1997, Cook Islands
The steep-sided peaks of Rarotonga greet
visitors like the mountains of Never Land with a Peter Pan
promise of innocence and recaptured youth. No wonder Fletcher
Christian's Bounty mutineers called here when searching
for a haven from the British authorities.
Reminders of those days of European discovery
remain, with English names taken from Bounty survivors or
other castaways or deserters from British naval ships. If
you were going to jump ship, you could have done far worse
Of all the South Pacific islands, the Cook
Islands retain a charm and beauty that is difficult to surpass.
Hawaiian-type hotel development threatens to transform the
charm in the name of American-style convenience, but for
the moment, at least, it is still possible to see a way
of life that has changed little since the first visits of
Methodist missionaries in the early 19th century.
The Takamoa Theological College, established
by the London Missionary Society, has two separate memorials
- one for the British Methodist preachers and one for Polynesian
missionaries. The word "martyred" appears alongside
a sprinkling of names, a reminder of the difficulties in
bringing Christianity to these shores.
Once installed, however, the Christian
ethic became ingrained to a far greater degree than might
be encountered in most western countries. Today, the islands
appear to have reached a crossroads - committed to Christianity
but increasingly confronted by secular western society.
People who were once urged to cover their
bodies now encounter western visitors clad in thongs and
bikinis. Airport arrivals is like stepping into a Bob Hope
and Bing Crosby road show as the flight announcer doubles
as a crooner, singing Polynesian melodies while strumming
In nearby Aitutaki, every postcard's image
of a south sea island with stunning azure seas, the people
live at a pace that has not yet been spoiled by the demands
Two companions are given a tour of the
island by the king, an accountant by profession, who places
them regally on oil cans at the rear of a flat back lorry.
The hotel manager is called Stephen Christian,
a descendant of the Bounty mutineer. You can see why William
Bligh would have found it almost impossible to maintain
order among a crew who, because of the need to rear breadfruit
in pots before the plants could be transported, were kept
in Tahiti for six months.
Bligh survived the mutiny and a subsequent
court martial, although his career was blighted with further
mutinies because of his complete lack of management skills.
His survival, however, represented a triumph
for the Protestant work ethic over the lotus-eating mutineers,
some of whom were hunted down to Tahiti and later hanged.
Others, however, escaped to Pitcairn Island, taking with
them a number of Tahitian men and women.
Although the party formed the nucleus of
a community, with many current Pitcairn islanders descended
from Bounty crew members, the mutineers did not live happily
ever after. Five were murdered by Tahitians, another was
killed in a fight, one died of asthma and one went insane
and jumped off a cliff. Only one mutineer, John Adams, lived
into old age.
Maybe you have to have been born in the
South Pacific to adopt the islanders' perspective on the
world. Although the Cook Islanders have embraced Christianity,
they have never bought into the western world view. They
point out that the islands were not discovered by Europeans,
but by migrating Polynesians. The seven canoes which completed
the voyage to New Zealand and claimed it for the Maori people
were assembled in Avana Harbour on Rarotonga. There was
a great tradition of adventure and discovery among the early
But the history books record the British
and French discoveries. Captain James Cook came here during
his voyages of 1773 and 1777, charting all but Rarotonga,
the largest of the islands, which was first visited by Europeans
when the Bounty called there after the mutiny in 1789.
These stories of discovery are told in
Cook Island stamps, prized by philatelists because of their
rarity, now exploited by the Cook Islands government with
continuous new issues which have proved a nice little earner
for the island economy.
The stamp business, however, is nowhere
near as lucrative as the market for sea cucumbers, sold
to the Japanese at NZ$ 75 a kilo. Sea cucumbers aside, it
is the submerged beauty of the coral and its shoals of brightly
coloured fish in the island lagoons that bring in many of
The seabed is home also to exotic shellfish
with names that could have been invented by Lewis Carroll,
such as the Warty Frogshell, the Mutable Conche and the
Hailstorm Prickly Winkle. But their very desirability is
putting their future at risk.
Maybe the mutineers were right to reject
the disciplines of a society bent upon exploitation. The
breadfruit experiment - designed as a cheap crop to feed
plantation slaves - proved a failure when the slaves rejected
It was a fitting end to an ignoble episode
in British history. That the names of the mutineers survive
among islands that have yet to lose their charm is perhaps
memorial enough to the life that they chose.
Christianity, which played so large a part
in their more recent evolution, has lent the Cook Islands
a certain robustness but whether it is strong enough to
preserve one of the few remaining jewels of the south seas
is uncertain. The new discoverers are the holidaymakers
and they bring their own religion - the worship of money
- and their own lifestyles characterised by short attention
The Hawaiian-style developments are on
the way with their boutique shops and pay TV, about as welcome
as breadfruit for those who prize tranquillity. Time is
running out. Where are you now, Fletcher Christian?
© Financial Times