Auckland and Wellington
Early arrivals from the Cook Islands went to Auckland and Wellington, mainly taking up manual work. Several hundred also worked on farms in Hawke’s Bay. They earned a reputation as reliable, hard workers. Some firms employed gangs of Cook Islands workers and even paid fares for prospective workers. By the mid-1960s some Cook Islanders had already begun moving to the suburbs of Ōtara and Ōtāhuhu, nearer the factory jobs.
By 1965 most migrants were coming from the five main southern islands in the Cooks. Aitutakians and Mangaians dispersed further through the North Island than Rarotongans, who tended to settle in Auckland. Mangaians ventured as far south as Bluff, where they laboured in freezing works and at the Tīwai Point aluminium smelter.
In Auckland, most migrants settled in Ponsonby and other inner-city areas. By 1970 there were some 240 Cook Islands dwellings within a 3-km radius of the Auckland Town Hall. At the time, this area consisted largely of run-down rental houses, many with no hot water or inside toilets.
In Wellington, cheaper state housing available in Porirua triggered migration from inner-city suburbs such as Newtown.
Napier, Hastings, Tokoroa, Murupara and Whakatāne were also popular destinations, as they offered work in fruit and vegetable canning factories and timber mills.
The oputangata, or extended family, is very important to Cook Islanders. In the early days many households regularly sent money home. In return, relatives would send over Rarotonga’s green bananas, taro, kūmara, coconuts and mangoes, which formed the mainstay of the immigrants’ diet. In the 2000s the traditional custom of sharing surplus food was still practised, mainly by the older generation.
Early arrivals acknowledged their heritage in any way they could. In Freemans Bay in Auckland, Mama Aere planted banana, sugar cane, gardenias and gerberas – plants recalling Rarotonga, which she had left in 1946. Island affiliations were also maintained through enua associations, for people who had come from the same village, district or island. In Auckland the Atiu, Pukapuka and Manihiki communities all had their own meeting halls. There were also Cook Islands halls in Māngere and at Cannons Creek, Porirua.
In the 2000s more Cook Islanders lived in Auckland than anywhere else, and occasionally their outriggers could be seen cutting the waters of Manukau Harbour.
The London Missionary Society introduced Christianity to the Cooks in the early 1800s. In the 1940s and 1950s most New Zealand Cook Islanders joined the Pacific Islanders’ Congregational Church. People looked to their churches for welfare and guidance. Ministers such as Tariu Teaia of Auckland’s Beresford Street Church were father figures who helped their people settle. In the late 1960s church services, held in Rarotongan, typically attracted 100–150 people. Afterwards they would spill onto the streets swapping news from home, revelling in the chance to speak their own tongue.
In the 1970s the Cook Islands Christian Church was formed from the London Missionary Society on the islands. Many joined when branches opened in New Zealand. By the 2000s most Cook Islands church services were in English, although five denominations still held services in Cook Islands Māori.