Davis, Pa Tepaeru Ariki (1923–1990)

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Davis, Pa Tepaeru Ariki (1923–1990)

Cook Islands traditional leader and president of the House of Ariki from 1980 until her death. Name variations: Lady Davis. Born in 1923; died in February 1990; married Thomas (Tom) Davis; children: two sons.

Settled by migrants from Tahiti, Samoa, and the Marquesas by the 1200s ce, the Cook Islands are spread over 750,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean between American Samoa to the west and French Polynesia to the east. The inhabitants were influenced by the Maori culture of New Zealand and to this day speak a Maori dialect besides English. The total land mass of 13 inhabited and 2 uninhabited islands consists of 91.5 square miles. The largest of the islands, Rarotonga, is home to about half of the population of less than 19,000. European explorers including Captain James Cook, for whom the islands are named, made infrequent visits before the 1820s when British missionaries introduced Christianity and trade began with New Zealand. Fearful of French designs on the islands, in 1888 Ariki Makea Takau , the "Queen" who dominated political affairs in the town of Avarau on the main island of Rarotonga, petitioned the British government to establish a protectorate over the most important of the Cook Islands.

In 1900, the local Council of Ariki (chiefs) petitioned for annexation to New Zealand, which formally took place on June 11, 1901. Over the next decades, significant improvements took place in health and education. In the mid-1990s, with life expectancy at birth 69.8 years, adult literacy at 99% and per capita GDP $US 3,500+, the Cook Islands quality of life was the highest of any of the states of Polynesia. In August 1965, the Cook Islands became a sovereign self-governing state in free association with New Zealand, the latter nation retaining responsibility for foreign affairs and defense. Cook Islanders were extended New Zealand citizenship, the right of unrestricted immigration to New Zealand, and generous economic assistance.

With the achievement of self-government in 1965, Cook Islanders had to come to grips with the problem of how best to blend their Polynesian traditions with the patterns of the modern world. In the political realm, one of the ways to build a stronger sense of nationhood was to incorporate traditional leadership into a postcolonial imagined community. Thus in 1965, under the political leadership of Albert Henry, local Ariki (paramount chiefs) were accorded a symbolic position as local royalty, while at the same time being excluded from actual political power. At the most general level, the traditional polity of Rarotonga is triadic in structure, comprising three confederations or vaka (literally canoes): Takitumu, Te Au-o-Tonga, and Puaikura (also known as Arorangi). Each "canoe" is composed of a number of genealogically related ngati, cognatic descent groups with rights to areas of land stretching from the mountainous interior of islands down to the sea. The Takiktumu vaka is represented by two Ariki titles, Pa and Kainuku.

Pa Tepaeru Ariki received the title of Pa Ariki at the age of nine. She spent much of her early childhood in New Zealand. Her marriage to Tom Davis (Pa Tuterangi Ariki), later knighted as Sir Thomas Davis, placed Pa Tepaeru in the center of not only Cook Islands but international affairs. Also educated in New Zealand, Tom became a government medical official on Rarotonga but decided to continue his career abroad. The Davises and their two sons sailed to America on a boat Tom had built. After completing his postgraduate studies at Harvard, he did medical research for the U.S. military and the space program. In the early 1970s, the Davis family returned to the Cook Islands. Tom Davis became premier in 1978, serving almost uninterruptedly until 1987. Pa Tepaeru Ariki Davis was elected president of the House of Ariki in 1980.

Although the House of Ariki wielded virtually no substantive power in Cook Islands politics, it nevertheless was accorded a certain amount of respect by most of the citizens of the new nation. The Ariki were seen as living links with the pre-European, pre-Christian past of the islands, a source of distinctive and deeper humanity and a more authentic culture. The links to the past were actively fostered by the Ministry of Cultural Development, which encouraged the performance of investiture ceremonies and educating the public—including interested tourists—of their meaning. It was argued in the 1960s when the House of Ariki was created that the retention of recognition of the "royal heritage" of the Cook Islands would associate their remote and little-known nation with such better known states as Samoa, Tonga, and even Great Britain, each of which was able to retain strong sovereign identities because of monarchical traditions refurbished for the modern world. Ariki, it was argued, were individuals who because of their royal status were able to remain above the mundane concerns of daily politics.

Although theoretically above politics, the House of Ariki never gained the power and prestige of another traditional body some of its members hoped they could emulate, namely the British House of Lords. The Cook Islands House of Ariki, despite the personal popularity of Pa Tepaeru Ariki Davis, never was granted such a constitutional role. Its power was symbolic and served to emphasize cultural traditions. Many of its members were politically active women like Makea Nui Ariki, who was known for her vigorous opposition to the regime of Premier Albert Henry. In March 1983, Fanaura Kingstone became the first woman elected to the Cook Islands Parliament. Pa Tepaeru Ariki Davis, on the other hand, was a quietly conciliatory personality who was much respected by Cook Islanders both at home and in New Zealand, where more than 30,000 lived on a permanent basis. Although the Cook Islands were relatively prosperous because of generous subsidies from the New Zealand treasury to create public-sector jobs, it was unlikely that many of the Cook Islanders who had migrated to New Zealand to seek work would ever return home (by the 1990s nearly 70% of all Cook Islanders lived in New Zealand). Try as they might to retain them, the old cultural patterns no longer seemed appropriate to their urban lifestyles. It was clear that on Rarotonga and the other inhabited Cook Islands the forces of modernity had deeply eroded the traditional values represented by the Ariki and their ancient "canoe" ways of life.

Pa Tepaeru Ariki Davis (Lady Davis) died in February 1990. Her death was marked by two days of official mourning in the Cook Islands, the only such official mourning ever recognized there. Her body lay in state in Auckland, New Zealand, where Sir Graham Latimer, chair of the New Zealand Maori Council, after greeting "the canoes, friends and all the good people gathered here," spoke movingly of his mourning "for you at this time. Go, our mother, join Sir James Henare and all those who have gone before. Sleep well in your eternal rest."


Craig, Robert D. Historical Dictionary of Polynesia. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1993.

Crocombe, Ron, ed. Cook Islands Politics: The Inside Story. Auckland, NZ: Polynesian Press, 1979.

Davis, Thomas R.A.H. Island Boy: An Autobiography. Auckland, NZ: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, 1992.

Denoon, Donald et al., eds. The Cambridge History of the Pacific Islanders. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Hoadley, Steve. The South Pacific Foreign Affairs Handbook. North Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin/New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, 1992.

Phelan, Nancy. Pieces of Heaven: In the South Seas. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1996.

Sissons, Jeffrey. "Royal Backbone and Body Politic: Aristocratic Titles and Cook Island Nationalism since Self-Government," in The Contemporary Pacific: A Journal of Island Affairs. Vol. 6, no. 2. Fall 1994, pp. 371–396.

"Understanding What Living Together Really Means," in New Zealand Herald. February 7, 1990.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Davis, Pa Tepaeru Ariki (1923–1990)

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