The Cook Islands
Lying roughly 1,500 km east of Samoa and 3,000 km north-east of Auckland, the 15 islands that make up the Cooks are scattered over an expanse of ocean the size of Mexico.
The islands form two distinct groups. The northern group consists of six low coral atolls, and the southern group are nine mostly volcanic, hilly islands. Rarotonga, the main island, is small – the road around it is only 31 km long. Other islands are even smaller.
Named after Captain James Cook, who sighted them on his voyage in 1773, the islands came under New Zealand administration in 1901. From this time on Cook Islanders enjoyed British citizenship, and could live and work in New Zealand. An early trickle of migrants grew to a flood in the 1970s. By the late 1980s there were more Cook Islanders in New Zealand than in the islands.
Some 500 Cook Islanders served in the First World War. The three out of four who returned saw their islands with new eyes, having been exposed to a wider world. Some migrated to New Zealand. In the 1920s and 1930s a few girls attended schools such as Hukarere Maori Girls’ College in Napier. Other migrants came for medical treatment or ‘just to look around’. By 1936 there were 103 Cook Islanders living in New Zealand.
Alice Arii Maka Beritane arrived in 1935 to attend Hukarere Maori Girls’ College in Napier.
‘A lot of people say to me, “Why do you come here and give up your beautiful island?” I say to them that the idea was not to give up one’s heritage when you start out. A person comes to New Zealand for education, to pay a visit or have a holiday. I didn’t think there was anything back in the islands for my children at the time so I kept on staying on here. But my kids call home their home even though their father is a papa’a (European) from here and they were born here.’ 1
In 1942 the Compagnie Française des Phosphates de l’Océanie signed an agreement with the New Zealand government. They were to recruit Cook Islanders to work rock phosphate deposits on Makatea, in the Society Islands. Workers got a taste of the cash economy, and some spent their earnings on fares to New Zealand.
During the Second World War more young women arrived on the ships Matua and Maui Pomare. They worked in factories or as domestic staff for wealthy papa‘a (European) families, and many married New Zealand men. Between 1942 and 1956 the Cooks lost 1,492 people to migration. Men went mainly to Makatea and women to New Zealand.
Up until the 1950s migrants were mainly young and single. In the late 1950s departures from the Cook Islands accelerated because of improved transport links, dissatisfaction with island conditions and better job opportunities in New Zealand. By the 1960s this outflow had become a chain migration of family groups, as those in New Zealand sent for their relatives. New Zealand wages often paid fares for those who followed.
Bananas or us?
There was no trouble growing produce in the Cooks. But irregular transport meant it was difficult to get oranges, bananas and pineapples to market. And when New Zealand lifted tariff protection for Pacific islands in the 1980s, growers couldn’t compete with larger producers. In 1991 a grower on Aitutaki lamented:
‘New Zealand has a choice, you know. You import Cook Islands produce or you import Cook Islanders. That’s all we’ve been doing – exporting growers and their families’. 2
In 1961 a number of government schemes brought young men from Aitutaki as agricultural workers, and young unmarried girls for domestic jobs. The New Zealand Government Training Scheme also educated a select few who were expected to return to positions of responsibility in the islands.
The 1970s were the major period of immigration from Rarotonga. Completion of Rarotonga International Airport in 1973 opened the way for thousands of emigrants. In 1971 there were 7,389 Cook Islanders living in New Zealand; by 1976 this had leapt to 12,223. After this, migration continued, but at a slower rate.
While New Zealanders could move freely across the Tasman, Australia only granted this right to New Zealand’s Cook Islanders in the 1960s. Still, few left as there was plenty of work. But when New Zealand manufacturing collapsed in the 1980s, many Cook Islanders lost their factory jobs and left for the higher wages of Australia.
In the late 1990s many who had lost jobs in the Cook Islands’ public sector migrated to New Zealand in search of work. The anonymity of big-city Australia and New Zealand also appealed to those wanting to escape close-knit village life.