Rarotonga has long been considered the capital of the Cook Islands. Numerous legends across eastern Polynesia touch upon the early existence of Rarotonga, and there was undoubtedly regular contact between the island and the rest of the South Pacific (particularly the islands of French Polynesia). Traditional oral history relates that the first person to discover Rarotonga was Io Tangaroa from Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands, now part of French Polynesia. He came by canoe about 1400 years ago, but didn't stay; he went back to Nuku Hiva and never returned to Rarotonga. But he told his people about the new land and his sons and grandsons later visited. Io Tangaroa's son, Tongaiti, gave the island its first name: Tumu Te Varovaro (Source of the Echo).
Settlers from the Marquesas and nearby Society Islands were the first people to establish a permanent home on the island, but little is known about this early period in Rarotonga's history; the^Q^ly real historical anchor is the construction of the Ara Metua inland road, also called Te Ara Nui o To'i (The Great Road of To'i), somewhere around the 11th century, though no-one today knows precisely who To'i was.The island's traditional history begins with the arrival of two great warrior chiefs, Tangi'ia from Tahiti and Karika from Samoa, who arrived in huge vaka (oceangoing canoes) and quickly conquered the island, later founding the island's six tribes. The district of Ngatangi'ia (in the southeast) still bears Tangi'ia's name, and Taki-tumu was named after his canoe. Karika settled near present-day Avarua.
Conflicts and wars were quite common among these tribes; people didn't live on the low coastal plain as they do now - they lived at higher elevations where they could better defend themselves, only venturing down to the sea in armed groups for fishing. Inland, they grew crops and raised livestock.Somewhere between 1000 and 1400, vaka set out south from Rarotonga in search of New Zealand, which had been discovered in around AD 800 by Kupe, an early Polynesian navigator. The people on these canoes became the great ancestors of the New Zealand Maori tribes; many of the tribes still bear the names of the canoes on which the settlers arrived (the Tainui tribe and Te Arawa tribes, for example).
Interestingly, considering its size and historical importance, Rarotonga was one of the later islands to be found by Europeans. It's thought that the first European sighting was probably by the mutineers on the Bounty, who happened upon Rarotonga in 1789 after the mutiny while they were searching for a hideout (preferably as remote as possible).
The first known European visitor was Philip Goodenough, captain of the Cumberland, who showed up in 1814 and spent three months supposedly searching for san-dalwood, although he seems to have spent more time skirmishing with the locals. Several of his crew were killed during the bloody squabbles, including Goodenough's female companion, Ann Butcher (the first European woman on the island), and eventually the Cumberland fled for safer shores.
In r&21, the Reverend John Williams of the London Missionary Society (LMS) set off in search of Rarotonga from Aitutaki, where his disciple Papeiha, a missionary from Ra'iatea in the Society Islands, had had remarkable success converting the islanders to Christianity. Williams and his companions bounced around most of the islands of the Southern Group (including Mangaia, Ma'uke, Mitiaro, and 'Atiu) for the next couple of years, but never quite managed to find Rarotonga. Eventually an 'Atiuan ariki (high chief), Rongomatane, whose people had invaded Rarotonga on numerous occasions, gave the missionaries directions and they finally landed in 1823.
Williams spent several years preaching on Rarotonga, ably assisted by Papeiha, Pitman and another missionary called Aaron Buza-cott, before eventually meeting his end in a cannibal oven in 1839 on the island of Vanuatu. As on Aitutaki, they succeeded with surprising speed; a little more than a year after their arrival, Christianity had taken a firm and lasting hold on the island. The first permanent missionaries came in 1827. They translated the Bible into Maori, and established' Arorangi as a model for new villages on the island; the missionaries were keen to relocate the newly converted islanders in order to break ties with their old religion. Rarotonga became the Cook Islands'
headquarters for the LMS and an important administrative and religious centre. As elsewhere in the Pacific, previously unknown diseases took a devastating toll on the islanders, and the population had more than halved within twenty years of the missionaries' arrival. It only really started to recover around the turn of the century.
Although the missionaries tried to exclude other Europeans from settling, whalers and traders visited the island - as one missionary's wife lamented, men of 'some wealth and little religious principle'. Unable to deter the traders, the missionaries did at least warn the Rarotongans to beware the French, who had taken over Tahiti in 1843. The prospect of a French (ie Catholic) invasion made the missionaries extremely skittish, and in 1865 they convinced the paramount ariki, Makea Takau, to request British protection for the first time. This initial request was turned down, but after several further requests, the Southern Group was finally declared a British protectorate, and Rarotonga became the unofficial capital of the Cook Islands.
Rarotonga shares a similar culture with the rest of the Southern Group. The first chiefs, Tangi'ia and Karika, split the land among six tribes, each lead by an ariki and several mataiapo and rangatira (sub-chiefs). One ariki title, Kainuku Ariki, belonged to the first settlers, those who Tangi'ia and Karika had defeated. Pa Ariki (based in Ngatangi'ia) and Tinomana Ariki (in 'Arorangi) are descended from Tangi'ia's people. The Makea titles (in Avarua) descend from Karika. There were three vaka (districts) on the island: Te Au O Tonga on the northern side, Takitumu on the eastern and southeastern side, and Puaikura on the western side.
Each tribe had its own specific koutu (high court) and marae (sacred site), almost all found along the main inland road, the Ara Metua. The marae were where the main sacrifices, offerings and ceremonies would be made, such as the dedication of newborn children to a particular tribe; the offering of the first fruits of the harvest; and the investiture of a new high chief. As elsewhere on the islands, land was one of the most crucial issues; each tribe controlled sections of land known as ta-pere, which were passed down through families, or won or lost in battle. With the arrival of the missionaries in the 1820s, acquisition of land by conquest was outlawed. Land is now granted solely at the discretion of the owning family, though problems arise when people disagree about who holds the right to a particular piece of land; arguments frequently end up in court and can cause considerable friction within families.
Only Cook Islanders can own land on Rarotonga, though sometimes rights are exchanged for fixed-term leases (usually 60 years). Rarotonga is so far the only island to have passed the controversial Unit Titles Act, which for the first time grants foreigners the right to buy portions of a particular piece of land (ie an apartment in a block of flats). Rarotonga may officially be a Christian nation, but the old ways still exert subtle influences over the way islanders live their lives, and there's a growing interest in the island's ancient culture and heritage among young Rarotongans.
Rarotonga is the only high volcanic island in the Cooks, and it's by far the youngest island in the Southern Group. The volcanic activity that thrust it above sea level occurred about two million years ago, more recently than on any of the other islands. The island's volcanic origins are most obvious in the mountainous centre, with its steep valleys, narrow ridges and rugged hills covered with dense jungle. The major mountains are the remains of the outer rim of the volcanic cone; its centre is now marked by the mountain of Maungatea. In many ways, Rarotonga is physically closer to other volcanic islands such as Bora Bora in Tahiti than it is to the Southern Group islands, most of which lost their volcanic cones and mountains long ago.
The flat, fertile plain along the coast is where most recent building and development has occurred, though in previous centuries the population was mostly concentrated further inland. Most of the old plantations and farming land is found a couple of kilometres inland from the coast along the Ara Metua. Rarotonga's encircling lagoon is quite narrow around most of the island but widens out around the southern side, where you'll find the best beaches. Muri Lagoon, fringed by four motu (islets), is the widest part of the lagoon, although even here it is quite shallow in most places.
There are a few birds that naturally occur only on Rarotonga, including the kakerori (flycatcher) and the Rarotongan starling, but the island supports a diverse bird population, mostly introduced from other parts of the Cook Islands or from overseas. There are no poisonous animals on Rarotonga.
The richest wildlife is found in the island's lagoon and in the deep ocean beyond the
Perched along the island's northern shore, the bustling town of Avarua is the capital city of the Cooks and Rarotonga's only town. Bordered by twin harbours at either side of a sweeping bay, and backed by a vista of sawtooth mountains and tree-topped hills, it's the closest thing you'll find to a metropolis in the Cooks. Just over a decade ago Avarua was little more than a sleepy South Seas port, but recently the town has been thoroughly spruced up and the long main street is now packed with busy shops, cafes and galleries. It's also home to the main weekend market, as well as a few decent museums and the National Culture Centre. If you're looking for a little bit of after-dark action on the island, then Avarua is where you'll find it.
Getting around Avarua is easy; there's only one main road, the Ara Maire Nui (which turns into the main coast road, the Ara Tapu, at either end of town). The Ara Maire Nui, usually known as 'the main road', runs right along the waterfront. A grassy strip down the middle offers plenty of shady trees. A useful landmark to get your bearings is the main traffic circle at the eastern end of town. Facing west (with the harbour to your right), the large orange building just to your left is the new courthouse; on your right is the entrance to Avarua Harbour.
The road leading inland to your left passes the post office and the Philatelic Bureau on its way to Papeiha Stone. Here the road joins up with the Ara Metua (inland or back road), before continuing up the Takuva'ine Valley. The commercial centre of town is along the main road west of the traffic circle. The Banana Court Bar, with the Blue Note Cafe on the verandah, is an obvious landmark. A little way up from the Banana Court is the main tourist office. Further up on your left you'll see the large CITC Shopping Centre; the left-hand turn here passes Cook's Corner Arcade and the main bus stop, before continuing on to the large Telecom office.
The banks, shops and cafes, as well as the police station and the supermarket, are on the south side of the road. At the other end of town on the north side of the road is the Punanga Nui market. Just past this is Avatiu Harbour, where the inter-island passenger freighter ships and Port Authority are based. The airport is lkm further west. The post office is opposite the courthouse and the Telecom centre is just off the main
(Oliver Berry )