Cook Islands (Includes Rarotonga)

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Pacific Island Guide  >  Cook Islands (Includes Rarotonga)

General Information

Te Manga, Rarotonga's highest peak as seen from the south coast.
The population of the Cook Islands is about 18,000. Another 37,000 Cook Islanders live in New Zealand. The people are ethnically related to the Maori of New Zealand, the Maori of Easter Island, and the Kanaka Maoli of Hawaii.

Maori, English and Pukapukan are spoken. Dialects are: Rakahanga Manihiki, Panrhyn, Mangala, Rarotonga, Aitutaki, and Atiu Mauke Mitiaro. Pukapukan is spoken in Pukapuka and Anassau.

Rarotonga, the main island, is volcanic. It has a central volcanic pyramid with sawtooth peaks and ridges covered with tropical jungle. Streams run down the steep valleys. It is surrounded by a lagoon which goes several hundred yards to a reef which slopes to deep water.

The island’s name stems fromraro, meaning “down,” and tonga, meaning “south.” In 1997,Japanese archaeologists unearthed a previously unknown marae (sacred site) on Motu Tapu, an islet in the lagoon at Nagatangila. This is estimated to be 1500 years old (abt. 500 A.D.).

Christianity is the dominant religion, brought by the London Missionary Society. LDS Church membership in 2002 in the Cook Islands, including Rarotonga, was 1,236.

Historical background

500 Expeditions to New Zealand by Maori begin from Rarotonga, probably from Ngatangila.
800 Expedition of Ru from Tubua`i in French Polynesia to Rarotonga, Aitutake, and Tangaia.
1600 Spanish explorers sight Pukapuka and land on Rakahanga
1800 British and French explorers and Australian and New Zealand expeditions seek sandalwood. They name Pukapuka “Danger Island” because they cannot land. Captain James Cook lands on several of the islands and a Russian map maker names them the “Cook Islands” after him.
1821 London Missionary Society landed in Aitutaki. Islanders quickly converted to Christianity.  Population around 6,500.
1850 Peruvian slave traders kidnapped outer islanders, who were never seen again.
1860s Population diminished to 2,000 due to sickness
1861-1907 London Mission Society gives births and death, civil registration
1870 Queen Makea Tukau has government authority and petitions for British protection.
1888 Became a British protectorate. Freedom of religion guaranteed.
1895 First Roman Catholic Church dedicated
1896 (some 1876) A large number of oral genealogies was recorded.
1901 Annexed to New Zealand in a deed of cession signed by five ariki and seven lesser chiefs.
1946 Large numbers of Cook islanders migrate to New Zealand for jobs.
1965 Became a Self-Governing Territory under New Zealand. Cook Islanders have automatic New Zealand citizenship.
1996 Population is 19,103
2000 Universal suffrage and self-government with an elected parliament and a House of Ariki (hereditary chiefs) with representatives from all of the Cook Islands brings a peaceful environment in the Cook Islands.

Resources available

  • Go to the Internet at and click on the Library.
  • From that tab, click on the Family History Library Catalog.
  • To get to the genealogies, choose a Place search.
  • Type in Cook Islands.
  • Click on Cook Islands - Rarotonga - Genealogy.
  • A list of oral genealogies will come up with the names of the families listed. By clicking on the you are interested in you can get the microfilm number. Or, use a Film/fiche number search and look at the descriptions of the following microfilms, all of which contain information about Cook Island ancestors: 795886, 795837, 795960, 795720, 108490, 108491, 108492, 108563, 112651, 865045, 1026227, 165044, 165045, 928558.