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Made up of fifteen islands and two reefs in the South Pacific Ocean, the largest of which are Rarotonga, Mangaia, Atiu, and Mitiaro, the Cook Islands are a self-governing country in free association with New Zealand, which provides for its defense. Cook Island nationals are citizens of New Zealand and, although the Cook Islands are autonomous, New Zealand picks up many of the bills. New Zealand built its airport, hospitals, and has assumed most of the responsibility for the maintenance of its roads. Not all New Zealanders are happy with the arrangement because, while Cook Islanders can purchase land in New Zealand and enjoy all the rights of citizenship, New Zealanders are not permitted to buy land on the Cook Islands.

The Cook Islands are northeast of New Zealand, and between, and just south of, American Samoa and French Polynesia. Its smaller islands include Aitutaki, Mauke, Penrhyn, Manuae, Manihiki, Rakahanga, Palmerston, Pukapuka, Nassau, Takutea, and Suwarrow. Manuae and Takutea are uninhabited, and the two reefs - Tema Reef and Winslow Reef - are submerged. Rarotonga, its most populated island, has a population of just over ten thousand, while Suwarrow had a population of two at the time of the 2011 census. Manuae, with an area of about six kilometers, is an uninhabited marine park and breeding ground for seabirds and marine turtles.

The islands were named for Captain John Cook, who seems to have been everywhere in the Pacific. The Cook Islands are not well known as tourist destinations. There are no buildings higher than a palm tree, even in Avarua, its capital city. There are no traffic lights. The islands are lacking in significant natural resources, and they are somewhat isolated from foreign markets. Manufacturing is limited and, although the country is trying to expand agriculture on the islands and fishing plays a role, about seventy percent of its economy is based on tourism. The Cook Islands are not a major tourist destination because its infrastructure is inadequate in some ways and the islands are prone to natural disasters.

The Cook Islands have no poisonous insects or reptiles, and there has not been a problem with malaria on the islands. Two species of non-indigenous rats have greatly reduced the bird population on the islands, but efforts are in progress to reintroduce some species of its native birds.

Cook Island Māori and Engish are the official languages of the country, although several Māori dialects are spoken. The people of the Cook Islands are ethnic Polynesians. Although Captain Cook is credited for having discovered some of the Cook Islands, of course, there were people living there long before he came along, and it was actually the mutineers from the HMS Bounty who were the first known Europeans on the Cook Islands, as they landed on Rarotonga in 1789.

As they did on Samoa, the London Missionary Society arrived in the early 1800s and changed the religious demography of the islands. Prior to their arrival, Cook Islanders engaged in the traditional animistic worship of tribal gods and idols. The Missionary Society sent two missionaries to Aitutaki in 1821, and others soon followed to Mitiaro, Mangaia, Atiu, and Rarotonga. Today, the dominant religion in the Cook Islands is Christianity, largely Congregational, although the Roman Catholics have made progress as well.

With strong ties to New Zealand, the islands became a British protectorate in 1888 and, in 1948 the country was made a New Zealand dependent territory and remained such until 1965 when the country became self-governing. In 1980, the United States signed a treaty with the Cook Islands specifying the maritime boundaries between American Samoa and the Cook Islands and relinquishing its claims to four of the Cook Islands. France signed a similar treaty in 1990 that specified the borders between French Polynesia and the Cook Islands.



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