Last week I failed to mention the first resident Commissioner to the Cook Islands who was in fact Frederick Joseph Moss, generally regarded as a benevolent, even enlightened, colonial administrator, if lacking in both tact and the power to enforce his desired reforms.
In 1890, Moss, a former planter and MP, was appointed British resident. Moss’s brief was to recognise and support the Ariki government, particularly in the area of law and order, to control liquor, levy customs duties, unify the island and district governments, and vet proposed laws and regulations. He worked with Ariki and others to establish a Parliament and Executive Council, with Makea Takau Ariki at its head.
A Supreme Court was established with Tepou o te Rangi, a cousin of Makea and holder of the Vakatini ariki title, as its judge and the police began to be professionalized. The new legislature worked to establish, liquor licensing, customs, treasury, schools, and a medical service. There was however no papa’a representation in his plans , a fact that gave rise to hostility on the part of papa’a businessmen planters and merchants alike.
Some have described Moss’s attitude, as one of ‘romantic humanism’ in his desire for self-dependence for the Cook Islands, which instead fostered mutual impatience and resentment from Papa’a businessmen and Ariki. Moss, under the leadership of then New Zealand Premier Balance, was in support of self-rule for the Cook Islands colony. But he would die in 1893 and be replaced by the Imperialist Richard Seddon who instead saw the Cook Islands as a part of the New Zealand sub-Empire needing to be ruled from New Zealand, and with that and other frustrations locally Moss was replaced by Seddon’s man, Walter Gudgeon.
Yet Moss was not forgotten as Cook Islands first Premier Albert Henry paid this tribute: “The experiment so started by Moss, represented the most progressive and advanced ideas of the time. It was a really remarkable attempt to establish a Government combining free democratic Parliamentary institutions with native custom, combining the old ideas of the independence of each island with the new idea of national independence.”
Gudgeon’s position however, with regard to Ariki and the people of the Cook Islands, would take a completely different view and summed up in these words from Gudgeon after his appointment.
“The Natives have, moreover, reached that stage of enlightenment that they will no longer put up with the eccentricities of their chiefs… it is not advisable that we should allow the jealousy of a few useless and obstructive chiefs to exclude the more enlightened of the Maori people from all part in the government of their own islands. It is time that such men were taught that their old system must give way before the exigencies of our civilization. If this be done the system will soon die out…and you should authorise me to deprive any chief of his rank or authority in the event of his opposing any Government measure.”
These words of Gudgeon show a clear contempt for the Ariki and that in his mind, the time of enlightenment had come for Maori, and that they would see there was a better way, a way without the rule of the Ariki. And this was said, not in a private journal, but recorded in the Cook Islands pages of the House of Representatives and captured in Graeme Whimp’s thesis Writing the Colony: Walter Gudgoen in the Cook Islands 1898 to 1909.
To demonstrate one area where this contempt for the people of the Cook Islands as a colony was demonstrated can be seen in the response by the colonial New Zealand government to the health concerns of the people of the Cook Islands right up until the 1960s
Dr Debi Futter-Puati in her thesis, Maki Maro Tuberculosis in the Cook Islands: A social history 1896-1975, points out that In the first 10 years of the New Zealand administration there was only one medical officer in the Cook Islands and the most prevalent diseases of this time were TB, dysentery, yaws, filariasis, venereal disease, infections of the skin, eyes and ears, intestinal infections and leprosy.
This may be why Gudgeon was so adamant that the Cook Islanders were a dying race and that within a generation they would be gone.
And this is what contributed also to my Aunty Nooroa dying at the age of seven from these intestinal worms.
Gudgeon felt that money would be better spent in areas other than health and he made no effort to improve the small hospital in Rarotonga. The five-bed hospital, established under the British Protectorate, had opened in Rarotonga on 1 May 1896. It was under-used and lacked doctors and medication to deal with the prevalence of tuberculosis, leprosy and other diseases.
In fact, these diseases would continue to ravage our people until the intervention of Sir Tom Davis and more recently the work of Dr Joe Williams, long after New Zealand had taken colonial control of the Cook Islands and its people in 1915.
Ultimately, up until the transition to free association in 1965, health-care was of little consequence to the New Zealand government administering the Cook Islands. And listening to Williams speak this week at the 21st Health Conference, he started with the reiteration of the dire circumstances he found himself in when he returned to the Cook Islands to start the fight for our health-care and the fight against TB, dysentery, yaws, and filariasis, and to continue the work of Sir Tom Davis.
Davis, in his time as chief medical officer from 1949, reorganised the Cooks' health service, developed a central hospital, tuberculosis hospital, satellite hospitals and dispensaries and fought to offer better health care in the widely scattered islands Pa Enua of the Cook Islands as well as health-care in Rarotonga.
What should be clear is that despite the dismantling of Ariki and Mataiapo structures, Ariki and Mataiapo would continue to influence our communities. Despite the abolition of their judicial and legislative powers by the Cook Islands Act 1915, it would be the persistence of our own people and traditional leaders that would see not only the health of our people improve but also their access to education and to governance and self-rule, albeit in free association with New Zealand.
Ariki and Mataiapo would continue the fight during what can only be described as the “dark ages” of 1915 to 1945, with the fight for the establishment Islands councils, a legislative Assembly, Legislative Council and finally self-government.
As much as Ariki were established with the House of Ariki written into our constitution in 1965 and the Koutu Nui in 1972, one cannot look at our history from 1915 to 1965 and dismiss the critical role our traditional leaders, our Ariki and Mataiapo have played in where we are today.
Be it health, education or governance, their role has been pivotal to where we are today in 2019.