga 319, Penrhyn 628, Mitiaro 307, Palmerston 86, Nassau 109, Manuae 18, and Suwarrow 1 – a total population of 18,378. Over 84 per cent of the total population live in the southern islands and more than 47 per cent of all Cook Islanders live on Rarotonga, where there is a population density of over 300 people to the square mile. The high birthrate of just under 50 per 1,000 of population in 1962 is not counterbalanced by an infant mortality rate of 48 per 1,000 live births, nor by emigration of Cook Islanders to New Zealand, which exceeds arrivals by approximately four to one. Hence there is a steadily increasing pressure on land in the Group which is acting as an urgent spur to intensified production. Emigration patterns in the Cook Islands (and Niue) continue to reveal a steady movement of population to New Zealand. The movement is naturally controlled by existing travel facilities and does not as yet raise any great problems in New Zealand. As Cook Islanders are New Zealand citizens, there are no restrictions on their entry to New Zealand.

All Cook Islanders are Christians, the great majority being adherents of the Cook Islands Christian Church which is a London Missionary Society body. There are also Roman Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, and Latter Day Saints missions in the Group.

Progress to Internal Self-Government

Rarotonga was settled 27 generations ago by two chiefs and their people – Karika from Samoa, and Tangiia from Tahiti. Mangaia, Aitutaki, Atiu, Takutea, Mitiaro, and Manuae were discovered by Captain Cook in 1773. Rarotonga was visited by the Bounty in 1789. The crew of the Cumberland, commanded by Captain Goodenough, were the first Europeans to land on Rarotonga (1814). The Rev. John Williams and missionary teachers landed in 1823 from the Endeavour, establishing the first real contact on Rarotonga between European and Maori. Piecemeal discovery of the northern islands began with the Spanish discovery of Pukapuka in 1595 and Rakahanga in 1606. Palmerston was discovered in 1773, and Penrhyn in 1788. London Missionary Society missionaries were the predominant governors and law-makers in the Cook Islands until the 1890s. The southern islands were declared a British protectorate in 1888, and most of the northern group was annexed at the same time by British naval vessels. A British Resident was stationed in Rarotonga in 1890 and established island councils on each of the southern islands and a Federal Parliament in Rarotonga.

In June 1901 both the northern and the southern islands were included within the boundaries of New Zealand, following a petition by the chiefs of Rarotonga, Atiu, Mauke, and Mitiaro. The Federal Parliament was then abolished. Between 1901 and 1946, government in the Cook Islands was carried out by the Resident Commissioner of Rarotonga, resident agents under his control being stationed in most of the outer islands. Each island had its own Council presided over by the resident agent and, in the case of Rarotonga, by the Resident Commissioner. Since 1946 major steps have been taken with the aim of progressively encouraging responsible internal self-government. A Cook Islands Legislative Council was constituted in 1946. The Council met annually in Rarotonga and consisted of Maori representatives from most islands in the Group plus a majority of official members. The Council was largely an advisory body with no financial and limited legislative powers.

Following the preparation in 1954 of a programme for economic development in the Group (the Belshaw-Stace Report), a constitutional survey in 1956–57, and the introduction in 1956 of local income tax, an important amendment to the Cook Islands Act (1957) reconstituted the Legislative Council as a representative Legislative Assembly of the Cook Islands with increased legislative powers. There were 14 members elected by universal suffrage by the Maori electors of the various islands, seven members elected by the various island councils, one European member and four official members. As President, the Resident Commissioner had a casting but not a deliberate vote. The Assembly took over control of revenue raised within the Cook Islands. Local Justices of the Peace and village councils were provided for, and came into existence in 1960.

As the first of a series of steps along the road towards complete internal self-government, the Assembly assumed full authority over all revenue in 1962. In the same year an Executive Committee of the Assembly was established to exercise any powers relating to Government policy delegated to it by the Assembly or the Resident Commissioner. At its session in 1962, the Assembly declared internal self-government to be its aim for the Group. The Assembly emphasised that Cook Islanders wished to retain their New Zealand citizenship.

At its 1963 session the Assembly chose a Leader of Government Business and four other members to form a new Executive Committee or “shadow cabinet”, each member being allocated responsibility for certain Government Departments. It also considered a timetable for constitutional development. At their own request members of the Assembly were guided by three expert advisers who drew up a plan which was approved by the Assembly and the New Zealand Government. This provided for full internal self-government in 1965 and continued association with New Zealand, the Cook Islanders remaining New Zealand citizens. The new Legislative Assembly of 22 elected members is to have complete legislative autonomy. Executive government is to be controlled by a cabinet chosen from members of the Assembly and headed by a Premier. New Zealand will continue to conduct the external affairs of the Cook Islands and will continue to make three-yearly grants-in-aid to the Cook Islands budget. A New Zealand official will represent the Queen as Head of State and will also act as representative of the New Zealand Government in the Cook Islands. A Cook Islands Constitution Act was passed by the New Zealand Parliament in 1964 to provide the necessary machinery for these political changes, which will come into effect when the Cook Islands Assembly endorses the Constitution.

Social Conditions

The traditional Cook Islands Maori social structure has largely broken down, and today the family is the basis of Cook Islands society. Traditionally there were three chiefly ranks – the mataiapo and the rangatira or the heads of families who controlled family lands and public affairs, and above them the ariki, who were the highest chiefs in their own districts, selected from particular chiefly families. Occupiers of family lands formerly had various obligations towards these chiefs, but the old structure was greatly modified by church organisation, the advent of trade, and the individualisation of family lands. The three titles are still recognised and carry a limited amount of influence but they no longer form the basis of the social structure, which can now be said to be westernised. The principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are recognised in the Group, and there is no discrimination between the rights of men and women, either under statute law or under Maori custom.

Labour and employment conditions vary from island to island. The northern islands support a basically subsistence existence, with copra providing a very limited cash crop. In the southern islands, subsistence agriculture is strongly bolstered by growing for export, and small secondary industries and shipping connections provide alternative employment opportunities. A single workers' union, the Cook Islands Industrial Union of Workers, covers all classes of workers in the Group. The basic wage rate is 14s. per eight-hour day for unskilled labour, with varying rates for skilled workers. The Cook Islands Government is the largest employer in the Group. About three-quarters of the male working population work on their own plantations.

The Government's Social Development Department concentrates on community development activities, with the aims of improving good relationships between the people and the Government, raising standards of living, and promoting opportunities for leadership and cooperation. The home education of women, adult education, youth clubs, and a housing loan scheme are important aspects of this work. The standard of housing in the Group is improving under the impetus of housing schemes sponsored by the Government. A Housing Improvement Board administers the £150,000 housing loan scheme. Northern group housing is predominantly of the thatch-weave (“kikau”) type, but in the southern islands construction with permanent materials is more widespread.


The Cook Islands economy is steadily becoming more stable with increasing emphasis on an export trade of cash crops from the southern islands, which export citrus fruit (oranges, tangerines, mandarins, and grapefruit), tomatoes, bananas, pineapples, coffee, and copra. Two clothing factories and one jewellery factory in Rarotonga account for slightly under £200,000 worth of exports a year. The sole exports from the sandy northern islands are copra and mother-of-pearl shell (from the Manihiki and Penrhyn lagoons). In 1961 a commercial fruit canning factory was opened in Rarotonga. The first year's success of this venture gave a return of slightly under £100,000. Annual production is now approximately 640,000 gallons of fruit juice returning over £390,000.

Principal subsistence crops in the Group are coconuts and fish, supplemented by small quantities of taro and bananas in the northern islands, and by coconuts, bananas, manioc, and taro in the southern islands. Bread is baked on all islands.

The Cook Islands Department of Agriculture is pursuing a policy of experimental and extension work in the fertile southern islands, aimed at strengthening the Group's agricultural export production. Emphasis over past years has been placed on a citrus replanting scheme and citrus exports now account for over 25 per cent of the total exports. The Department is now diversifying the economy, and is concentrating on the improvement of copra, coffee, and pineapple production as well as experimenting with peanut trials.

There are 70 cooperative societies in the Cook Islands, and over one-third are on Rarotonga. A Government Department of Cooperation registers, guides, and audits the societies and also runs a Cooperative Bank to help to consolidate the cooperative movement. The Bank turnover is approximately £150,000 a year.

The Cook Islands Legislative Assembly has complete control of the finances of the Group. Local revenue is raised from income, wharfage, road and sales tax receipts, exports, customs duties, and the application of local ordinances. Local revenue accounts for approximately 17 per cent of the total expenditure. The deficit is made up by the New Zealand Government by three-year lump sum grants, which are paid to the Cook Islands Legislative Assembly and subject to the full budgetary control of the Assembly. Details of these grants between 1962 and 1965 are:

1962–63 1963–64 1964–65
£ £ £
Ordinary subsidy 536,900 574,500 619,300
Capital subsidy—
(a) Works and plant 180,000 180,000 180,000
(b) Economic development 20,000 20,000 10,000
Housing improvement scheme 15,000 20,000 20,000
Total 751,900 794,500 829,300

Receipts and expenditure between 1960 and 1965 were:

Receipts Expenditure
£ £
1960–61 509,941 1,118,004
1961–62 521,420 1,093,731
1962–63 536,493 1,091,588
1963–64 663,110 1,253,470
1964–65 1,616,237 1,630,483

New Zealand currency is used in the Cook Islands. There are no trading banks but the Cook Islands Post Office is a sub-branch of the Auckland branch of the Post Office Savings Bank.

A modified New Zealand customs tariff is in force. Imports in 1964 totalled £1,502,659, 70 per cent coming from New Zealand.

Principal Exports, 1964
Quantity Value
Fruit juices (gallons) 639,672 393,499
Clothing .. 170,392
Citrus fruit (cases) 101,749 150,240
Copra (tons) 1,300 74,828
Tomatoes (cases) 61,387 53,481
Pearl shell (tons) 63 26,010

Transport and Communications

Transport between the islands of the Group has always been a problem because of the distances involved. The Department of Island Territories runs a 2,750-ton, 13-knot motor vessel, the Moana Roa. Sailings between Auckland and Rarotonga are generally at three- to four-weekly intervals and calls are made at other southern group islands when cargoes are offering. Matson liners call at Rarotonga at three-weekly intervals, mainly for passengers. Trans-Pacific freighters also visit Rarotonga when cargo is available, and cruise ships, mission vessels, and yachts make occasional calls there. There is no good harbour in any of the islands of the Group. Vessels anchor off the reef in an open roadstead at Rarotonga and usually cruise up and down outside the reef at the other islands during loading and unloading. Rarotonga in the south and Penrhyn in the north afford the only anchorages within lagoons for small vessels.

Small motor vessels ply between the islands of the Group carrying inter-island passengers and cargo. Communications were improved from 1961 when the New Zealand Government offered to subsidise ship owners trading in the Cook Islands. The subsidy is paid to owners of vessels which are maintained to certain classified standards and which are available for voyages within the Group as requested by the Government. Three classified vessels now provide what is probably the best internal shipping service the Group has had for many years.

Serviceable airstrips are in use in Rarotonga, Aitutaki, and Penrhyn and there is also a seaplane base at Aitutaki. Polynesian Airlines make a fortnightly call at Rarotonga, from Western Samoa. RNZAF and CAA aircraft visit the Group periodically. Rarotonga (with 400 subscribers) and Aitutaki are the only two islands with telephone facilities.

A Government radio station at Rarotonga has links with New Zealand, Western Samoa, Fiji, and 12 substations in the outer Cook Islands. Radio Rarotonga (ZK1ZA), a Social Development Department venture, broadcasts music and spoken-word programmes to the Group for approximately 20 hours a week. There is a commercial radio telephone service.


All health and dental facilities are provided free by the Government and a chief medical officer controls both remedial and public health work in the Group. He is assisted by a staff of three medical officers and one dental officer, 16 Cook Islands assistant medical officers, and three assistant dental officers, and by a local nursing staff, headed by a European matron and sisters. The Rarotonga Hospital has 57 beds. There is also a 70-bed tuberculosis sanatorium on Rarotonga. There are cottage-type hospitals on Aitutaki, Mangaia, Atiu, Manihiki, Pukapuka, and Penrhyn and the remainder of the islands have dispensaries. All the larger islands have resident assistant medical officers and the smaller islands, dispensers.

The general health of Cook Islanders is good. The birthrate per 1,000 population is over 40, and the deathrate below 10. Tuberculosis is the only prevalent disease. Although one in every 100 persons is receiving treatment for this disease, 75 per cent of the cases can be treated at home. There is a mass miniature radiography unit and BCG vaccine is widely used. A filariasis control scheme is being carried out in the outer islands with excellent results by a medical officer of the New Zealand Medical Research Council. The entire population of the Group has been immunised from poliomyelitis with oral Sabin vaccine. Yaws and leprosy are under control and are no longer serious.

Special emphasis has been placed on child welfare and maternity services and on public health work during recent years. The Group's infant mortality rate is below 50 per 1,000 live births, and there are over 30 child welfare clinics on Rarotonga.


Education in the Group is free and compulsory between the ages of six and 14. The Government provides schooling in all permanently inhabited islands and villages. There are 24 Government primary schools (total rolls in 1965–4,490), one post-primary school (Tereora College–448 pupils), three junior high schools (at Aitutaki, Atiu, and Mangaia), and one teachers' training college (167 students). In addition, there are six independent Mission schools in five islands (total roll 397).

The Director of Education controls a staff of over 550 teachers and student teachers. The school curriculum is based broadly on the New Zealand curriculum, with emphasis on subjects related to the special needs of the Cook Islands. Emphasis is given to woodwork, homecrafts, and agriculture as well as to academic subjects. English is rather naturally the Cook Islanders' most difficult subject.

The New Zealand Government Training Scheme continues to be the most important means of educating selected Cook Islanders to New Zealand standards for varied positions of responsibility in the islands. Over 100 Cook Islanders are receiving training in New Zealand under the scheme, in schools, universities, hospitals, training colleges, and trade apprenticeships.

The main educational problem being faced by the Cook Islands Government is a shortage of trained teachers to cater for the rapidly increasing school rolls.