In 1821 the London Missionary Society arrived in the Cook Islands and with the conversion of a number of Ariki – our kings and queens – support for Christianity spread throughout the Southern Group.
Working through the Ariki, missionaries drew up the Blue Laws, and drafted legal codes that led to unprecedented peace and political stability.
In 1881, however, it was decided by the British Colonial Office that New Zealand interests needed some form of protection against foreign powers and the British Government granted a petition by local papa’a business owners for the appointment of a British Consul for the Hervey Islands, as the Southern Group was then known.
In 1888, a petition was presented to Britain from Ariki Queen Makea Takau (Rarotonga) and her husband Ngamaru Ariki (Atiu, Mitiaro, Mauke) that sought British protection, due to concern at French expansion and military takeover of Tahiti. It offered Britain the need to have a coaling station in the middle of the Pacific to meet their needs for ships coming through the Panama Canal as well as potential telegraph cable stations.
The British Government agreed to permit its then vice-consul in Rarotonga to declare a Protectorate over Southern Group islands to protect pro-British islanders and New Zealand trade. Protectorates were similarly declared over several islands in the Northern Group in the early 1890s. The Colonial Office also decided that certain other Northern Group islands should be annexed for possible future use as trans-Pacific cable stations.
Although all this was negotiated between Ariki and Great Britain, four years earlier in 1885, the Colonial Office had accepted an offer by New Zealand (which was then still a colony of Great Britain) that they would pay for a British Consul for Rarotonga on the condition that he be nominated by, and act as official agent of, New Zealand. And by this time New Zealand had begun its attempt to extend its power and boundaries as a sub empire builder.
In 1890, the newly-appointed Resident Frederick Moss persuaded the Ariki of Rarotonga to form a provisional Rarotongan legislature or General Council, the first government for the island. As a result of his initiative, the following year saw representatives of the ariki from Rarotonga and the Southern Group islands agree to form the first federal legislature and British pounds were officially adopted in place of Chilean currency.
New Zealand Premier Richard Seddon sent a new Resident Walter Gudgeon with two clear mandates: to dethrone the Ariki and vest their power in the New Zealand colonial government, and to extend New Zealand’s boundaries to include what would be called the Cook Islands into New Zealand. Among the arguments for New Zealand’s proposed empire were British superiority, fear of the French, jealousy of Australia, protection of missions, and commercial possibilities though perhaps the most telling argument of all, and as indicated in Premier Seddon’s speech to the House, was New Zealand’s “success” in dealing with Maori. Namely, the conquering and division of Maori sovereignty and their lands.
All did not proceed smoothly however, and throughout the last decade of the 19th Century, numerous changes were not to the liking of traditional leaders. In fact, two leading Ariki said in a 1900 communication to the New Zealand Premier: “It is our desire that we should form part of the British Empire and become one with the British people. We wish his lordship to understand that it is to Great Britain that we wish to be annexed, not to New Zealand.”
In 1900 on the 27 September, however, the New Zealand Parliament approved the annexation of the islands to New Zealand and in October the British Governor, Lord Ranfurly, landed at Rarotonga. Without discussion on its implications, a deed of cession was signed by Ariki and other traditional leaders and we moved from a “protectorate of Great Britain” with self-rule to “seceded to New Zealand” with a diminishing rule with the signature of our Ariki and will of the New Zealand government.
On the question of who was doing the annexation, the Governor explained in Rarotonga that: “It is necessary there should be no misunderstanding that would hereafter cause difficulty to what British annexation to the Empire means. Her Majesty can place the future rule where she likes, the extension of New Zealand’s boundaries being the course proposed.” Basically Britain had decided for us, that we were no longer of use to her and that New Zealand could now have us, as that was Britons’ right to choose, and not for the people of the Cook Islands.
In 1901 from 11 June, the boundaries of the Colony of New Zealand were extended to include the Cook Islands, and with the stroke of a pen Gudgeon and Seddon’s goals were fulfilled, with the signed agreement of our Ariki.
By 1909, although Ariki and the local government may have wanted to remain independent in legislative matters, New Zealand’s Gudgeon had assumed almost complete responsibility for the administration of the Cook Islands.
And in 1915, the New Zealand Parliament finally extinguished the power of Federal Council, doing away with all or any power of the Ariki and local legislature. Instead the New Zealand Parliament would from then legislate and rule the Cook Islands until August 1965.
New Zealand’s intention to annex and secede the Cook Islands to itself was not possible without the agreement of our Ariki and their signature to protectorate, annexation and cessation documents that in the end led to their executive demise and not the maintaining of their feudal power.
Ariki have had a significant role to play in our communities, and our history. Be it land, war, peace, the acceptance of the Gospel or the engagement with Britain and Colonial New Zealand. There were never referendums or public consultations with these decisions, instead Ariki took it upon themselves to make the decisions for us as Ariki, for the people and ultimately for the country.
As we celebrate yesterday’s government-initiated holiday of Ui Ariki, is it reasonable to consider what role do they play in our society, what judicial or executive power should they have and where and when they should be consulted.
On matters of culture only, or on all matters relating to our country, its resources and our future?
If we look back at their engagement since 1881,with colonial powers and making decisions on our behalf, how we do we measure this. Do we see our Ariki as ceremonial leaders of the past or leaders of the present and future with mana and the skills, ready for the challenges of the 21st century?
It would be the enactment of article eight of our constitution in 1965 and the establishment of the House of Ariki, that would revive the executive and legislative voice for our Ariki and then the Koutu Nui in 1972. Next week I would like to cover 1915 to 1965 and beyond, so I hope you have had a blessed Ui Ariki Day.
For me, I do believe our Ariki play an essential role in our country: the question is how and where?