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To and from the Cook Islands

Rarotonga, Cook Islands. Image: Robert Linsdell/Flickr

David Whitley discovers a fascinating history at a new museum on Rarotonga


For map geeks, the one on the wall in Te Ara is utterly engrossing. It not only shows all those random specks in the Pacific that make for great answers on Pointless – Kiribati! Tuvalu! Vanuatu! – but the flow of people that ended up inhabiting them.

Te Ara is a shiny new museum on Rarotonga, the most populous of the fifteen Cook Islands. That’s a relative term — fewer than 15,000 people live on Raro. Te Ara also acts as a cultural space, cafe and showcase for local artists and craftspeople, but the museum section attempts to tell the story not just of the Cook Islands, but of Polynesia itself.

The map shows the migration routes that people took across the Pacific Ocean. Taiwan, for example, was populated before 3000BC. The Marianas were reached by 1500BC, the Solomons by 1300BC, Samoa by 800BC and so on, right up to arrivals in New Zealand, Easter Island and Hawaii within the last 1,000 years.

The how is at least as interesting as the when. All the dates are well before the great European Age of Discovery. People were crossing vast oceans while the major empires of Europe and Asia were too timid to venture more than a few miles out of sight of the coastline.

On display is what initially looks like a wooden fence. It’s, however, a stick chart that was used for navigation by the Marshallese. The sticks making the framework represent the swell and wave patterns of the ocean, and the shells slotted between them are the islands. The chart would only be readable to the person who constructed it, and it would be memorised. Then, when out at sea, the navigator would crouch down in the giant vaka (canoe) and feel how it was being pitched and rolled by the underlying swells.

The problem with migrating thousands of miles to tiny islands, however, is that those islands have limited room. This pushed forward expansion, as large families yearning for more space would take to the seas to find it.

This explains both the expansion and societal systems. Most villages in the Cooks identify with a particular vaka, and the ancestors on it. The firstborn son would become the Ariki, or high chief, with the title being passed down to his firstborn son. Ariki still exist — and have considerable clout — today. But, their authority derives from their mana, a loose concept which factors in bloodline, physical presence, spirituality and achievements. It’s something that can be gained and lost — similar to gaining or losing face.

However, others have roles too. Ta’unga are experts in various subjects, whether medicine, canoe-making, agriculture or navigation. And the Tumukorero are responsible for memorising tribal history and genealogy.

The traditional ways are never too far from the surface in the Cooks, although European-introduced influences sit alongside them. Christianity may have led wooden idols to be destroyed, but the mythologising of ancestors, and belief in places such as Black Rock where souls of the deceased depart from the ancestral homeland, is still strong.

The museum later delves into the European era of missionaries, disease and colonialists. But the sense of overall sweep is huge for somewhere so tiny and seemingly insignificant. And the vaka is rather symbolic. To an ignorant observer, it may just be a wooden canoe. But the heritage and importance behind it is far, far bigger.

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