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The Cook Islands (English Cook Islands, Rarotongan Kūki ‘Āirani; other names: Cook Archipelago, Mangaia Archipelago, Hervey Islands) are an independent island state in “free association with New Zealand” and a group of islands in the southern Pacific Ocean. Their area is 242 km² and they have about 18,600 inhabitants, almost all of whom are Maori Cook Islands. The capital is Avarua on the island of Rarotonga.


The Cook Islands are divided into a southern group with the main island Rarotonga and the islands or groups of islands Aitutaki, Atiu, Mangaia, Manuae, Mauke, Mitiaro, Palmerston and Takutea and a northern group with the islands Manihiki, Nassau, Penrhyn, Pukapuka, Rakahanga and Suwarrow. The northern group is also called Manihiki Islands or Roggeveen Archipelago in older literature. In the Maori language, the northern group Te pa enua tokerau and the southern Te pa enua i raro nei were called. Palmerston was formerly part of the northern group.

The islands of the northern group are predominantly atolls; they are low and difficult to access through coral reefs; the remaining islands are of volcanic origin, over 600 metres high and covered with lush vegetation. Coconut palms, breadfruit trees and Pisang thrive here.


While the Cook Islands were home to around 21,300 people in 1971, the population has been steadily below the 20,000 mark since the end of the 1970s. The last census in 2001 showed a population of about 18,000. While the population living on the Cook Islands has been increasing since then and amounted to an estimated 21,300 inhabitants in 2006, the permanent population continues to decrease significantly. Whereas in 2001 this population share still amounted to around 15,000 inhabitants, in 2006 it was just an estimated 11,800. The population growth of the Cook Islands since the census from 2001 to 2006 can thus be estimated at an average of 3.4%, the permanent population of the Cook Islands decreases annually (as of 2012) by an average of 3.14%. No other independent state has a larger population decline.

According to the WHO, 50.8% of the population has a body mass index above 30 and is therefore considered severely overweight or morbidly obese. The Cook Islands thus have the highest prevalence of obesity in the population of all countries and territories worldwide.


The two official languages of the Cook Islands are English and Cook Islands Maori (also Rarotongan). Other languages are Pukapukan, Penrhyn and Rakahanga-Manihiki.

Ethnicities and Religions

87,7 % of the population are Cook Islands Maori, another 5,8 % are Maori descendants and the remaining 6,5 % are of different origin.

As a result of the work of European missionaries from 1823 onwards, Christianity became the most widespread religion. According to a census, 55 % of the inhabitants of the Protestant Cook Islands Christian Church, 17 % of the Catholic Church, 8 % of the Adventists, 4 % of the Assembly of God/Apostolic Church, 4 % of the Mormons and 2 % of the Jehovah’s Witnesses belong to Christianity.


The Cook Islands were probably discovered and settled in the 9th century by Polynesians from the Society Islands and Samoa.

The first European contact with today’s Cook Islands dates back to 1595, when the Spaniard Alvaro de Mendaña de Neyra landed on the northern island of Pukapuka. In 1606 Spaniards landed on Rakahanga under the Portuguese Pedro Fernández de Quirós. The British did not reach the island of Pukapuka until 1764 and called it Danger Island because they were unable to land.

Between 1773 and 1779 James Cook visited the southern islands of the archipelago several times without ever seeing Rarotonga, the main island. Captain William Bligh landed with the Bounty 1789 on Aitutaki. It was he who brought the breadfruit tree to the Cook Islands. James Cook gave the name Hervey Islands to the first island of Manuae on which he landed. The name Cook Islands for the whole archipelago was given by the German Baltic Admiral Adam Johann von Krusenstern during his round-the-world expedition in honour of the navigator James Cook and appeared for the first time on a Russian nautical chart at the beginning of the 19th century.

In September/October 1813, the first European officials landed on the Cook Islands in the Endeavour. Then, in 1814, the Cumberland came with traders via New Zealand and Australia to look for sandalwood. They did not find any on Rarotonga, so that disputes broke out between the sailors and the islanders. Many were killed, including the captain’s European mistress, Ann Butchers. She was eaten and her bones buried in Muri. She is the only white woman to have been killed and eaten by cannibals.

The islands were “placed under protection” by the United Kingdom in 1888 and annexed in 1900. Since then they have been politically linked in a free association with New Zealand, which is responsible for their foreign and defence policy.


The Cook Islands’ status under international law is of a special nature. The Cook Islands are an independent state in “free association with New Zealand” (see also Niue). This status was chosen by the Cook Islands in an act of self-determination supervised and approved by the United Nations in accordance with Resolution 1514 (XV) of the General Assembly.

The Cook Islands govern themselves. Their legal system is separate and independent from that of New Zealand. Legislative and executive powers are not restricted by New Zealand. However, the Cook Islands do not have their own nationality; the inhabitants of the country are citizens of New Zealand. However, under the Cook Islands Constitution, there is the legal status of “permanent resident”, linked to the birth in the Cook Islands and the status of the parents. The currency is the Cook Islands dollar, which is linked to the New Zealand dollar.

Under a 1973 agreement, New Zealand took over foreign representation and security policy responsibilities through a consultation mechanism. The relationship of association does not preclude the Cook Islands from concluding international agreements. Such agreements have been concluded bilaterally and multilaterally. The association relationship with New Zealand has continued to develop since 1965.

The Cook Islands have been a member of the Pacific Islands Forum since 1971. They are associate members of the Commonwealth of Nations, but they are not members of the United Nations. The Cook Islands are members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS).


The gross domestic product is around 89 million euros. Agriculture in the Cook Islands is predominantly tropical. This is only partly market-oriented. This applies above all to the cultivation of papaya, paprika, melons, bananas and coconut palms. Market-oriented crops are oranges, vegetables (tomatoes, peppers and courgettes) and pineapples. The rest of the agricultural land consists mainly of taro (in wet beds). On Rarotonga also abandoned fields are not rare.

Offshore financial centre

The Cook Islands, whose financial and tax laws were drafted in 1981 with the substantial involvement of US business lawyers, have been subject to increasing criticism for some time, as the country’s importance as a location for offshore finance companies has been growing rapidly in recent years. Several banks located on the islands are accused of specifically soliciting tax evaders without worrying about legal and moral reservations. Since the islands are a sovereign state that has not signed any agreements with other nations, legally or illegally acquired funds invested on the islands are protected from access by third parties; information is also generally not provided. This makes the islands particularly attractive to investors from the USA and Canada, both of whom do not have diplomatic relations with them. This is what the nickname Crook Islands is based on.

On 28 January 2016, the EU Commission presented a package of measures to combat tax evasion, including the appearance of the Cook Islands on the black list of tax havens.