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Remembering Queen Elizabeth II’s historic Cook Islands visit

Saturday 10 September 2022 | Written by Melina Etches | Published in Features

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Remembering Queen Elizabeth II’s historic Cook Islands visit
Queen Elizabeth on her first visit to the Cook Islands in 1974. PC: BILL JOHNSON/22090816

As tributes continue to pour in for Queen Elizabeth II, who passed away on Thursday at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, aged 96, Cook Islands News senior journalist Melina Etches look back at Her Majesty’s first and only visit in her remarkable 70-year reign.

The late Queen Elizabeth II undertook her first royal tour of the Cook Islands between January 28 and 29, 1974 for the opening of Rarotonga’s international airport.

Her Majesty arrived on the British Airways DC-8 accompanied by her daughter Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips and were given a royal welcome when they landed on the tarmac.

During her visit she also knighted the late Albert Henry the first Premier of the Cook Islands who is the first and only person to receive a knighthood in Rarotonga.

Former resident Bill Johnson was the official Cook Islands Government photographer for the royal visit to Rarotonga. The New Zealand National Film Unit and Johnson were the only two photographers permitted access for the private investiture of the knighthood of Albert Royal Henry – a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, K.B.E.

Now living in Australia, Johnson shared his “unforgettable” images of Queen Elizabeth II and memories of her visit.

His first encounter with the Queen was back in 1953 when at the age of nearly nine, Johnson was at Buckingham Palace in London with his parents for the Queen’s Coronation in June that year.

Johnson first lived in Rarotonga when he was six years old from 1950-52 before moving back overseas. He returned to Rarotonga in 1961.

Nearly 20 years later he would actually meet the Queen for the first time photographing her during Her Majesty’s historic visit in 1974.

“Her Majesty was very gracious and had a real air of dignity about her,” recalls Johnson.

“What a couple of days in my life they were. Never in my wildest dreams, would I ever have believed that one day I would be photographing Her Majesty the Queen bestowing a knighthood on a head of government, let alone the Queen talking to my mother.

“She (Queen Elizabeth II) had asked my mother ‘what do you do in Rarotonga?’ My mother had replied, ‘I own a photographic business and that’s my son who’s been photographing you, standing right over there’. Her Majesty, looked over at me and gave me a beautiful big smile,” shares Johnson.

Johnson also remembered Her Majesty asking Geoffrey Henry at the time what he did.

“’I’m the Minister of Finance,’ Geoff had replied, to which the Queen replied ‘we all have our problems, don’t we’ and she laughed.”

During her visit the Cook Islands Medallion Coin commemorating the opening of Rarotonga International Airport by Queen Elizabeth was presented to Her Majesty.

Johnson was also presented one of the 150 special limited edition Medallion Medals in “recognition” for his photographic achievements during the royal visit.

Preparations for Her Majesty’s arrival were held around the island. The Cook Islands National Youth Council and schools combined for the cultural performances at the airport for the royal welcome, the pe’e was led by the late Ota Joseph.

Ngarima George, Tamatea Teretaia and Tumupu also played a part in leading the pe’e.

George didn’t get to meet the Queen on the 1974 visit, but some years later in 1982 he got to meet her in person at the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Australia.

“I was privileged to meet her at the Games. She had such beautiful smooth skin, she was radiant – her smile will take away your heart,” remembers George.

“Her legacy is beyond description.”

Cook Islands art works have been obtained as gifts during Royal visits to the Cook Islands or New Zealand, or on special occasions such as the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on June 2, 1953.

Makea Nui Teremoana Ariki, CBE and her husband Dr Tau Cowan MBE, represented the Cook Islands at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, June 2, 1953, while Flight Sergeant Marama Nicholas represented Cook Islands’ war veterans.

Queen Elizabeth was the United Kingdom’s longest-serving monarch, reigning for 70 years.

In 1965 Queen Elizabeth II became Head of State of the Cook Islands when the country obtained a position of free-association with New Zealand.

The Cook Islands are a constitutional monarchy within the Realm of New Zealand. Under the Cook Islands Constitution, the Sovereign in Right of New Zealand has been Head of State of the Cook Islands since August 4, 1965.

The late Queen’s eldest son and heir, Prince Charles has acceded to the throne as King Charles III.

The King yesterday addressed United Kingdom for the first time as sovereign, expressing his “profound sorrow” as he promised to match his mother’s “life-long service” to the nation.

Speaking from Buckingham Palace, the 73-year-old, the oldest to ever assume the throne, said: “I speak to you today with feelings of profound sorrow. Throughout her life, Her Majesty the Queen, my beloved mother, was an inspiration and example to me and to all my family. We owe her the most heartfelt debt any family could owe to their mother, for her love, affection, guidance, and example.”

Addressing the great change his mother saw throughout her life, King Charles III said: “When the Queen came to the throne, Britain and the world were still coping with the privations and aftermath of the Second World War, and still living by the conventions of earlier times.

“In the course of the last 70 years we have seen our society become one of many cultures and many faiths.

“The institutions of the State have changed in turn. But, through all changes and challenges, our nation and the wider family of Realms - of whose talents, traditions and achievements I am so inexpressibly proud - have prospered and flourished.

“Our values have remained, and must remain, constant. The role and the duties of Monarchy also remain, as does the Sovereign's particular relationship and responsibility towards the Church of England - the Church in which my own faith is so deeply rooted.”

Reflecting on his late mother’s dedication to the throne, King Charles said that he would do the same, saying: “As the Queen herself did with such unswerving devotion, I too now solemnly pledge myself throughout the remaining time God grants me, to uphold the constitutional principles at the heart of our nation.”

“Wherever you may live in the United Kingdom or in the realms and territories across the world and whatever maybe your background and beliefs I shall endeavour to serve you with loyalty, respect and love, as I have throughout my life.”

King Charles then announced that his eldest son and heir apparent, William, would become the new Prince of Wales, with wife Catherine becoming the new Princess of Wales.

Speaking about his youngest son and daughter-in-law Meghan, he said: “I express my love for Prince Harry and Meghan as they continue to build their lives overseas.’

The new king concluded his address with a heart-warming message to his late mother, saying: “And to my darling Mama, as you begin your last great journey to join my dear late Papa, I want simply to say this: thank you. Thank you for your love and devotion to our family and to the family of nations you have served so diligently all these years.

“May ‘flights of Angels sing thee to thy rest’.”


British Airways DC-8 lands Queen Elizabeth II at Rarotonga’s international airport 1974. PC: BILL JOHNSON/22090905


King Charles III holds his first audience with Britain’s Prime Minister Liz Truss at Buckingham Palace. PC: Buckingham Palace/22090924


The Cook Islands’ first Premier Albert Royale Henry and Queen Elizabeth II in 1974. PC: BILL JOHNSON/22090815


First Premier of the Cook Islands Albert Royale Henry and Queen Elizabeth II. PC: BILL JOHNSON/22090920


In 1972 H.R.H. Prince Philip arrived on Her Majesty's Yacht Britannia in Rarotonga. This is one of Bill Johnson’s favourite photos of Prince Phillip. PC: BILL JOHNSON/22090922


Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips accompanied Queen Elizabeth II to Rarotonga. PC: BILL JOHNSON/22090919


L-R: Photographers Rohea Tangaroa, Marie Melvin and Bill Johnson - the Official Cook Islands Government Royal Visit Photographer. PC: BILL JOHNSON/22090921


The late Ota Joseph welcomes Queen Elizabeth II with a traditional pe’e. PC: BILL JOHNSON/22090906


Queen Elizabeth II. SUPPLIED/22090923