Cook Islands History
Source: US State Department
Alvaro de Mendana, a Spaniard, made the first European sighting of Pukapuka 1595.
Pedro Fernandez de Quiros landed on Rakahanga in 1606, but Captain Cook was the first European to explore the land extensively, in 1773 and later in 1777. Cook's name was given to the southern islands in an 1835 atlas. At that time, the northern group was known as the Penrhyn Islands or the Manihiki Islands.
A great impact on Cook Islands was made by Christian missionaries, who decimated the population by introducing diseases such as whooping cough, measles, and smallpox. However, culturally they did not attempt to eradicate all indigenous traditions. The first missionary on the islands was the Reverend John Williams of the London Missionary Society, who landed on Aitutaki in 1821. Another influential figure was Papeiha, a convert from the Society Islands who moved to Rarotonga in 1823.
In order to counter the French, who were increasing their colonial holdings in the South Pacific, the British declared the islands a protectorate in 1888. In 1900, New Zealand annexed Rarotonga and the other main islands in the southern group; this was extended the next year to include the northern islands. The goal was eventual self-sufficiency for the islands, but despite their agricultural potential, this has not happened. In 1965, the islands gained the right to self-government in internal affairs, but defense and foreign policy remain under the control of New Zealand.
Albert Henry of the Cook Islands Party (CIP), a major figure in the independence movement, was elected prime minister in 1968. He was knighted in 1974, but the honor was revoked in 1980 because of claims of corruption. When Henry died in 1981, Dr. Thomas Davis of the Democratic Party became prime minister. Several years of relative political instability followed; power changed hands a few times between 1983 and 1989, when Geoffrey Henry, Henry's nephew, became prime minister. His government did not have widespread popular support, but Geoffrey Henry was knighted in 1992, and the CIP won by a large majority in the 1994 elections.
In the mid 1990s, a controversy known as the "winebox affair" surfaced: the islands were accused by New Zealand of illegal practices in offshore banking and international tax evasion. The affair developed into an international scandal, but the nation's misdeeds were never proved in court. However, economic problems continued to beset the country, including a trade imbalance. In April 1996, Prime Minister Henry announced a 50 percent cut in government departments and privatized a number of government-owned businesses. Many of the recently fired government employees left for New Zealand and Australia. The tourism industry suffered for several years as well.
NOTE: The information regarding Cook Islands on this page is re-published from the US State Department. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Cook Islands History information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Cook Islands History should be addressed to the State Department.