The Cook Islands were named after Captain James Cook, who became the first European to sight them in 1733.
However, credit for the first discovery of these islands must go to the Polynesians, who discovered them during their great migratory journeys across the Pacific in the seventh and eighth centuries.
The main island, Rarotonga, was rediscovered by the Bounty Mutineers in 1789. In 1888 they became a British protectorate, and in 1901 became part of New Zealand.
In 1965, the islands achieved self-government as a New Zealand Dependency. There are no plans and little pressure to change this status.
Executive power is formally held by the New Zealand high commissioner (High Commissioner Tia Barrett since December 2008) but effectively devolved to the cabinet. The House of Ariki, which is composed of all the paramount chiefs of the Cook Islands, serves as an advisory body. Advice is given on legislation concerning customs and traditions, though the House of Ariki has no powers of legislation itself. New Zealand is responsible for defence and foreign affairs.
Jim Marurai, of the Democratic party was sworn in as prime minister in December 2004 after winning the backing of MPs. His predecessor Robert Woonton stood down after a recount of the September 2004 general election votes revealed a tie for the seat between Mr Woonton and his challenger. Marurai's Democratic party went on to win the 2006 election.