Volume 73 1964 > Volume 73, No. 4 > Social change in Pukapuka, by Jeremy Beckett, p 411 - 430
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The celebrated “winds of change” have blown less keenly in Polynesia than in most other parts of the colonial world, but there can be few spots which have not been subject to some recent political and social development. However, a number of the more remote islands have still barely emerged from the state of stagnation which was so general in the years between the wars. Nowhere in Polynesia can one find an indigenous culture intact, but there are communities which, having made an initial adaptation to European dominance—often as many as four generations ago—continue in what might be called a secondary growth of tradition. Typically, this involves participation in a cash economy, though insufficiently to permit total abandonment of the old subsistence economy; submission to a European government, generally with no more than diffuse opposition; and a strict adherence to mission Christianity.

Pukapuka, one of the Northern Group of the Cook Islands, retains this character and has changed little over the last 35 years. It has been shielded from outside influences by its isolation and its lack of exploitable economic resources, but there has generally been internal resistance to such influences as have penetrated. A communal system of land tenure, a profound suspicion of the New Zealand Administration, and a feeling of being different from other Cook Islanders, have all militated against change. The Pukapukans evince a deep attachment to the institutions of their society, whether stemming from the first or second growth of tradition, yet they should not be dubbed conservative too hastily. Their approach to European culture has been selective, but they are by no means blind to the virtues of its material products. Rather should it be said that their opportunities for change have been few, and that these few have not often proved acceptable.

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The data on which this article is based come from a number of written sources and a short period of field work. Ernest and Pearl Beaglehole spent seven and a half months on the island in 1934-35, presenting their findings in their Ethnology of Pukapuka, several articles, and a popular book. 1 An anthropologist, Peter Vayda, spent a few months there in 1957, but apart from one brief article 2 his findings have yet to be published. My own visit lasted a mere six weeks, running over the months of July-September, 1964, though further information was gathered in the Pukapukan settlement on Rarotonga. 3 Inevitably, there were severe limitations on the amount and quality of new data that could be gathered in so short a time; however, the reader may find it useful to have previously recorded data re-examined from the point of view of social change and in the light of the present-day situation.


Pukapuka is 390 miles east-north-east of Samoa and 715 miles north-west of Rarotonga. Though not completely isolated, it seems to have had no regular contact with other islands before the modern era began, and though known to European seamen from the 18th century it was very rarely visited, having few attractions and a dangerous anchorage. The London Missionary Society did not commence work there until 1857 (34 years after its arrival in Rarotonga and Aitutaki), and the New Zealand Administration was only nominally represented there before 1914. The island has produced copra since the last decades of the 19th century, but in insufficient quantities to merit the visit of a cargo boat more than a few times a year. Now that communications with Samoa have been severed, since all traffic must pass through Rarotonga (the administrative centre of the Cook Islands) isolation has, if anything, been increased. Over the last decade the annual number of visits has averaged a little over four.

The Pukapukans have had limited contact with other Polynesians but almost none with Europeans. Church pastors and Administration representatives have almost invariably been Cook Islanders; a Dutch priest has cared for the Roman Catholic congregation over the last seven years, but before him the only long-term resident was the writer, Robert Frisbie. 4 Poor communications have also limited the Pukapukan's opportunities to visit other places, as can be seen from Table 1. Opportunities have not greatly improved since the war except for adolescents, a number of whom are now sent to school on Rarotonga by the Government. As described later, Pukapukans on Rarotonga tend to avoid close contact with other groups, by whom their dialect cannot be understood. In recent years a number have emigrated to New Zealand, though, so far, few have returned home to retail their experiences.

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        AGE GROUPS      
  20-9 30-9 40-9 50-9 60-9 70+ Total
Total number 73 68 48 52 30 16 287
Number never leaving Pukapuka 35 27 15 16 6 7 106
Number visiting New Zealand 0 2 1 1 1 0 5
Average years of stay (5.2) (5.0) (5.0) (5.0) (4.0)
Number ever visiting Rarotonga 25 37 31 33 21 8 155
Average years of stay (6.4) (3.7) (2.5) (4.7) (4.5) (11.9) (3.3)
Number visiting other Cook Islands 14 14 8 3 9 1 49
Number visiting Samoa, Society Islands, New Guinea 1 1 2 5 4 1 14
  • Notes:
  • 1. This sample includes the greater part of the Pukapukan adult population; the only ones omitted were those for whom adequate information had not been collected.
  • 2. Pukapukans occasionally went to work in Samoa, in the days when regular contact was maintained. Those visiting New Guinea went as missionaries.
  • 3. Visits to Nassau have not been taken into account.

Pukapuka is a low atoll, consisting of three islets within a lagoon which have a total area of 1,250 acres. The 800 inhabitants 5 have their permanent settlement on one islet, Wale, keeping the other two as reserves, to be visited only at certain times. The soil of the atoll, mostly coral sand and rubble, permits a relatively dense vegetation, but few food-bearing plants other than coconut palms. Taro, which together with a few puraka (atoll taro) and banana provides the people with their carbohydrate, can be grown only in excavated pits filled with plant material. Twice in the last 60 years Pukapuka has fallen prey to hurricanes which have ravaged the coconut palms and carried salt water into the taro pits, causing acute food shortages which eased only gradually over several years. Shortage of these food staples, then, is by no means unknown. Fish is normally plentiful, though fishing outside the reef is hazardous during part of each year.

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Pukapuka offers little scope for economic development. Unlike the other atolls of the Northern Group its lagoon seems to be inhospitable to pearl shell, leaving copra as the only marketable product. The small island of Nassau, 40 miles to the south, which the Pukapukans purchased in 1950, likewise lacks any economic potential other than copra. According to one estimate, 6 earnings from this source have ranged from £640 in 1948-49 to almost £9,000 in 1954-55. The market price of copra is notoriously variable, but the tonnage produced has also ranged from a mere 20 tons in 1948-49 to 213 tons in 1956-57. It is not altogether clear what determines these fluctuations: the size of yield obviously sets a ceiling and the frequency of shipping may also have some effect, but there is no apparent correlation between production and price. It is difficult to assess the potential for increased earnings. Copra making is at present only a part-time occupation, but it is uncertain how much more time could be devoted to it without neglect of subsistence economy on which the people are and will remain dependent. Again, more copra could be made if the people would eat fewer nuts, but these play an extremely important part in their diet which could only be replaced by store foods. The increasing population will provide more hands to work but also more mouths to feed. There is little prospect of extending plantations for almost the entire area of Pukapuka and Nassau is already covered with trees. A change from sun- to kiln-drying, which was unsuccessfully attempted some years ago, might effect a slight increase in the price commanded; but even assuming that cash income could be doubled, the Pukapukans would not be able to escape their dependence on the subsistence economy, nor do they envisage any such possibility. The infrequency of cargo boats, the value attached to traditional foods and economic skills, and a strong desire to save money, induce even the few Government employees (teachers, radio operators, and police) to go fishing regularly and their wives to work in the taro pits.

The Pukapukans nevertheless appreciate money and are indeed notorious among other Cook Islanders for their canny ways. Even allowing for the generally low household incomes, spending is extremely modest and the living standards of those few who are better off are not strikingly different from the rest. Everyone needs clothes, and though workaday wear is ragged enough, no one likes to appear badly dressed in church. Many adults smoke habitually. Flour, rice and occasional tinned foods are bought to vary the normal diet or to tide over shortages. Many women have sewing machines for dress-making and most men own carpentering tools. Housing materials are the only major item of expenditure, but even here there are no sharp differences: one sees some old houses built of coral lime, a number of pandanus leaf and wood; others combining local materials with a cement floor or perhaps iron roofing. Only a few are made entirely of imported materials and even these are modest.

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Conspicuous consumption and elaborate prestations were not a marked feature of the indigenous culture. The lineage of the principal ariki did feast the island on rare occasions, but the exchanges between villages of foodstuffs to which they had exclusive access were more important from an economic and social point of view. 7 The villages still exchange food from time to time, though rarely cash or store goods, but exchanges between individuals are generally unimportant. Distributions of as much as £40 to church leaders at funeral apari 8 seem to provide an exception to this rule, though my informants regarded them as abnormal. Church dues, particularly to the majority who adhere to the London Missionary Society (now called the Cook Islands Christian Church—C.I.C.C.), are substantial, but members pay a fixed sum and special funds—for example, the £500 to mark the centenary of the Gospel's arrival 9—are raised on a pro rata basis.

The only major item of investment, the purchase of Nassau, was organized on a community-wide basis. The only individuals to have invested their money are the island's six store-keepers, the most prosperous of whom may have as much as £1,000 in goods on the arrival of a ship, and whose annual income may exceed £300. None of them, however, enjoys any particular standing or influence in the community as a result of his economic position; nor are their living-standards strikingly above the average. Perhaps they, like other Pukapukans, simply hoard their wealth. Although it is impossible to assess the amount of money held on the island, the tales of Chilean silver dollars and gold sovereigns, and the faded worm-eaten notes which periodically appear, leave little doubt that such hoards exist.

But whatever abstract value it holds for Pukapukans, money remains somewhat marginal to their everyday life. A substantial part of their time is taken up with subsistence activities carried on in the traditional manner. Steel fishing hooks and carpentering tools are in general use (though adze-blades are hafted in the old way), but the techniques of fishing and canoe-making, even to the use of sinnet lines and lashings, have scarcely changed.

The Pukapukan system of land tenure has largely escaped the strains to which that of the Southern Cook Islands has been subject. This has been partly due to the lesser importance of cash cropping, but also to the communal control of much of the land. As the Beagleholes have shown, 10 the two uninhabited islets, Motu Ko and Motu Kotawa, together with a section of Wale called Uta, are owned as reserves by three “companies”. Each company is identified with one of the villages, Yato, Ngake or Roto, but while membership and residence normally coincide they need not do so; it is up to the company to decide who shall be admitted, and while multiple membership is inadmissible, occasional transfers are not.

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The village leaders are the executives of the company, decreeing when its reserves shall be opened and how much of its resources—coconuts, taro, crabs, seabirds, or fish—shall be taken. Each year the ariki receive a number of nuts in recognition of their status; otherwise each adult receives an equal share and each child a part-share of whatever there is. The executives are empowered to reduce an adult's share to that of a child as a punitive sanction, though it is but rarely done. It is the duty of adult male members to take turns at guarding the reserves and they have the traditional right to inflict some kind of punishment on trespassers—nowadays a trifling fine.

This system has been adapted to copra-production without suffering any significant modification. Some months before a cargo boat is expected, the village leaders take their people to the reserves for a number of weeks. Having inspected the plantations, they decide how many nuts are to be prepared, assigning an equal number to each member, though if he is old or infirm he may get someone else to do the actual work. The dried copra is brought to the store-house and in due course sold to a trader. The trader usually owns the cargo boat and in the absence of competition is in a position to dictate the price; although each corporation is nominally autonomous and negotiates its own price, the buyer usually gives the same to each. On receipt, the money is then shared out among the members.

Copra production has been organized along these lines as long as anyone can remember. The only modification occurred in the late 1940s when a section of Ngake company decided to sell its copra to the Cook Islands Progressive Association (a political-cum-cooperative movement, based in the Southern Cook Islands), and put up a separate store-house in Yato, which also favoured the C.I.P.A. The movement came to nothing and everyone now sells to the same buyer, but the two sections still retain separate copra houses; however, the Ngake reserve has always remained under unified control.

Copra making does not involve a radical departure from traditional work patterns. People seem to enjoy staying on the reserves for the change and the opportunities to get fish and other food novelties. Each can work at his own pace and there is ample time for other activities and amusements. The number of nuts to be worked is not usually very great, though the more energetic Yato company sets itself a higher target than the other two.

The villages have generally been more important in economic organization than the community as a whole. According to tradition, the few families who survived the great seismic wave, approximately 300 years ago, placed the atoll's resources under unified control but restored the old village divisions once the population began to increase. 11 The nearfamine conditions which followed the hurricane of 1914 similarly resulted in the placing of certain taro pits under unified control and their division equally among the people. 12 This arrangement has persisted and the divisions are revised from time to time to maintain the equality of holdings, just as are those under village control. A more important venture - 417 involving the whole community has been the purchase and exploitation of Nassau which has been organized according to the same principles as apply to the village reserves. 13 Indeed, one might almost regard Nassau as a fourth reserve, inasmuch as anyone going there becomes entitled to an equal share of its products but loses, for the duration of his stay, any share from the company to which he normally belongs. However, there is the important difference that no one is allowed to stay there permanently. In 1964, a number who had remained for several years, establishing taro beds and banana plants, asked to be allowed to stay on indefinitely. A public meeting (held soon after my arrival) almost unanimously insisted on their recall, not because others were waiting to take their place—in fact there were few—but for fear that they would come to regard Nassau as their own.

The village companies, between them, control the greater part of Pukapuka's land, including coconut plantations and taro pits. The remainder of the land is owned according to other, more familiar principles. A system of double descent 14 originally operated in this sector, whereby certain taro beds were inherited through females, but residential sections and land growing coconuts and other trees (including the trees themselves) were normally inherited through males. 15 Matrilineal descent was relatively unimportant, except that Ngake company had no taro pits on Wale so that its members would have been obliged to go to Motu Ko for taro had they not individually had access to pits inherited in this way.

The sub-patrilineages and matrilineages seem to have had some residual right over the holdings of their members. Informants claimed that, to inherit, an heir had to become a member of the testator's sub-lineage if he were not one already and that this was subject to approval by the other members; however, I discovered at least one instance in which heirs had never joined the sub-lineage of the original owner. But whatever the original system may have been, both patrilineal and matrilineal sub-lineages are now virtually defunct and inheritance is decided by the immediate owner. 16

My stay was too brief to permit anything like a thorough investigation of land inheritance, but there appeared to be considerable confusion over what the rules should be. It was said that a pre-war Government Agent attempted to “reform” the traditional system, requiring wills to be put in writing and deposited at his office, and insisting that daughters should receive a share of land which traditionally went only to sons and vice versa. Later Agents have allowed the people to make up their own minds, but there is now considerable uncertainty as to who is and who is not entitled to inherit. Even when a female line has been excluded in a written will, its members may claim to be entitled to a share. Disputes over land often arouse great bitterness and they are said to bring Puka- - 418 pukans closer to violence than any other disputes, but there is no way of settling them. The Resident Agent can sometimes settle petty boundary disputes and cases where one party is patently in the wrong, but more difficult cases have accumulated over forty years, waiting for the Cook Islands Land Court, which has never come. 17

It is hard to tell whether such uncertainties have adversely affected the production of copra from individually-owned trees. At the time of my visit, forty men sold copra on their own account, but the quantities were always small and their total earnings were a mere £300 as against the £1,800 of the three village companies.

Other types of economic activity require little comment, for there has been little change. 18 Fishing, taro cultivation, canoe and house building are normally performed either individually or in small ad hoc groups, generally recruited from among the principal's kin; however, the villages form fishing teams and work bees on special occasions.

The economic change which Pukapuka has undergone since contact has been limited and its social consequences have not been very great. Although isolation and poverty of resources have been partly responsible for this, the communal system of control over a large part of the land must also be taken into account. It has proved adaptable to cash cropping and has even been extended to new holdings. It may be argued that the communal system restricts copra production by holding back the more energetic; however, many if not most may make additional quantities from their own trees if they so wish.

Isolation and lack of commercial importance, together with a thoroughly anomalous tenure system, have also saved Pukapuka from the land “reforms” of the early New Zealand Administration. 19 The traditional modes of inheritance have suffered some disruption, but the communal system has remained intact and attempts to modify it have met with bitter resistance, as will be described in the next section.

The stress upon equality in effort and reward is also apparent in living standards. Thus, although there are differences in income, hoarding tends to conceal them.


The incorporation of Pukapuka, first in a mission-dominated theocracy, later in a secular, colonial-type administrative system, has clearly wrought important changes in the mode of island government, though our knowledge of the indigenous system is very incomplete. The little that can be learned has been reported by the Beagleholes: 20 the chiefs were honoured with relatively elaborate demonstrations of respect, but they did not exercise arbitrary authority, and probably an egalitarian council of elders was the most powerful political group.

Rarotongan missionaries reached Pukapuka in 1857 and seem to have displaced the old religion within a few years. 21 Little else is known - 419 of the early Christian period, but by the end of the century they had established a theocracy on the Rarotongan model, 22 though probably less rigorous. The mission extended its recognition to the chiefs, who in return became its secular arm, trying the thieves, brawlers, fornicators, adulterers and Sabbath breakers brought before them by their constables, and imposing fines, periods of confinement, and other more humiliating punishments such as head shaving and the stocks.

The New Zealand Government left Pukapuka to its own devices during the early years of its administration. 23 Between 1914 and 1925, European Agents were in residence for short periods, but immediately prior to this date, 24 and during the later interregna, local government was left in the charge of a Pukapukan ‘Acting’ Resident Agent. This man, named Ura, had been a constable under the old regime and a deacon of the church; probably these evidences of his standing and vigour, together with his literacy in Rarotongan, recommended him to the Administration. Pukapukans say that the period of his office was marked by a succession of disturbances, as he came into conflict, first with the principal chief (te ariki wolo), and later with the L.M.S. pastor, that is, the two authorities dominant up to 1914.

In 1917 a religious schism appeared, originating, so it is said, with the decision of the L.M.S. to change from Saturday to Sunday worship. This innovation encountered the opposition of a small minority who presently embraced Seventh Day Adventism. Ura, as principal deacon, was the spearhead of L.M.S. resentment, which took on further point through the power of his secular office. For example, it had been the practice for village leaders to subtract church contributions from the copra earnings before distribution; when the Adventists claimed the right to exemption from this levy he refused them. Among the minority was the ariki wolo (together with the brother who followed him during the years 1933-38), who, whether or not he had taken up this position as a challenge to the usurping Ura, now came into open conflict with him. Although Ura's application to the Administration to have the ariki removed from office failed, he was on one occasion fined for trespassing on land he claimed to be his, and on another had his raui (tapu) torn down.

The intervention of a visiting European official eventually established some sort of modus vivendi, but a few years later the L.M.S. split yet again. This time it was Ura who broke away, after a quarrel with the Pukapukan pastor. Disagreements over the design of the new church buildings and over land seem to have been the immediate issues. Beaglehole, visiting the community only a few years after, heard tales of “threats and flashing knives, fist fights and mild brawling, before another official came from Rarotonga and relieved Ura of his civil power and the island of a possible bloody conflict”. 25 The old man then withdrew from the church with his numerous family, all of them being presently received into the Roman Catholic Church. It is worth noting that neither schism - 420 was the work of outside missions; each was initially spontaneous, though subsequently stabilized by affiliation with a recognized denomination. Once established, the churches ceased to function as political units, due, perhaps, to the death of Ura and the advanced age of the ariki and his successor.

Since 1925 the Resident Agent has always been an outsider, though generally Polynesian, and it would appear that the dominant political cleavage has run between him and the people, rather than between sections of the people. The functions of the office are numerous: magistrate, chief of police, director of public works and, in earlier years, school teacher and medical practitioner. Because of isolation, incumbents have been subject to little surveillance from their superiors and thus left to carry out their duties according to their own lights. A subsidiary organ of local government has been the Island Council, consisting of the ariki wolo, who, once his succession has been approved by the Administration sits ex officio, and two councillors for each of the three villages, nominated by the Resident Agent until 1947 and thereafter elected. The precise functions of the Island Council are not very clearly defined. It is apparently intended to deal with the Administration on behalf of the people, but also to co-operate with the Administration in the implementation of some of its policies—for example, those relating to health and hygiene. The Council has been empowered to pass local ordinances, subject to the approval of the Resident Agent, but one suspects that, at least in earlier years, the main initiative in such legislation has rested with the Resident Agent. Discussing the Aitutaki Island Council, Beaglehole questions whether it serves any useful political function; 26 in Pukapuka, however, the councillors play an important role which is not directly connected with the Administration, having become the principal leaders of their respective villages.

The actual enforcement of Cook Island laws and local ordinances is the responsibility of the Agent and his policemen. The Court Books suggest that the Pukapukans are a peaceable folk: there is no mention of homicide or even serious assault, nor of rape; “wandering stock” and “keeping untidy premises” are the most common offences. Young lovers have sometimes found themselves in conflict with authority, for, particularly in earlier years, Resident Agents have sometimes felt it their duty to punish those indulging in extra-marital love affairs. 27 Young men, found in their sweethearts' houses when everyone is asleep, have been punished for trespassing, while the nine o'clock curfew, an ordinance dating from the period of L.M.S. theocracy, has at certain times been enforced to keep young people at home.

The people have no particular objection to the Resident Agent dealing with these matters (though they may not like the way in which he deals with them), and if young people find his occasional interference with their love-making disagreeable, church leaders are bound to support him—at least in principle. However, he encounters stiffer resistance in - 421 other spheres of his work, particularly when innovation is proposed. Attempts to get the people to build latrines were fended off by delaying tactics for years, and even now the people revert to using the beach when living on the reserves. A recent attempt to bring order to the unloading of cargo encountered bitter resistance and entailed interminable debate before it could be effected. The Pukapukans have never failed to charge the Administration a good price for whatever it needed from them, and they have consistently refused to work without pay even in projects which the Administration believed to be for their own benefit—for example, building a house for a medical practitioner. Although the Administration initially succeeded in obtaining land for its buildings—albeit, on the mosquito-ridden side of the island—there is strong resistance to its holding being extended by even a few feet; there were many months of fruitless negotiation before anyone could be persuaded to provide land for th accommodation of public water tanks. Relations between the Resident Agent and the people are frequently strained by such differences, and one senses exasperation on both sides; however, they have only become critical once, when the reserves were threatened.

Most Resident Agents have left control of the reserves to the villages and their leaders, confining themselves to encouraging copra production, making periodic tours of inspection and giving official sanction to the raising and lowering of the raui. However, Pukapukans tell of one Resident Agent in the mid-1940s who not only presumed to enter the reserves at will but challenged the authority of the guards to levy fines on other trespassers. When a constable was sent to impose nine o'clock curfew on Motu Kotawa (at seven o'clock, according to the story), the well of indignation overflowed. Under most Residents the curfew has been applied flexibly where it has not been ignored; the then encumbent, however, had resolved to enforce it strictly, causing inconvenience not only to young lovers but to everyone habituated to late night fishing, gossiping and card playing. 28 Its enforcement on the reserves was evidently intolerable, and the authority of both constable and Resident was openly defied. Further fuel was added to the flames when the Resident opposed the decision of several villages to sell their copra to the C.I.P.A. In the ensuing clash a number of Pukapukans were gaoled, while the people reduced the police to the status of children in village distributions and, in a rare outburst of violence, burned down the house of one and the canoe of another. Soon after, the Resident was replaced by another less severe, and conditions returned to normal.

The position of the police in such situations is a difficult one, and it seems that they have generally aligned themselves with the Government in such a way as to retain their jobs. The councillors, however, even in the days when they were the Resident's nominees, have tended to align themselves with the people, rarely, indeed, taking up any stand without lengthy consultations with their people. The ariki wolo and lesser chiefs, insofar as they have taken up a position at all, have likewise stood with the people, and the same has been true of the C.I.C.C. pastor.

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It seems Pukapuka has been largely free of factions since the days of Ura. The introduction of Council and, later, Legislative Assembly elections, has created the occasion for periodic political competition, but (see Table 2) the number of contestants for office has always been small and in several instances there has been no opposition. There has been a strong tendency to return the sitting member, while unsuccessful candidates do not stand again. One of the present councillors (“A”) has served for 17 years and three (“B”, “G” and “P”) for more than 14 years; another (“Q”) had served for 33 years (i.e. he had first been nominated by the Resident Agent) before being ousted in 1961—probably because of his advanced age. Only one other councillor (“H”) has lost his seat since the 1953 elections: I could elicit no explanation for this.

Village Candidate 1953 Elections 1956 1961
YATO “A” 30* unanimous* 44*
  “B” * 24* unanimous* 18*
  “C” * 16
  “D” 22
  “E” 16
  “F” 11
ROTO: “G” * 47* 32* 38*
  “H” 28* 27* 22
  “I” 26
  “J” 6
  “K” 11
  “L” 6
  “M” 24*
  “N” 18
  “O” 14
NGAKE: “P” * 23* unanimous* 67*
  “Q” * 21* unanimous* 19
  “R” 8
  “S” 6
  “T” 28*
  “U” 21

An asterisk indicates that the candidate was successful; an asterisk to the left of the first column of figures indicates that the candidate held office immediately prior to 1953.

Pukapuka's leaders are scarcely differentiated from one another except in terms of personality. Five of the councillors are aged between 47 and 56; the sixth is 37, which is about the age at which the others were first appointed. Most candidates have belonged to the C.I.C.C. - 423 majority (four of the councillors are deacons), but “H” of Roto, who was twice elected, is a Roman Catholic. None has had any educational distinction—no school teacher has ever stood for office. Two councillors have never left the island, while only one has spent more than a few months on Rarotonga and none has been to New Zealand.

The first election to the Cook Islands Legislative Assembly, in 1958, attracted a different kind of candidate. The successful one had spent 19 years in Rarotonga and five in New Zealand, but had little formal education and no English. The two runners-up had lived most of their lives on Rarotonga, where they were trained as school teachers and gained a fair grasp of English. Both the teachers are Adventists, but the size of their vote indicated substantial support outside their own denomination. Neither they nor anyone else opposed the sitting member in the 1961 elections.

While there is some concern over who should represent Pukapuka in the Legislative Assembly, there it little over what he does when he is there. At each session he has transmitted certain requests from his people to the Government—for example, for more regular shipping—but has contributed little or nothing to the general deliberations. 29 His apparent lack of interest, and sometimes of comprehension, is a reflection of his people's usual attitude to matters not immediately affecting themselves. The poor attendance at meetings at which the Assembly member “reports back” is in striking contrast to meetings of village or island to discuss local matters. Although these matters are generally routine—the time for departure to the reserves, the number of nuts to be made into copra, the organization of a feast or entertainment—the discussions are often long drawn-out, allowing everyone who wishes to express an opinion. This process, though tedious to the outsider, allows the councillors to gauge public opinion.

The councillors vary in the extent to which they attempt to form public opinion, but they all try to avoid taking decisions before they have sounded it out, and rarely, if ever, act in defiance of it. In one recent instance where Ngake village was divided over the Resident Agent's new arrangement for unloading cargo, its councillors declined to take any decision at all. Being governed by public opinion, councillors rarely find themselves on different sides; in any case, since each village elects its councillors and generally reaches decisions independently of the others, no more than two councillors can be in direct competition at any one time. It is in keeping with the traditional rivalry between villages that there should be more political disagreement between them than between sections of any one village; however, the means for direct political competition between villages seem to be lacking. For example, when Yato agreed to build a house for the visiting medical practitioner it earned enmity of Ngake and Roto who had refused to do so, but suffered no retaliation. It might be argued that political rivalry becomes merged with the more general, institutionalized rivalry between villages, and finds expression in non-political forms of competition, such as cricket, dancing, wrestling and - 424 derisory chants, which, according to Beaglehole, reduce the level of aggression in the community “to a socially safe pressure”. 30

The majority C.I.C.C. congregation is also organized along village lines; however, although village rivalry comes through in such things as hymn singing, there seems to be little sign of political conflict, perhaps because the church has changed so little over the last generation and more that its activities have become routine. The pastor and deacons no longer exercise their old dominance over the community, but they have had 40 years in which to work out a modus vivendi with the secular government and they can rest in the assurance that they are well represented on the Council.

The ariki wolo has not played an independent political role since the time of Ura. During the '20s and '30s, and again over the last decade, the incumbent has been so old and infirm as to be almost inactive, though, being a member of the Council he has been associated with its decisions, even when unable to attend its meetings. The present line of ariki, which succeeded in 1938, 31 has belonged to the C.I.C.C., but it has not been able to recover the mana lost in the days of Ura. The lesser chiefs are of little consequence, being overshadowed by the councillors in their villages, while the patri-lines which they once headed are now functionless.

Like the other islands of the Cook Group, the governmental structure of Pukapuka has undergone important changes as a result of its incorporation, first in the L.M.S. theocracy and later in New Zealand's colonial administration. As on the other islands, the establishment of secular government meant the political eclipse of both pastor and ariki, though the fact that it was a Pukapukan, Ura, who was the spearhead of the new order may have added a dimension of personal animus and ambition to the conflict. Incorporation within a wider governmental system meant that Pukapukans could draw upon outside sources of power in their political dealings with one another: thus, in the early days the authority of the ariki was reinforced by the church and later Ura could pursue his ambitions as representative of the Administration. However, subsequent Resident Agents, who have all been outsiders, seem to have been politically isolated. Some councillors may have been more ready to co-operate with the Administration than others, but there has been no emergence of pro- and anti-Administration parties, nor any manipulation of the Administration for political advantage. Councillors have generally given first consideration to their representative functions, sometimes at the expense of their duties as members of the Administration.

The villages have endured as key-groupings in the governmental structure. They have retained certain traditional functions and taken on new ones, notably in the fields of copra production, church organization and local government. The sound economic base of the village group and - 425 the availability of economic sanctions which can be turned against any who break discipline, have done much to ensure its continued success as an organizational and political unit. Attempts to prune village rights and functions have encountered stiff resistance.

Beaglehole notes that, while “there was no institutionalized warfare nor any socially approved method of resorting to physical violence to settle disputes between groups”, Pukapukan tradition does record rare instances in which “blood lusts” for a time ruled the community. 32 There has been nothing so extreme within living memory, yet we have seen that there have been three serious disturbances in the last 50 years, each following innovations or attempted innovations of an unprecedented and radical nature. Short of these crises, however, Pukapuka appears to be lacking in any techniques of political competition stronger than obstruction in its dealings with the Administration, and debate in its internal affairs. This normally low level of political activity may be partly attributed to a deeply ingrained disapproval of any form of quarrelling (even school children do not fight), but partly also to the normal absence of issues which radically threaten the status quo.


Every Pukapukan is attached to one of the three churches and attends its gatherings regularly. The Cook Islands Christian Church holds approximately three-quarters of the population, while the Roman Catholic and Seventh Day Adventists hold the remainder in a ratio of about 2:1. This distribution has not changed appreciably since 1945. Beaglehole claims that the Catholics were never interested in recruiting new followers 33 and today none of the churches attempts to do so; nor have Pukapukans shown any interest in other sects. Children normally take the religion of their parents, transfers occurring only through marriage and adoption. Where parents are of different denominations, the children are divided between the two, according to the same traditional rule whereby parents name the children by turns. However, it is usual for one spouse to embrace the religion of the other, a decision which may encounter some opposition from his or her parents, and which will certainly be opposed by their church, especially if it is the Roman Catholic. In 26 “mixed marriages”, 10 men and 16 women transferred to the church of their spouse, 6 joining the C.I.C.C., 9 the Adventists, and 11 the Catholics; 20 of the “converts” came from the C.I.C.C., 5 from the Catholic and 1 from the Adventists. The greater number of women changing their religion probably reflects the male bias in Pukapukan culture; however, it is apparent that the minority churches lose fewer and gain more through “mixed marriages” than the C.I.C.C.

The strict sabbatarian Christianity which the L.M.S. introduce to the Cook Islands is still preached by the C.I.C.C., but Pukapuka is probably the last place where it is to any degree practised. The sabbath is strictly observed, even to food being cooked before sunrise, and church attendances are near the maximum possible. Total abstinence from - 426 alcohol is the rule at all times and if anyone returns from other places with a taste of it, he will soon find himself before the deacons, threatened with loss of church membership. Adventists maintain a similar sabbatarianism (albeit on a different day) and extend the rule of abstinence to tobacco and certain foods. Roman Catholic conduct has not differed significantly from that of the others, except that over the last seven years their priest has organized Sunday evening games.

The attitude of all three churches to sexual relations outside marriage is totally at variance with the permissiveness traditional among Pukapukans, as among most Polynesians; and on Pukapuka, as elsewhere, it is employed in judging the behaviour of pastors and deacons, rather than of ordinary mortals. Generations of pastors and Resident Agents have failed to stop unlawful love-making or even the singing of traditional chants which treat of sexual matters with un-Christian frankness.

According to the Pukapukan Birth Register, 16.5% of all births were illegitimate over the years 1919-1924; the figures were 21.2% for 1939-44, and 16.0% for 1959-64. The rate must be judged in the light of what is probably a fairly late maturing amongst females 34 and the general prevalence of marriage, usually entered into at a fairly early age. According to the Marriage Register, over the three periods given above the average age of women at first marriage has ranged between 21.3 and 22.6 (that of men has remained at around 24).

All three churches condemn divorce, though only the Roman Catholic is absolute in its refusal to re-marry divorcees, but divorces are granted by the secular authorities, who can also perform civil marriages. Divorce seems to have been fairly common in pre-Christian times 35 and it is not uncommon now. Some idea of the frequency can be gained from the following sample of 50 males and 50 females, all of whom were alive at the time of my visit and had at some time been married, and none of whom were first degree kin to one another. Eleven of the women had been divorced, and fifteen of the men (one twice, another three times). The divorce rate amongst C.I.C.C. members of both sexes was 28% (22/78), slightly above the average for the total sample, 26%. Only two of the twelve Roman Catholics had been divorced.

Sample Total Marriages in Sample Dissolved by Divorce Dissolved by Death Extant
1933 (Beagleholes) 128 18 42 68
1964 (Beckett) 200 35 26 139

It is not easy to establish whether divorce is less or more prevalent than in earlier years. The Beagleholes break down 128 marriages in the - 427 manner set out in Table 3, 36 and I have broken down 200 for the purpose of comparison. The proportion dissolved by the death of one partner is much higher in the earlier sample; however, this may be due to the way in which it was selected, though we are not told the method employed. My own sample was drawn from my genealogies at random, save that at least one of the couple must be alive. The ratio of marriages dissolved by divorce to marriages still extant is very nearly the same in the two samples. Of marriages ending in divorce, 61% (11/18) in the earlier group, and 66% (23/35) in the later were childless. Now, as formerly, adultery is the most commonly offered ground for divorce, but in many instances it has been committed after the couple have separated.

The Pukapukans conform strictly to certain tenets of the Christian code, but deviate from others. Deviation, however, is in the direction of traditional values and practices, not towards those of secularized Rarotonga. As far as the figures can be interpreted, its character and incidence have not changed significantly in 40 years. The three churches may differ slightly in the degree of social pressure brought to bear on their respective members, but none has sought to extend its influence outside the spheres traditionally considered proper to it.


Since the war, and more particularly over the last decade, there has been an increasing movement of Cook Island population, mostly from the Outer Islands to Rarotonga, and from Rarotonga to New Zealand. The social consequences of this have not been studied, but it is generally supposed that they have been considerable, not only for the migrants themselves but for those left at home. At the time of writing there are about 60 Pukapukan adults living in Rarotonga and about 100 in New Zealand, both groups being accompanied by a considerable number of children. But even if one subtracts the 50 or so living on Nassau, the population of Pukapuka is still larger than it has ever been in this century.

Migration to Nassau requires little discussion. It is always temporary, rarely lasting more than one or two years; it involves no contact with non-Pukapukans, and life there is very much like a prolonged stay on one of the reserves.

In Rarotonga, the Pukapukan is confronted with a very different way of life, though his participation in it is generally limited. After the hurricane of 1914 at Pukapuka, the Administration evacuated a number of families to Rarotonga, placing them on a small plot of land in Pue, Avarua, which Vakatini Ariki made available. Most of the refugees returned in due course, but others came to take their place, and though there are few who can be regarded as permanent residents Pue has become known as the Pukapukan settlement on Rarotonga. Career interests and attractive jobs have kept a few Pukapukans in Rarotonga for most of their adult lives, and their children have grown up as Pukapukans by parentage and identification rather than by upbringing. A few others have married into the local population, moving in with their - 428 affines. The transient element has come for secondary education, for medical attention or, in some cases, simply to have a look around. Some seem to come in the hope of obtaining more money, but in this they are generally disappointed. Regular employment is not easily obtained and even in casual work the Pukapukan is at a disadvantage, having a reputation for laziness and awkwardness which may be attributed to his inexperience in plantation work and, indeed, any work routine. Few Pukapukans earn much more than £3 a week, and while this may be a welcome supplement to the income of a Rarotongan who has taro swamps and orange groves, it is meagre to an Outer Islander who has none. Pukapukans in Pue have little opportunity to fish and they would not know how to plant taro under Rarotongan conditions, even if they had the land. Wage earners may have to support sickly and unemployed relatives, and those planning to return home often hide their money so as to be able to buy a few things to take back. Everyone in Pue complains about the lack of food and this is obviously a source of tension among the overlarge domestic units; as several residents said, “whenever you hear an argument it's always about food”. Small wonder, then, that almost all Pue residents regarded their stay on Rarotonga as temporary.

Although Pukapukans are inevitably impressed by their first sight of mountains, motor-cars, aeroplanes, films and well-stocked shops, they are not overly impressed by the Rarotongan way of life. The cinema, much patronized by the younger set on Rarotonga, soon loses its appeal for Pukapukans. Drinking, which is widespread amongst men on Rarotonga, runs counter both to their religious principles and their desire to save money. As at home, they are punctilious in their religious observances, and through the mediation of two long-term residents who also act as village leaders, they are articulated with a number of Rarotongan institutions, but their personal dealings with non-Pukapukans are limited.

More than other Islanders, the Pukapukans are regarded as distinct. This derives in part from their residential concentration, their incomprehensible dialect, their apparent exclusiveness, and what many insist to be a physical distinctiveness. The Pukapukan stereotype is slothful, clumsy and stingy, but pious, peaceable and law-abiding.

Except among the professionals and elite, the Rarotongan social network is defined in terms of kinship, and so excludes all but a very few Pukapukans from casual visiting and entertainments. The failure of all but a few school-boys to participate in sports, due to lack of experience of football and standard cricket, and the rejection of drinking, bar two other possible points of entry into the wider community. In any case Pukapukans do not appear to crave the company of others. Several young people complained that they were criticized if they attempted to associate with outsiders, and it was noticeable that the few outsiders living in Pue were somewhat isolated. Enquiring of a middle-aged woman whether she had made any Rarotongan friends during her stay, I was told that one woman had proposed herself as a friend, but that she did not regard her as such. A young girl who had married a Rarotongan in the vicinity spent most of her time in Pue and often spent the night there, excusing her - 429 conduct with complaints about her in-laws and unpalatable Rarotongan cooking. Other “mixed marriages” fared better, but it is remarkable that they total only 26, including those domiciled on other islands.

The first Pukapukan to settle in New Zealand was a veteran of the 1914-18 war who married a Maori wife there and never returned home. It was not until 1948 that he sponsored the emigration of a relative, but thereafter the usual pattern of chain migration became established, most of the arrivals settling in two districts of Auckland. Only three have so far returned home, but many send back money to their families. Many young Pukapukans express discontent with the lack of economic opportunities at home and a desire to visit New Zealand at least for a few years. Lack of money or transport, or parental obstruction keep back some, but there can be little doubt that many will go in the coming years.

Most Pukapukans manage to get to Rarotonga at some time in their lives (see Table 1), and the experience no doubt increases their sophistication and raises their economic aspirations, though rarely providing them with the means to achieve them. In other respects, however, the impact of Rarotonga is superficial and those returning home, even after a prolonged absence, seem to find no difficulty in fitting in to the quieter and more limited atoll life. The prospect of emigration to New Zealand is more attractive, primarily in material terms, though more disturbing in that ties with home must become more attenuated and the likelihood of return less; so far, however, neither form of migration has had any discernible effect on the Pukapukan social structure.


Pukapukan society has changed under the impact of modern industrial civilization, but most of the major changes were effected long ago and it cannot now be said to be developing in any way. Accustomed to a life that involves few uncertainties and demands little in the way of personal adaptation beyond what is required of everyone in the course of the normal life cycle, Pukapukans probably retain a prejudice against innovation; but they must not be represented as wholly opposed to it because they have opposed particular instances of it. They finally bought the island of Nassau, overcoming their suspicion of the Administration and despite their conviction that it was already theirs by right. They recently allowed the Administration to take over reserve land for a new school, albeit—turning the tables, perhaps—at a price of £200. In Rarotonga, the Pukapukans formed their own youth club, though having little to do with other clubs and refusing to affiliate with the Government's Department of Social Development; and they have almost all joined the new Cook Islands Party, which is currently being canvassed round the home community.

None of these innovations, however, threatens the key institutions of Pukapukan society. If sections of reserve land are reluctantly surrendered (at a price), village control of the reserves remain intact. New land may be acquired, but it is administered in the old way. A new - 430 political party may be accepted, since it displaces nothing else, but a new church is not. Individuals may emigrate to New Zealand, but at home life continues as before.

  • Appendices to the Journal of the New Zealand House of Representatives. “Pacific Islands”, 1903; “Cook and Other Islands”, 1906; 1915. Wellington.
  • BEAGLEHOLE, E., 1937. “Emotional Release in a Polynesian Community.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 32.319-28.
  • — — 1944. Islands of Danger. Wellington, Progressive Publishing Society.
  • — — 1957. Social Change in the South Pacific. London, Allen and Unwin.
  • BEAGLEHOLE, E. and P. BEAGLEHOLE, 1938. The Ethnology of Pukapuka. Honolulu, Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin No. 150.
  • CROCOMBE, R., 1964. Land Tenure in the Cook Islands. Melbourne, Oxford University Press.
  • DAVIS, T. and L. DAVIS, 1955. Doctor to the Islands. London, Michael Joseph.
  • FIRTH, R., 1959. Social Change in Tikopia. London, Allen and Unwin.
  • FRISBIE, R., 1930. The Book of Pukapuka. London, John Murray.
  • GILL, W. W., 1876. Life in the Southern Isles. London, The Religious Tract Society.
  • GOODY, J., 1961. “The Classification of Double Descent Systems.” Current Anthropology, 2:3-12.
  • Proceedings of the Legislative Assembly of the Cook Islands, 1958-64. Rarotonga, Government Printer.
  • THOROGOOD, B., 1960. Not Quite Paradise. London, London Missionary Society.
  • VAYDA, P., 1958. “The Pukapukans on Nassau Island.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 67:256-65.
1   Beaglehole and Beaglehole 1938; Beaglehole 1937, 1944.
2   Vayda 1958.
3   The visit was undertaken as anthropological adviser to the Wellington Hospital Research Unit, which was supported by the Medical Research Council of New Zealand and the World Health Organization. My thanks are due to the Resident Agent of Pukapuka, Mr. Tipuia Tiro, and to Messrs. John Tariau, Pareura Katoa and Rakuraku Eliu for their help, though they are in no way responsible for any opinions expressed in this article.
4   See Frisbie 1930.
5   An informal census taken by the Resident Agent in 1963 estimated that the population of Pukapuka and Nassau was 847. In the official census of 1961 the total was 718 (362 males and 356 females) ; in that of 1945, 660 (330:330). The population has risen steadily since the first census in 1902, when it numbered 505 (House of Representatives: 1906).
6   These tonnages are taken from the Annual Reports of the Department of Island Territories for the appropriate years. No figures are available for the price paid for copra on Pukapuka; the estimate, based on the Rarotonga price, has been made by Mr. John Kolff, research student of the Department of Economics, Victoria University, in a personal communication to the writer.
7   Beaglehole and Beaglehole 1938:90-95.
8   The apari is a longstanding practice among members of the Cook Islands Christian Church, whereby deacons and other church elders visit the bereaved and comfort them with hymns and pious meditations throughout an evening. It is usual to make a small gift of money to the church section of each of the villages represented.
9   Thorogood 1960:74.
10   Beaglehole and Beaglehole 1938:32-40.
11   Beaglehole and Beaglehole 1938:21, 386-387.
12   Beaglehole and Beaglehole 1938:32.
13   Vayda 1958.
14   Goody 1961:12.
15   Beaglehole and Beaglehole 1938:41-44.
16   Firth notes in other parts of Polynesia “the tendency for corporate groups of the larger unilineal type to lose coherence and jurisdiction” under the impact of European contact. (Firth 1959:350.)
17   Crocombe 1964:161.
18   cf. Beaglehole and Beaglehole 1938:48-51.
19   cf. Crocombe 1964.
20   Beaglehole and Beaglehole 1938:233-237.
21   Gill 1876:180-181.
22   Beaglehole 1957.
23   House of Representatives 1903.
24   House of Representatives 1915.
25   Beaglehole 1944:112-113.
26   Beaglehole 1957:207.
27   Davis and Davis 1955:142.
28   Some impression of the tension existing at that time can be gained from Davis and Davis 1955:142.
29   Legislative Assembly 1958-1964.
30   Beaglehole 1937:320.
31   Till 1938 the succession hung in the balance: the reigning line had no male issue, but it remained undecided whether a son of the ariki's sister had prior claim over a more distant patrilineal kinsman (see Beaglehole and Beaglehole 1938:243). In the event it was the former who succeeded and when he died in 1963 his brother, aged about 79 was preferred to his son, aged about 19.
32   Beaglehole 1937:325.
33   Beaglehole 1944:113.
34   According to the 1961 census only 3.5% (5) of Pukapukan women having their first child were under 16 years of age; 43% (61) were under 20.
35   Beaglehole and Beaglehole 1938:297.
36   Beaglehole and Beaglehole 1938:297.