The Cook Islands were first occupied in the 6th century A.D. by Polynesian people who migrated from nearby Tahiti. In the late sixteenth century, Spanish ships visited the islands.
The sighting of Pukapuka by Spanish sailor Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira in 1595 is the first written record of contact with the Islands, who called it San Bernardo (“Saint Bernard”). The first recorded European landing in the islands was by Portuguese-Spaniard Pedro Fernández de Quirós, made when he set foot on Rakahanga in 1606, calling it Gente Hermosa (“Beautiful People”).
In 1773 and 1777, British navigator Captain James Cook arrived and named the islands the Hervey Islands. Later, on a Russian naval chart published in the 1820s the name “Cook Islands” appeared in honour of Cook.
The first official sighting of the island of Rarotonga was made in 1813 by John Williams, a missionary on the Endeavour (not the same ship as that of Cook).
The Cumberland made the first recorded landing on Rarotonga by Europeans in 1814 and trouble soon broke out between the sailors and the Islanders with many killed on both sides.
Until missionaries arrived from England in 1821, the islands saw no more Europeans. Christianity quickly took hold and many islanders continue to be Christian believers today.
At their own request in 1888 the Cook Islands became a British protectorate, mainly to thwart French expansionism. They were transferred to New Zealand in 1901. They remained a New Zealand protectorate until 1965, at which point they became a self-governing territory in free association with New Zealand.
Albert Henry of the Cook Islands Party was elected as the first Prime Minister until he was accused of vote-rigging. In 1978 he was succeeded by Tom Davis of the Democratic Party.
Today, New Zealand is tasked with overseeing the country’s defence but the Cook Islands are essentially independent (“self-governing in free association with New Zealand”).
The United States signed a treaty with New Zealand on June 11, 1980, specifying the maritime border between American Samoa and the Cook Islands and also relinquished its claim to the islands of Penrhyn Island, Pukapuka (Danger), Manihiki, and Rakahanga.