What is in a name… Take the case of the Cook Islands. This Polynesian nation is an archipelago of 15 islands stuck between French Polynesia, Niue and American Samoa. It is inhabited by only 12 000 people.
Its name comes from the British explorer James Cook. The official Cook Islands website says it was Russian sailors who popularized the usage of the Cook Islands name in the 1800s, and it stuck. But the name is ill suited. James Cook headed three expeditions in the Pacific in the late 18th century, but he was not the first European to “discover” the islands that now bear his name. That privilege belongs to Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendaña. In fact, James Cook never even saw Rarotonga, the biggest of the Cook Islands. In the archipelago, he only set foot of the tiny, uninhabited Palmerston Atoll… He really has no link to the country at all, except that he was English, and the Cook Islands were once a British colony.
But old names die hard once established. A referendum was organized in 1994 in the Cook Islands, putting a new name to the ballot : Avaiki. This is the name used to designate the islands in their native Maori langage (close to New Zealand’s indigenous Māori language)… Yet the people voted against the change.
A quarter-century later, a new push for change is taking shape, this time led by one of the most preeminent local chief, Pa Marie Ariki. In January, he created a committee, which is already looking at nearly 60 possible new names from public submissions. According to Radio NZ, he hopes to select just one name by April, which will then be passed on to the government for a new referendum. The government, namely Cook Islands Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown, said the committee had his support. “I’m quite happy to look at a traditional name for our country which more reflects the true Polynesian nature of our island nation,” he declared to RNZ.
The same source cited Danny Mataroa, the committee’s chair, being very optimistic : “This is the first time we’ve actually gone this far.” He added that the previous referendum failed because it was based on deliberations from the main island of Rarotonga, but that this time traditional leaders from all 12 of the country’s inhabited islands were involved in the process.
The proposed new name will have to combine a lot of qualities: “names being considered by the committee had to incorporate a number of elements important to Cook Islanders, including Christianity, Māori heritage and national pride. ‘It must also must be easy to say’,” reported RNZ.
Maybe the Cook Islands will change their name, putting away this remnant of their colonial past. But it is never that easy in the Pacific. New Zealand voted against a change of flag, wanting to keep the Union Jack. Wallis and Futuna are still answering to a French Governor (now renamed “Administrateur supérieur”), and the local population refuses to change their status, fearing change in their way of life… And other exemples are legion in our region. Sometimes, old habits are stronger then political ideals…
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(Photo credit: Cook Islands Travel)