Cook Islands: Country and Foreign Investment
Population, Language and Culture
This page was last updated on 6 August 2019.
The first people to settle on the Cook Islands were Polynesians from the Society and Marquesas Islands (modern-day French Polynesia) to the east, in the first millennium AD. By the 11th century, the islands were well populated. In the 13th century, chiefs from Tahiti and Samoa conquered the islands and founded the main tribes on Raratonga.
In 1595 the Spanish navigator Alvaro de Mendala became the first European to see the Cook Islands; the Portuguese landed on them in 1606. The Cook Islands were apparently named by the Russians, who chose the name in honour of Captain James Cook who made three trips there in 1773-7. Western occupation was accompanied by diseases which so devastated the indigenous population that by 1850 there were less than 2,000 inhabitants.
The islands became a British protectorate in 1888 and were annexed to New Zealand in 1901. Since 1965, the Cook Islands has been a self-governing territory in a free association with New Zealand – from which they require support only in external affairs, defence and finances.
The Cook Islanders are Polynesians who are closely related in tradition, language, culture and customs to the Maoris of New Zealand. The official languages are Cook Islands Maori and English, though the latter is more widely used in business contexts. Christianity is the predominant religion.
The total population of the islands was estimated at 17,500 in August 2019. Annual population has fluctuated somewhat of late, though most recently it has increased. In the 20th century, economic difficulties have kept the population low, with many Cook Islanders emigrating to New Zealand in search of employment.