The Cook Islands is searching for a new and less colonial name, ahead of a potential referendum on the issue in the former British possession.
A committee tasked with finding a new name was given government approval Tuesday, according to Radio NZ. The move follows calls by indigenous activists to drop the colonial moniker – which remembers Captain James Cook, who visited the islands in the 1770s – in favor of a name in the Maori tongue.
The current Maori name, Kūki ‘Āirani, is a transliteration of the English nomenclature rather than an indigenous term.
“I’m quite happy to look at a traditional name for our country which more reflects the true Polynesian nature of our island nation,” Cook Islands Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown told Radio NZ.
The committee was convened by paramount chief Pa Marie Ariki in January, but only just received government support. The chief pointed to New Zealand, which also goes by the official Maori name of Aotearoa, as a potential model for the Cook Islands.
Around 60 possible names have been submitted by members of the public. The committee will whittle the list down to one by April, which will then be passed to the government for a potential referendum.
A similar push in the 1990s fell short, with the majority of voters choosing to keep the country’s colonial name rather than choose a new one.
“This is the first time we’ve actually gone this far,” said Danny Mataroa, chair of the new name committee, adding that any chosen moniker must be “easy to say.”
The Cook Islands was a British protectorate until 1901, when it was absorbed into the colony of New Zealand. It became self-governing in 1966 in “free association” with New Zealand, sharing a currency and some foreign and defense responsibilities. Cook Islanders are also New Zealand citizens and more than 60,000 of them live in that country.
A spokeswoman for New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade told CNN “this is a matter for the Cook Islands to determine and we look forward to hearing the outcome of their deliberations.”
The Cook Islands Ministry of Foreign Affairs also did not respond to a request for comment.
James Cook, the preeminent British explorer of the Pacific in the eighteenth century, has connections with many of the UK’s former territories in the region.
However, his legacy, and that of the often brutal imperialism and colonialism which came in his wake, has increasingly come under scrutiny.
A statue of Cook which has stood in Sydney’s Hyde Park for over a century was vandalized last year with graffiti reading “no pride in genocide” and “change the date,” in reference to controversies over the celebration of Australia Day on January 26. This was the date in 1788 when the Union Flag was hoisted at Sydney Cove to establish a British penal colony.
While January 26 is widely observed by white Australians, many in the indigenous community regard it as nothing to celebrate. As far back as 1938, Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders opposed honoring a date they call Invasion Day.
The view of Cook as “discoverer” – as the Hyde Park statue describes him – of Australia and other Pacific countries and islands has also come in for question, with experts pointing out that indigenous peoples had been living in the region for millennia before Europeans invaded and colonized the Pacific in the 18th century.
Supporters of a name change in the Cook Islands will hope for greater success than New Zealand’s most recent push to discard part of its colonial legacy.
A referendum in 2016 on changing New Zealand’s flag – which includes the British standard in its upper left corner – ended with voters choosing to stick with the old flag – after over a year and a cost to the taxpayer of $17.6 million.