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The International Writers Magazine: The Pacific

From our Archives:

The Cook Islands, Raratonga, Tahiti and Aitutaki.
David Russell
Most international flights to the Cook Islands land at Raratonga, the capitol city. If you plan to stay or if it’s only a way station, the most complete example of Island art is at the Cultural Center; a collection of huts each with exhibits and wall writings which tell the Cook Island story.


Each hut does it in its own way. Hut (1) – The History of Raratonga. (2) Maori Herbal Medicine used by arriving sailors. (3) Clothes woven using island plants. (4) Uses of the Coconut, the island’s major cash crop, plus a lesson in how to open one. Every part of the Coconut is used, the outer threads, the husk, the fruit and the milk.  (5) Art Carving and unique Fishing skills. (6) Island Music and Dance featuring a wonderful exhibit of early island instruments and dance costumes.

Most interesting at the Center is the continuing argument of from where the Cook Islander ancestors came. One side theorizes the sailors canoed there from somewhere in Asia. The other, which the Kon Tiki sailors believed, was they sailed in from South America.

But all agree that year’s back, the Island’s prime function served as a canoe stop on the way to New Zealand. It’s been estimated that 3 million people stopped somewhere in the islands, then most sailed on. Those who remained have grown to an island population of about l.8 m.

An Art source from without the center focuses on the coming of the missionaries as pictured by a period artist George Baxter, the prime visual recorder of that period in Raratonga.

TePo This original George Baxter print is of Te Po chief of Rarotonga. It was donated to the Society in 2008 by Ernie Ryder on behalf of his Cook Islands born son, Nicholas (formerly Taereau Tuakanangaro). Spotting a photocopy of the Baxter print on a visit to Rarotonga, he managed to trace the authentic print, purchased it and presented it to the library.

George Baxter (1804-1867) was an English artist and printer who is  credited with the invention of commercially viable color printing. His method involved using a metal plate (to print a black outline, shading and details) and up to twenty different blocks for each of other colors. His work, used for prints and book illustrations, although extremely popular and technically excellent, never became profitable because Baxter was too much of a perfectionist doing work over and over again until he satisfied himself regardless of cost.

His affiliation with the missionary societies began in 1837 when the societies were active and wealthy enough to finance expeditions to all parts of the world. Reports of their exploits were detailed in Baxter’s color prints, since photography had not yet begun.  The prints made heroes of famous missionaries giving them a status afforded film stars today.

During his Missionary Prints Period (1837 to 1847) Baxter produced what are considered to be his finest and most serious works as an artist and color printer. John Williams, the representative of the London Missionary Society who brought Christianity to the Cook Islands in 1821, returned to England to supervise the printing of the New Testament in Rarotongan done by Baxter.

This color picture of Te Po is famous also as the best rendition of a Cook Island tattoo. Based on an original drawing, the pose is a typical one with the clear parts of the tattoo being the turtle motifs on his knees. The Journal of the Polynesian Society says Te Po was chief when the Gospel was introduced into Raratonga.

Tiki and Marquesan Art.

Ancient Marquesans were ardent warriors who practiced cannibalism and emphasized tattooing. Surviving Marquesan culture features stylized designs worked in wood, shell, bone and stone, bark cloth, turtle feathers and human hair, dolphin and whale teeth. On the five archipelagos of French Polynesia, the art of the Marquesans has unquestionably been developed to the highest level of refinement, characterized by the recurrent theme of the tiki, stylized animal figures and intricately interweaving patterns.

Cook Tikis While in the Marquesas one is continually struck by the similarities between Marquesan and Cook Island art. The Cook Island tiki figure closely resembles representations of the human form with flexed legs, hands held to a rounded stomach and a large head set low on the shoulders. However, the eyes of Marquesan tiki are more rounded, almost circular with a nose highlighted by broad nostrils. The eyes, in some cases, are enlarged to cover more than half the face with a wide mouth the other.

Tahiti was our next island stop. There the National Museum proved a fascinating stop for its many visuals painted by Captain Cook’s shipboard artist. In picture and word, the Museum exhibited a history of all the major South Pacific Island chains, showing how they interrelated with artefacts including Ocean Going Canoes. Also, much Folklore telling of Pagan Gods, War Weapons through the centuries and the roles of the early Missionaries is featured.

Having a shipboard artist to record major happenings during a voyage was
traditional aboard sailing vessels. William Hodges was the artist the Admiralty appointed to record discoveries by Cook’s HMS Resolution and Adventure voyages. Hodge worked primarily in drawings, with many later converted to engravings. Most of his full paintings were done in London. The National Maritime Museum displays 26 oils relating to voyages.

Cook's main purpose on the expedition which wound up in the Cook Islands was to locate the much talked-of but unknown Southern Continent and to further expand knowledge of the central Pacific islands, in which Hodges' coastal profiles were important navigational records.

The artist produced several versions of a painting, titled 'Tahiti revisited', depicting the first anchorage at Tahiti. It reveals the beauty and peace of Vaitepiha Bay, underscored by the inclusion of several female figures prominently in the foreground. They are bathing in the river to reinforce the landscape as an image of sensual paradise. The pagan statue, or 'tiki' which presides prominently furthers the illusion.

Hodges attempted to introduce moral purpose and dignity to the landscape by presenting an image of Tahitian society untouched by European contact. This was his personal interpretation of Tahiti, hinting at the heady temptations of the island which both he and the Admiralty wished to play down.

In this land of Gauguin, there is a museum in his name. But when visiting, don’t expect to see much of his work, only two original paintings are shown, with many copies of his work painted by promising local hands. Though they show much good work, we thought them priced about three times their worth; to be purchased only if one wanted a souvenir.

On the way back to our hotel, we visited the Robert Lewis Stevenson lighthouse. Nothing special. Once you’ve seen one light house, you’ve seen most light houses.

In Tahiti’s tourist ship docking area, there is a combination Pearl Shop - Pearl Museum to tempt ship visitors. We looked and saw what we couldn’t afford and junk we could which we didn’t want.

Black Pearls The Tahitian Pearl originates on Tahiti and is known as the natural black pearl, though they may come in shades of blacks and grays with beautiful overtones in reds, greens, and blues. They are also extremely lustrous and known worldwide for their colors and unique shine. Tahitian Pearls come in three main colors: Light Grey, Dark Grey, and Peacock, with many overtones. The light grey is very close to silver, the darker colors are more black and the Peacock which is rarest has green overtones.

A shop called Unique Pearl, carries a variety of affordable jewelry made with Tahitian pearls. There are original necklaces, pendants, and earrings as well as strands in all colors.

From Tahiti, it’s a short flight to Aitutaki, an island with one of the world’s most beautiful lagoons. The TV “Survivor” series shot there.

Aitutaki is the third most visited of the Cook Islands. The capital (main village) is Arutanga on the west side. Mother Nature is the island’s principal artist, painting the island’s gorgeous lagoon an amazing turquoise as well as once seen, never forgotten colors for the uninhabited palm-fringed beaches. Noteworthy is the island’s oldest Church and a strand of gigantic Banyan trees.

Tapuaetai (One Foot Island), a small islet in the lagoon’s South-East, provides visitors with the best lagoon views. One doesn’t normally think of postage stamps as art, but local Aitutaki stamps printed by Heraclio Fournier in Spain are highly prized by collectors. Aitutaki is a client of the Inter-Governmental Philatelic Corporation

Back at our Rarotanga Hotel, we listened to an fascinating lecture on Cook Island history, beginning with tribal migrations which began some 50,000 years ago. We learned how oarsmen from China and other island chains stopped in the Cook Islands on their Eastward migration which eventually reached South American, especially Chile.

Interesting how South American language and words have obvious similarities to those of the islands and South America as do the looks including facial features, skin color, height and color of hair.

From the talk we also learned that early celestial Navigation charts showing star patterns made thousands of years ago and passed up through generations, lay out a clear navigational path generations later back to their original homelands. Interestingly, when boat people did return to the base island of their ancestors, they were welcomed “home” and into the community which many generations back their forbearers left. A fascinating story, especially for us Americans whose heritage traces back only a few hundred years.
© David Russell March 2011

Worth visiting is the Cook Islands Library and Museum Society Ph +682 26468
Opening hours  Mon-Sat 9am to 1pm, Tues evenings 4pm- 7pm
Membership  5-13 yrs- $5 per yr 14-18 yrs-$10 per yr Adults $15 per yr,
Tourists  $25 ($10 back when all borrowed items returned)

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