Volume 70 1961 > Volume 70, No. 1 > A note on population movements in the Cook Islands, by R. Gerard Ward, p 1-10
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A plate from Maori Warfare, by A. P. Vayda. No. 2 in the Polynesian Society's Maori Monographs Series.
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In this article Mr. Ward, who has left the Geography Department at Auckland University to take up an appointment at University College, London, analyses the drift of population in the Cook Islands from the outer islands to Rarotonga, and adds some comments on emigration from the Cooks to New Zealand.


IN THE LAST twenty years the rate of internal population movement has increased in many of the island territories of tropical Polynesia. The increasing advantages of urban areas over rural areas in providing opportunities for wage employment, education, and freedom from traditional ties, combine with the excitement of urban life to make the attraction of the urban magnets stronger than ever before. As the material requirements of people increase, remote areas and the resource-poor atolls are unable to provide the means of attaining the higher level of living which islanders desire in addition to supporting their increasing populations. The drift of people from ‘low’ to ‘high’ islands and from small to large islands and from rural to urban areas is a feature common to most island groups.

Only two territories, the Cook Islands and American Samoa, exhibit a further stage in the migration series. These are the only island territories of the Southwest Pacific whose indigenous people have virtually free access to countries outside the island realm. 1 It is notable that these two groups are the only territories of Polynesia whose annual rate of population increase has not exceeded 2 per cent in the post-war years. 2 It appears that in these territories emigration has effectively slowed population increase. 3 This has not necessarily solved the basic - 2 problem of potential overpopulation but it may have postponed the date when the position will become critical.

Migration cannot be considered merely as a simple movement of people from one area to another. As a result of migration the population characteristics of both the source and destination areas change, while labour supply, agriculture and housing conditions are only a few of the other elements which may be affected. Less noticeable but perhaps of even greater importance is the impact on social and economic organisation. The present paper does not attempt to examine all the ramifications of population movement within the Cook Islands. Its purpose is simply to point out how population movement has affected various characteristics of the present-day population of both source and destination areas. 4


Although the rate of population movement appears to have increased in recent years, it was soon after the first European contact that Cook Islanders began to move from one island to another for motives similar to those of their present-day descendants. In the pre-European era when self-sufficiency was a basic feature of island economies, the choice of possible occupations was limited and one island did not provide a significantly greater range of opportunities than any other. Undoubtedly there were occasional interisland population movements. Some may have been caused by population pressure on resources, but in general these movements did not entail a great change in the way of life of those involved. With the advent of whalers and the establishment of missionary and trading beachheads, the differences in opportunities from one island to another were accentuated. Movement to these points of European contact introduced islanders to a money economy, new forms of employment, a new religion and to many new social concepts. Tahiti became an employment magnet for Cook Islanders in the late 1840's. 5 Others joined visiting ships as crew members. Labour recruiters from Peru were active in 1862, particularly amongst the more isolated Northern Cooks. Within the territory itself, Rarotonga soon became the chief centre of attraction. For example, within a year of the beginning of 1872, 150 young men had left Mangaia for Rarotonga. 6 By 1895, 18 per cent of the Rarotongan population had been born on one of the other Cook Islands. 7 The corresponding figure for 1956 was 29.2 per cent. As these figures exclude the Rarotongan-born children of immigrants they underestimate the real impact of immigration.

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Unfortunately, no data are available showing the exact numbers who leave the outer islands each year and move to Rarotonga. Table 1 shows the 1951 and 1956 populations of the major islands, the percentage increase over that period, and the indigenous percentage of the total 1956 population. Column D of Table 2 gives the percentage of each island's population who were born on that island. As the standard of medical care available varies from island to island there are probably differences in the birth and death rates between islands. If there were no migration, there would still be different rates of growth. The very marked differences shown in Table 1, however, cannot be wholly explained in these terms. Column 3 of Table 1 clearly shows the impact of immigration on the population of Rarotonga and emigration on Atiu, Mauke, Mitiaro and Mangaia and the “Total Northern Cooks”. Interisland movements between the various atolls of the Northern Cooks and the small totals involved tend to obscure the pattern of individual islands.

Island Total Population   Intercensal Increase % Indigenous (Cook Islanders and Part Cook Islanders)
  1951 8 1956 (%)  
Rarotonga 6,136 7,212 17.5 95.2
Aitutaki 2,396 2,565 7.1 98.4
Mangaia 1,893 1,970 4.1 99.2
Atiu 1,310 1,307 —0.2 9 99.9
Mauke 872 815 —6.5† 98.2
Mitiaro 317 275 —13.3† 100.0
Manuae 20 32 60.0 93.8
Pukapuka and Nassau 683 748 9.5 99.5
Manihiki 816 661 —19.2† 99.6
Rakahanga 261 341 30.7 98.5
Penrhyn 527 619 17.5 99.4
Palmerston 87 77 —11.5† 100.0
Suwarrow 10 58 98.3
Total Northern Cooks 2,374 2,504 5.5 99.3
Total Cook Islands 15,318 16,680 8.9 97.4

It is, of course, very difficult to assess quantitatively the “difference in opportunity,” and hence the attraction of one island against another. Some rough indication is given in Table 2 where column A shows the percentage of adult males (over 15 years of age) who are gainfully employed in other than the “primary production” or “public adminis- - 4 tration and professional” groups. 11 In Rarotonga, there is much greater chance of obtaining wage employment than on any other island. Opportunities for cash cropping in the Cooks are limited both by the number of shipping calls per year (column B) and the availability of land of good quality. The atolls of the Northern Cooks obviously suffer on both these counts. Finally the value of exports per head of population for the year 1956-57 (column C) reflects the fact that Rarotonga is much more favourably placed for exporting agricultural produce than the other southern islands of the group. If the invisible exports, in the form of grants from and salaries paid by the New Zealand Government, income from tourists, and remittances from relatives in New Zealand could be added to the exports per head, the Rarotonga figure would be much higher. These figures make no allowance for interisland transport costs which considerably reduce the real income of the Northern Cook Islands. Furthermore, the northern group receive relatively little money from any other source. The low ranking of Atiu, Mauke, and Mitiaro in columns A and C is reflected in the fact that these are islands which showed population decline between 1951 and 1956 (Table 1).

  A B C D
Rarotonga 15.3 20 12 26.7 63.9
Aitutaki 8.9 39 18.8 81.8
Mangaia 7.0 8 11.4 88.3
Atiu 4.7 15 5.6 85.2
Mauke 7.9 12 2.9 83.0
Mitiaro 3.0 6 0.7 89.5
Pukapuka and Nassau 2.3 1 17.3 88.4
Manihiki 8.5 11 29.5 64.1
Rakahanga 8.1 13 4 44.4 72.4
Penrhyn 8.1 5 42.3 80.8
Total Northern Cooks 6.6 33.1
  • A—Percentage of adult males (15 years and over) gainfully employed who are in occupations other than in “primary production” and “public administration and professional” groups.
  • B—Number of shipping calls per year.
  • C—Approximate value of exports per head, 1956. (Based on figures in Annual Report, 1957, and unpublished trade statistics.
  • D—Locally born percentage of population of each island.
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Column D in Table 2 gives the percentage of the 1956 population of each island which was locally born. Less than two-thirds of the residents of Rarotonga are locally born, the rest being immigrants. If Europeans are excluded from the figures, 67.2 per cent of the Rarotonga residents are of local origin. The figures for the remaining islands are relatively even except for Manihiki where 71 people from Rarotonga and 26 from Aitutaki were residents in 1956. These figures are much higher than for any of the other islands of the northern group. This concentration may have been related to the fact that up to (and including) 1955, Manihiki was the major producer of mother-of-pearl shell and hence the people had a relatively high income per head.

Within Rarotonga nearly 70 per cent of the ‘Other Cook Islanders’ are resident in Avarua. 14 Similarly 69 per cent of the “foreign-born” people are residents of Avarua. No less than 36.3 per cent of Avarua's population are immigrants from the other Cook Islands whilst 8.4 per cent are “foreign-born” (including New Zealanders). In no other census division are the comparable figures higher than 27.7 and 7.3 per cent. 15 This is to be expected as Avarua rather than the rural areas of Rarotonga is the employment centre. Table 3 shows the percentage of gainfully employed adults in each employment group (other than “Primary Production”) in Rarotonga who are resident in Avarua. No other district offers anywhere near the same chance of wage employment. In all districts except Avarua, at least 84 per cent of gainfully employed adult males are in the “Primary Production” group. The figure for Avarua is only 62.5 per cent.

Employment Group % of Adult Rarotongan Residents Living in Avarua
Industrial 90.4
Transport and Communications 90.5
Commerce and Finance 77.0
Public Administration and Professional 73.2
Domestic and Personal Service 80.4

Although the actual figures for internal migration are not available, the above tables and other figures give some indirect indication of the direction and volume of the movement in recent years.

District No. of Persons 1956 % Rarotongan Born % Other Cook Islanders % Foreign Born
Avarua 4,088 55.4 36.3 8.4
Matavera 410 79.8 18.2 2.0
Ngatangiia 335 82.0 10.7 7.3
Muri 241 76.4 17.4 6.2
Titikaveka 802 67.5 27.6 4.9
Arorangi 1,316 75.5 19.6 4.9
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Migration is a selective process. Rarely, unless so planned, do migrant groups provide a representative cross-section of the community from which they come. There is usually a predominance of one or other sex; of people of the younger working age groups and in some cases of people with better educational, technical or other qualifications. The age structures shown in Figure 1 illustrate some of these points.

The pyramid for Total Resident Cook Islanders is a fairly normal one representing a young population (half are under 17 years of age) with a high growth potential. Compared with this “normal” pyramid, that for Rarotonga shows a surplus of males in the 15-24 year bracket and a deficiency of children under 9 years of age. There is also a surplus of males over females in the brackets 15-34. This is particularly marked in the group 15-24 where there are 57 males per 100 total population. These features are typical of areas of in-migration. The reverse is illustrated by the pyramid for Pukapuka and Nassau 16 which shows a marked deficiency of males in the 10-29 group, a surplus of females between 15 and 29 and an unusually high proportion of elderly people. With a total population of only 748 (1956) the age pyramid of Pukapuka and Nassau is likely to be affected by chance variations. The age pyramid for the Total Northern Cooks, however, represents over 2,000 people and is therefore more reliable. It shows the same basic features as does that for Pukapuka and Nassau. In the southern group, Mauke and Mitiaro both experienced a fall in population between 1951 and 1956 and their age pyramid strongly reflects this emigration.

Figure 2, presents the same material in a different graphic form. 17 The high proportion of people of young working age in Rarotonga is clearly shown and the corresponding deficiencies in other islands are equally clear. The variations in the graphs from one age group to the next may be partially explained by people's uncertainty of their exact age, by grouping of ages around favourite numbers and by distortion due to the vagaries of chance survivals amongst relatively small groups of people.

The consequences for areas with such unbalanced age structures as those islands with net outward migration (Fig. 1) could be serious. For example, in the case of Pukapuka and Nassau the large proportion of very old and very young means an increased burden on the able-bodied persons. As the non-productive group increases proportionately due to the emigration of those of working age the economic health of the community suffers. Unless emigration of young people is stemmed, the wide base to the pyramid cannot be regarded as a sign that a workforce

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will be available in the future or as a sign of future population growth. The place where the growth will take place will be Rarotonga, not Pukapuka.

The surplus of young folk in Rarotonga could also create problems. Many of these people are migrants from other islands who, by moving, are divorced from the controls of their home community. Even in Rarotonga the opportunities for regular wage employment are limited and the formation of a group of urban unemployed is most undesirable. Furthermore, as Beaglehole has pointed out, “since the outer islanders migrating to Rarotonga become landless wage-earners their standard of living is dependent on seasonal and other work, their diet largely dependent on imported European foods. For these reasons, the resident migrant constitutes at least a nutritional problem, and in some instances a social problem as well.” 18


As mentioned above, Cook Islanders have relatively easy access to New Zealand. Until the end of the Second World War, relatively few had taken the opportunity of moving. In 1936 there were only 103 Cook Islanders in New Zealand. The figures (including part Cook Islanders) for later censuses were 354 in 1945, and 2,320 in 1956. 19 Of the 1956 figure, 31 per cent were born in New Zealand. The remaining 1,600 represent actual migrants from the islands. The age structure of these migrants is shown in Figure 1. The dominance of people of working age is very obvious. Most of those who leave the Cook Islands come directly from Rarotonga, even if indirectly from other islands. To some degree this balances the immigration to Rarotonga from the outer islands. In recent years the annual influx of Cook Islanders into New Zealand has been between 260 and 350. 20

Uncontrolled or excessive emigration could create serious problems in the Cook Islands. Already some difficulties have arisen and have led to a tightening of the system of granting exit permits. It is common for those persons with most initiative and education to be the ones most anxious to go to New Zealand. Within the government service “the turnover of skilled local officers is high and many of them leave to seek the high wages paid for skilled and semi-skilled labour in New Zealand.” 21

For a territory where skill and training are at a premium, and where so much must be done to increase economic production and the level of living, the draining away of skill is serious. Undoubtedly over- - 10 population is likely to be a problem within one or two decades but without trained personnel there is little hope of a solution. Emigration may delay the day of reckoning but the loss of precisely the people who might be able to help most is a very short term gain. In the modern world no territory can afford to remain a “coconut economy” but without education a country cannot help but do so. The Cook Islands' relatively meagre resources will have to be used to the full and this implies skilful and scientific farming of a sort which can only be achieved through training and practical education.

Population growth and movement within the Cook Islands will be vital factors in the future economic condition of the various islands. Resources cannot be used without an adequate labour force but unemployment may result from unchecked migration to one island. With continued population movement to the urban area the contrasts between under-populated and over-populated islands will increase. Emigration to New Zealand may postpone the time when the situation becomes really serious but unless the emigration of the skilled minority is stemmed or the whole educational and economic levels are raised considerably, the Cook Islands will face increasing difficulties.

  • Population Census of the Cook Islands, 1956. Typescript. Department of Island Territories, Wellington.
  • BEAGLEHOLE, E., 1957. Social Change in the South Pacific. London, George Allen & Unwin.
  • DEPT. OF ISLAND TERRITORIES, 1960. Annual Report for 1960. (A-5) Wellington.
  • — —various dates. Reports on the Cook, Niue and Tokelau Islands. Wellington.
  • DEPT. OF STATISTICS, 1936, 1945, 1951 and 1956. New Zealand Population Census. Wellington.
  • FRANKLIN, S. H., 1958. “The Age Structure of New Zealand's North Island Communities.” Economic Geography, 34:64-79.
  • MCARTHUR, Norma, n.d., (1957?). The Population of the Pacific Islands, Part II: Cook Islands and Niue. Cyclostyled. Australian National University, Canberra.
  • WARD, R. Gerard, & MORAN, W., 1959. “Recent Population Trends in the South-West Pacific.” Tijdschrift voor Economische on Sociale Geografie, 50:235-240.
1   American Samoans, being United States nationals, are free to enter the United States. In recent years the number of Cook Islanders migrating to New Zealand has been “restricted only by the difficulty of obtaining passages”. Although Cook Islanders “may enter New Zealand without restriction . . . persons wishing to leave the territories require the permission of the Resident Commissioner before they may depart. During the last year [1959] more stringent rules regarding health, fitness to work, finance and accommodation have been introduced to govern the issue of exit permits”. Ann. Report (A5) 1960:17.
2   Ward and Moran 1959:295.
3   If the number of persons who left the Cook Islands and American Samoa between 1951 and 1956 were added to the 1956 resident populations, the rates of increase would both have been about 2.5 per cent per annum instead of 1.5 and 1.0 per cent respectively. The 1960 census of American Samoa revealed a drop of 69 in the total population which seems to indicate that between 1956 and 1960 emigration exceeded natural increase.
4   The author would like to thank the Department of Island Territories, Wellington, for assistance in obtaining and permission to use unpublished statistics from the 1956 census of the Cook Islands. Unless otherwise stated, all 1956 population figures are from this source.
5   McArthur 1957:84 and 86. In this valuable work McArthur has gathered together most of the available data on population numbers and movements during the nineteenth century.
6   McArthur 1957:85.
7   Beaglehole 1957:138.
8   These figures include 239 labourers working at Makatea in September 1951, distributed as follows: Rarotonga 88; Mangaia 63; Atiu 40; Mauke 36; Mitiaro 12. Based on 1951 and 1956 Census figures.
9   Decrease.
10   Not inhabited at time of 1951 census.
11   Those employed in the “public administration and professional” group are omitted as most of the occupations in this group are not open to persons without specialised training, i.e. they are generally not open to local people except on Rarotonga where the training may be obtained on the home island.
12   The Rarotonga figure includes only overseas vessels handling cargo. It does not include calls by the interisland vessels bringing in goods (for ultimate export) from outer islands and which make up the figures for the other islands.
13   Includes one anthropologist.
14   “Avarua” is taken as including the census divisions of Maraerenga Tupapa, Pue Matavera, Takuvaine, Tutakimoa Ruatonga, Avatiu, and Atupa Pokoinu. The 75 persons on board the M.V. Charlotte Donald are also included in the Avarua total.
15   The figures for all Rarotongan districts are as follows:—
16   The island of Nassau was bought by the people of Pukapuka in 1945 and since then has been occupied by varying numbers of Pukapukans.
17   Franklin 1958 used this form of representation to represent New Zealand age structures. He explains the technique by stating that “the 100 line represents the national age structure [in the present case, Cook Island residents], where the curve for the particular community lies above the line it means that there is a relative excess of population for those age groups. Where it lies below the 100 line it means there is a relative deficit for those age groups.” Franklin 1958:71.
18   Beaglehole 1957:139.
19   [N.Z.] Population Censuses 1936; 1945; 1951; 1956.
20   In September 1960 the New Zealand Government's new vessel Moana Roa entered service between Rarotonga and New Zealand and the Matson Company's liners also began to call at Rarotonga. “In that month alone 109 Cook Islanders left for New Zealand. This is about six times the usual monthly average.” R. G. C. Crocombe, The Pattern of Development in New Zealand's Pacific Territories, Cyclostyled, Canberra, December, 1960, pp. 10-11.
21   Cook Islands Annual Report 1960:15.