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Cook Islanders

by  Carl Walrond

The 15 tiny islands that make up the Cooks are flung far and wide in the Pacific, and their peoples are scattered even further: for many years, more have been living abroad than in the homeland. While the Cook Islands’ economy and future are fragile, in New Zealand’s communities the culture is thriving – from language nests to quilt making and high-spirited dance festivals.


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 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.

Early migrants

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.

Mama Alice

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.

Chain migration

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.

Recent migrants

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.

    • Teupoko I. Morgan, Cook Islands women pioneers. Tokoroa: Anau Ako Pasifika, 2001, p. 28. › Back
    • Mark Scott, ‘In search of the Cook Islands.’ New Zealand Geographic 12 (1991): 78. › Back


Auckland and Wellington

Early arrivals from the Cook Islands went to Auckland and Wellington, mainly taking up manual work. Several hundred also worked on farms in Hawke’s Bay. They earned a reputation as reliable, hard workers. Some firms employed gangs of Cook Islands workers and even paid fares for prospective workers. By the mid-1960s some Cook Islanders had already begun moving to the suburbs of Ōtara and Ōtāhuhu, nearer the factory jobs.

By 1965 most migrants were coming from the five main southern islands in the Cooks. Aitutakians and Mangaians dispersed further through the North Island than Rarotongans, who tended to settle in Auckland. Mangaians ventured as far south as Bluff, where they laboured in freezing works and at the Tīwai Point aluminium smelter.

In Auckland, most migrants settled in Ponsonby and other inner-city areas. By 1970 there were some 240 Cook Islands dwellings within a 3-km radius of the Auckland Town Hall. At the time, this area consisted largely of run-down rental houses, many with no hot water or inside toilets.

In Wellington, cheaper state housing available in Porirua triggered migration from inner-city suburbs such as Newtown.

Napier, Hastings, Tokoroa, Murupara and Whakatāne were also popular destinations, as they offered work in fruit and vegetable canning factories and timber mills.


The kopu tangata, or extended family, is very important to Cook Islanders. In the early days many households regularly sent money home. In return, relatives would send over Rarotonga’s green bananas, taro, kūmara, coconuts and mangoes, which formed the mainstay of the immigrants’ diet. In the 2000s the traditional custom of sharing surplus food was still practised, mainly by the older generation.

Early arrivals acknowledged their heritage in any way they could. In Freemans Bay in Auckland, Mama Aere planted banana, sugar cane, gardenias and gerberas – plants recalling Rarotonga, which she had left in 1946. Island affiliations were also maintained through enua associations, for people who had come from the same village, district or island. In Auckland the Atiu, Pukapuka and Manihiki communities all had their own meeting halls. There were also Cook Islands halls in Māngere and at Cannons Creek, Porirua.

In the 2000s more Cook Islanders lived in Auckland than anywhere else, and occasionally their outriggers could be seen cutting the waters of Manukau Harbour.


The London Missionary Society introduced Christianity to the Cooks in the early 1800s. In the 1940s and 1950s most New Zealand Cook Islanders joined the Pacific Islanders’ Congregational Church. People looked to their churches for welfare and guidance. Ministers such as Tariu Teaia of Auckland’s Beresford Street Church were father figures who helped their people settle. In the late 1960s church services, held in Rarotongan, typically attracted 100–150 people. Afterwards they would spill onto the streets swapping news from home, revelling in the chance to speak their own tongue.

In the 1970s the Cook Islands Christian Church was formed from the London Missionary Society on the islands. Many joined when branches opened in New Zealand. By the 2000s most Cook Islands church services were in English, although five denominations still held services in Cook Islands Māori.


Dance, music and tīvaevae

In the 1940s a favourite Auckland meeting place was a dance hall called The Polynesian. Men also held ‘drinking schools’, which often began with an imene tuki (traditional song) and ended with a pure (prayer). Parties were lively events with singing accompanied by ukuleles and guitars.

Cook Islanders such as vocalist Annie Crummer, who sang with the Dunedin band Netherworld Dancing Toys in the mid-1980s, and writer Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, who arrived in the 1930s, have forged successful arts careers.

Nicknamed ‘Raros’ after the main island Rarotonga, Cook Islanders often gather to celebrate their Constitution Day on 4 August. Groups also travel between the islands and New Zealand. Referred to as ‘tere parties’, they often give dance performances. Cook Islands percussionists produce the steady backbeat for these traditional dance troupes. With highly rhythmic drumming on the pate (wooden slit drum) and wild, sensuous dancing, Cook Islands teams often win Pacific dance festivals.

Throughout New Zealand, tīvaevae makers – who sew colourful bed coverings or quilts – gather to work and gossip. The beautiful quilts are often presented as gifts or used on important occasions, such as the rite of passage ceremony in which a young boy has his first haircut. The boy typically sits on a tīvaevae draped over a chair, while guests come up and cut a lock of his hair, giving him cash in return.

Māori and the Cook Islands

It is likely that some New Zealand Māori can trace their ancestors to the Cook Islands. The various dialects of the Cooks are very similar to Māori. New Zealand and the Cooks share place names, and even family names such as Paikea, which originated with a family from Mauke who settled near East Cape. Oral traditions from Aitutaki in the Cooks claim that the Tainui canoe stopped there on its voyage from Ra‘iatea to New Zealand. Cook Islanders have rekindled links with some Māori tribes, most notably Tainui in the 1990s, when they considered building an ocean-going vaka (canoe).


While different islands have different dialects, Rarotongan has emerged as the dominant Cook Islands Māori language. Even this is a candidate for the endangered language list, not only in New Zealand but also in Rarotonga. In the 1960s many older migrants spoke only their own tongue at home, while younger people were increasingly speaking English.

By 2001 only 18% of Cook Islanders in New Zealand were able to hold an everyday conversation in Cook Islands Māori, and by 2013 this figure had fallen further, to 13%. Initiatives such as punana reo (‘language nests’ for young children), and learning materials provided in some schools give hope for saving the language. A language curriculum for New Zealand schools was launched in 2004.

Pukapukan is another distinct language spoken by those from the northern atoll of Pukapuka. In the 2000s Auckland had a specialist Pukapukan publisher, Mataaliki Press, which printed children’s books.

Did they leave or were they pushed?

It is likely that some Cook Islands ancestors of Māori arrived in New Zealand about 700 years ago. However, the close links between the two peoples have an element of sibling rivalry, as one journalist explains:

‘There is a bit of stick between Cook Islands Maori and New Zealand Maori. One group maintains they kicked the other out a thousand years ago … The voyagers claim those who stayed behind were the slack ones!’ 1

Away from home

By 2011, 17,779 people were living in the Cook Islands, and of these 14,998 were usual residents. In 2013 around 62,000 Cook Islanders lived in New Zealand, 77% of whom were born there. The population was very youthful, with 39% under 15 (compared with 20% for the total population). An estimated 15,000–30,000 Cook Islanders also lived in Australia. The critical mass of the population, with its culture, traditions and language, is now living away from the islands, and efforts to preserve language and culture are under way in these expatriate communities, as well as in the homeland.

Flights to the Cook Islands from New Zealand often carry retired people and those returning for a visit. They also include Cook Islanders going back for good – those whose last wish was to be buried in their island’s soil.

    • Mark Scott, ‘In search of the Cook Islands.’ New Zealand Geographic 11 (1991): 33. › Back

Facts and figures

Country of birth

The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in the Cook Islands.

  • 1921 census: 149
  • 1951 census: 999
  • 1976 census: 12,223
  • 2001 census: 15,222
  • 2006 census: 14,697
  • 2013 census: 12,954

Ethnic identity

In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.

  • Cook Island Māori: 56,895 (2006); 61,077 (2013)

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Carl Walrond, 'Cook Islanders', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 May 2024)

He kōrero nā Carl Walrond, i tāngia i te 8 o Pēpuere 2005, updated 1 o Māehe 2015