1595 – Spaniard Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira is the first European to sight the islands.

1606 – Portuguese-Spaniard Pedro Fernández de Quirós makes the first recorded European landing in the islands when he sets foot on Rakahanga.

1773 – Captain James Cook explores the islands and names them the Hervey Islands. Fifty years later they are renamed the Cook Islands in his honour by Russian Admiral Adam Johann Ritter von Krusenstern

1813 – Captain John Dibbs and English missionary John Williams make the first official European sighting of Rarotonga.

1821 – English and Tahitian missionaries land in Aitutaki, become the first non-native settlers.

1823 – English missionary John Williams lands in Rarotonga, converting Makea Pori Ariki to christianity.

1858 – The Cook Islands become united as a state, the Kingdom of Rarotonga, (‘Matamuatanga Rarotonga’ – named after Rarotonga).

1862 – Peruvian slave traders, in 1862 and 1863, take a terrible toll on the islands of Penrhyn, Rakahanga and Pukapuka.

1888 – The Cook Islands are proclaimed a British protectorate and a single federal parliament is established.

1893 – The name “Kingdom of Rarotonga” is changed to the Cook Islands Federation.

1901 – The Cook Islands are annexed to New Zealand.

1946 – Legislative Council is established. For the first time since 1912, the territory has direct representation.

1965 – The Cook Islands becomes a self-governing territory in free association with New Zealand. Albert Henry, leader of the Cook Islands Party, is elected as the first prime minister.

1980 – The United States signs a treaty with the Cook Islands specifying the maritime border between the Cook Islands and American Samoa and also relinquishing its claim to the islands of Penrhyn, Pukapuka, Manihiki, and Rakahanga.

1985 – Rarotonga Treaty is opened for signing in the Cook Islands, creating a nuclear free zone in the South Pacific.

1991 – The Cook Islands signs a treaty of friendship and co-operation with France, covering economic development, trade and surveillance of the islands’ EEZ. The establishment of closer relations with France is widely regarded as an expression of the Cook Islands’ Government’s dissatisfaction with existing arrangements with New Zealand which is no longer in a position to defend the Cook Islands.

1995 – The French Government resumes its Programme of nuclear-weapons testing at Mururoa Atoll in September, 1995, upsetting the Cook Islands. New Prime Minister Geoffrey Henry is fiercely critical of the decision and dispatches a vaka (traditional voyaging canoe) with a crew of Cook Islands’ traditional warriors to protest near the test site. The tests are concluded in January 1996 and a moratorium is placed on future testing by the French government.



Much of the written history of the Cooks begins with the arrival of Europeans in the late 16th century.

It is known, however, that the first to arrive, around 600AD, were Polynesians from what we now know as French Polynesia (Tahiti), and the Samoas and Tonga (the Northern Group of islanders are thought to be from Samoa and Tonga and the Southern Group largely from the Society Islands and the Marquesas).

Chiefs of the Makea-Karika tribe of Rarotonga clad in bark cloth (tapa)
Chiefs of the Makea-Karika tribe of Rarotonga clad in bark cloth (tapa)

Overpopulation on many of the tiny islands of Polynesia led to these oceanic migrations.

Tradition has it that this was the reason for the expeditions of Ru, from Tupua’i in French Polynesia, who landed on Aitutaki, and for that of Tangiia, also from French Polynesia. Both are believed to have arrived on Rarotonga around 800 AD.

These arrivals are evidenced by the Ara Metua, an ancient road that runs around most of Rarotonga, and is believed to be at least 1200 years old. This 29 km long, paved road is a considerable achievement of ancient engineering, possibly unsurpassed elsewhere in Polynesia.


Rival of the first European Explorers

On 20 August, 1595, Spaniard Alvarano de Mendana sighted Pukapuka, in the Northern Group – the first European to sight what later would become the Cook Islands. He named Pukapuka “San Bernardo” (“Saint Bernard”).

Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira
Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira

It wasn’t until 2 March, 1606, that Pedro Fernandez de Quirós landed on Rakahanga, in the north, to gather provisions. He called Rakahanga “Gente Hermosa” (“Beautiful People”). This was the first recorded European landing on the Cooks.



Pedro Fernandes de Queirós
Pedro Fernandes de Queirós

The British arrived off Pukapuka in 1764, and named it Danger Island because they could not land. This was a very active time in Pacific exploration with the British and French aggressively seeking to expand their empires and heighten their maritime prestige.

Captain James Cook, of the Royal Navy, was the first European to explore extensively the island group that would come to bear his name.

Cook arrived in 1773 and on September 23 sighted Manuae Atoll, in what is known today as the Southern Group of the Cooks. He originally gave Manuae the name Sandwich Island, but decided later to give that name to Hawaii. So, he rechristened his “discovery” Hervey Island (or Harvey Island), in honour of a Lord of the (British) Admiralty.

Captain James Cook
Captain James Cook

Between 1773 and 1777, Cook navigated and mapped much of the Southern Group – Palmerston, Takutea, Manuae, Mangaia and Atiu, Surprisingly, he didn’t sight the biggest (and tallest), Rarotonga.

The first recorded European sighting of Rarotonga was on 25 July, 1823, by Captain John Dibbs, of the colonial schooner Endeavour. The Endeavour was transporting the Rev. John Williams on a missionary voyage around the islands. Dibbs also reported sighting the islands of Mitiaro and Mauke, to Rarotonga’s north-east.

Cook’s “Hervey Island(s)” name was applied to the whole of the Southern Group until 1824 when the Russian Admiral, Adam Johann Ritter von Krusenstern, an explorer and cartographer, published the Atlas de l’Ocean Pacifique, in which he renamed the islands in honour of Cook. The northern group was known as the Penrhyn Islands or the Manihiki Islands).

Brutal Peruvian slave traders, known as “blackbirders”, took a terrible toll on the islands of the Northern Group in 1862 and 1863. At first the traders may have genuinely operated as labour recruiters, but they quickly turned to subterfuge and outright kidnapping in order to round up their human cargo.

The Cook Islands was not the only island group visited by the “traders”, but Penrhyn Atoll was their first port of call and it has been estimated that three-quarters of the population was taken to Callao, Peru. Rakahanga and Pukapuka also suffered tremendous losses.

The Kingdom of Rarotonga was established in 1858 and in 1888 it became a British protectorate by the request of Queen Makea Takau, mainly to thwart French expansionism.

Makea Takau Ariki
Makea Takau Ariki

Queen Makea formally petitioned the British to set up a Protectorate to head off what she believed to be imminent invasion by the French. The British Government agreed to permit its then vice-consul in Rarotonga to declare a Protectorate over the Southern Group islands to protect pro-British islanders and New Zealand trade. The Colonial Office also decided that certain Northern Group islands should be annexed for possible future use as trans-Pacific cable stations.

The British were reluctant administrators and continued pressure was applied to them, by New Zealand and by European residents of the islands, to pass the Cooks over to New Zealand.

In 1901, the Cooks were transferred to New Zealand and, with the passing of “The Cook Islands and other Islands Government Act”, the name “Cook Islands” was applied to all 15 islands in the group.

In the early 1960s New Zealand became hypersensitive to the decolonisation fashion then sweeping the rest of the world and quickly buckled under pressure to give the Cook Islands self-rule.

The Cooks remained a New Zealand protectorate until 1965 when they became a self-governing territory in free association with New Zealand. The free association agreement means:

  • The Cook Islands Government has full executive powers.
  • The Cook Islands can make its own laws and New Zealand cannot make laws for the country unless authorised by government.
  • Cook Islanders keep New Zealand citizenship
  • The Cook Islands remains part of the Realm of New Zealand and Queen Elizabeth II is Head of State of the Cook Islands.

(The Cook Islands are one of four New Zealand dependencies, along with Tokelau, Niue and the Ross Dependency).