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Rod Dixon: We’ve been here before

Tuesday 12 May 2020 | Written by Legacy Author | Published in Letters to the Editor


Dear editor, This isn’t the first time Cook Islands has locked down against a virus.

In less than 70 years, influenza, measles, smallpox, typhus and other pathogens reduced the Rarotongan population from an estimated 7,000 to just 1,500.

During one epidemic in Rarotonga in 1830, the missionary Maretu reported “one thousand people were buried at Rangititi and six hundred were buried at Araungaunga.” The demographer Norma McArthur estimates that between 20 to 25 per cent of the Rarotonga population perished in this outbreak alone.

This was followed by an epidemic of influenza in 1837 during which the missionary Buzacott reported: “We had no idea of the disease being contagious, but it spread on every side like a plague, until it had compassed the whole island. The mortality went on increasing, until deaths amounted to 500 annually … This state of things continued many years.”

The Rarotongan population of 6-7000, prior to 1830, was reduced to 4,500 by the end of the decade.

The 1840s and 1850s saw epidemics of influenza, whooping cough, mumps and influenza again. By the end of the century, the Rarotongan-born population stood at just 1,500.

Foreign ships were considered the main vehicle for disease transmission, and the islands, including Rarotonga, responded by putting in place measures to limit contact between ships and local communities.

The most significant was the creation of a central Market House as the single point of interaction with foreign shipping.

Contact was limited to the ship’s captain or chandler and a single seller representing local producers. All prices were fixed and the profits distributed among sellers.

This system continued for more than 50 years until Market Houses were closed by the British to permit open trading by European trade stores. With prices no longer fixed, traders maximised their profits with often artificially high prices.

Cook Islanders responded with great entrepreneurial flair – setting up their own trading companies, generally co-operatives, which built, bought or leased their own ships to eliminate the European middle men.

Co-operative “tea shops” doubled as importers/exporters and flourished. On the outer islands, canoe-men combined into unions to match each price rise in the trade stores with a hike in lighterage fees.

Puna leaders declared a ra‘ui on coffee, copra, oranges and more, until trade stores were willing to meet their asking price. Families organised themselves into “dress clubs” pooling their money and sending it to Auckland for a bale of clothing, thereby avoiding trade store prices. Collective enterprise flourished.

The recent emergence of puna organisations provides hope for another outburst of community enterprise if, as seems likely, the lock-down on borders continues for some time.

Rod Dixon
Aremauku, Mangaia