To celebrate Cook Islands Māori Language Week I return to the collection of amateur photographer George Robson Crummer who resided in the Cook Islands from 1890. Te Papa has over 240 items from Crummer including 227 black and white negatives some of which are badly deteriorated. In the absence of details surrounding this collection I have started to look inside the frame for clues to help uncover the histories captured within them.
I have recently blogged about the popularity of bicycles portraits and now I want to shift my focus to another strange photographic subject matter, the ‘Cook Islands Cowboy’. Was this merely a case of photographic staging or was there more to these island outlaws?
Hollywood in the Cook Islands
Moving pictures and the Hollywood epics took the Cook Islands by storm at the beginning of the 20th century. The first four cinemas were established in 1911 on the island of Rarotonga. By the 1920s there were five theatres operating in districts across Rarotonga: Empire and Victory, Avarua: Sunset, Arorangi: Sunflower and Titikaveka: Tiare Maori and Matavera. Movies were screened every night except Sunday of course and sessions would comprise of double or triple feature programmes.
Cook Islanders flocked to the cinemas which influenced changes to working conditions and the local economy. To meet the costs of tickets families doubled their labour in the plantations and men sought longer working hours. For those who were not able to buy cash tickets a kind of barter system developed where budding patrons could bring in a case of oranges, a major export in the 1950s and 60s. The case of oranges served as the admission price and ingeniously doubled as a seat in the theatre.
The enthusiastic uptake of movie-watching in the Cook Islands was possibly aided by the charismatic and lively promotion by proprietors such as Willie Browne of the Empire Theatre. There are several accounts of Willie on the back of his ‘picture truck’ circling the island to the beats of his accompanying drum band. As crowds drew to the roadside programmes of the nights showing would be distributed and on some occasions spontaneous dancing would follow. Willie was not just an avid promoter but was part of the viewing experience. He was known to provide live commentary for silent films and direct translations of English-speaking ‘talkies’ into Cook Islands Māori . I imagine that his translations would have allowed room for some creative interpretation.
Cook Island Outlaws
Similar to other parts of the Pacific such as Samoa and Tonga, Cook Island audiences preferred the Hollywood westerns above all other genres. The gun slinging, horse riding action of the heroic celluloid cowboy captivated Cook Island audiences who literally lifted the ‘cowboy’ out of the mid-west and transported him to the Pacific. Historian Dick Scott writes of the popularity of the cowboy,
“Overseas visitors were startled to see roving bands of cowboys in full costume (no Indians) riding through the palms hitching scrub ponies to the trading store and walking stiff-legged to the counter”
It appears that Crummer may have captured these roving bands of cowboys in two of his photographs. In the portrait ‘Cook Island Cowboys’ c1910 a young man poses with his hands in his pockets donning full cowboy attire; boots, hat, bandana and woollen chaps.
In another photograph Crummer captured a posse of cowboys inside an automobile wearing cowboy hats and bandana’s around their necks. One cowboy stands outside of the vehicle grasping onto a length of rope.
In an article entitled ‘Not For Good’; Pictures and the Mind; The Effects in the Cooks’ published in the Auckland Star, 3 July 1914 there is evidence that cowboy attire was adopted and adapted by some Cook Islanders as formal dress. The article reports that at the governors celebration several Cook Island men decided not to wear ‘native garb’ but instead ‘swaggered round in cowboy costume’. It is clear from this article that the appropriation of the cowboy costume may have been more than dress-up or role play, rather serious self-fashioning on the part of Cook Islanders.
Collectively these historic accounts offer another view of Crummer’s cowboy portraits. These are not just photographs of colourful characters they are also windows into the Cook Islands love affair with the Wild Wild West.
Sarina Pearson. Hollywood Westerns and the Pacific: John Kneubuhl and The Wild Wild West. Transformations , Issue No 24.
Damon Salesa. Cowboys in the House of Polynesia. Contemporary Pacific, 2010, Volume 22, Number 2, 330-348
Dick Scott. Years of the Pooh-Bah: A Cook Islands History. CITC. 1991