The tiny Pacific nation of Cook Islands plans to change its name to drop the reference to the British explorer Captain James Cook in favour of a title that reflects its "Polynesian nature".

The group of small islands, about 1,900 miles northeast of New Zealand, was spotted by Captain Cook in the 1770s and became a British protectorate in the late 1800s. Since 1965, it has been autonomous but electively deemed to be in free association with New Zealand.

The Cook Islands government initially set up a committee to find an indigenous name that would sit alongside its existing title. But the committee members backed abandoning the honour to Captain Cook and adopting a standalone name in the local Māori language.

"When the committee members, which include Cook Islands historians and people with deep traditional knowledge, met we decided it was time we change the name of the country," committee chairman Danny Mataroa told AFP.

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Mark Brown, the deputy prime minister, supported the change but said it would need to involve the nation's 12,000 residents. In 1994, the Cook Islands held a referendum to change the name to Avaiki Nui but the proposal was resoundingly defeated.

A committee has decided to replace the association with Captain Cook in the archipelago's name with an alternative in Māori. Photo / 123RF
A committee has decided to replace the association with Captain Cook in the archipelago's name with an alternative in Māori. Photo / 123RF

"I'm quite happy to look at a traditional name for our country which more reflects the true Polynesian nature of our island nation," Brown told Radio New Zealand.

"I think the first steps are to find out what the public appetite actually is for a change of name."

The opposition also supported a name change but said voters were likely to be evenly split on the proposal.

"Whether or not it's going to command a support of the majority, it's very hard to tell," said the opposition leader, Tina Browne.

Captain Cook first spotted Manuae, a southern atoll that forms part of the islands, from his vessel The Resolution in 1773 and charted other islands in the group over the next four years. He initially called the atoll Hervey's Island to honour Augustus Hervey, a Lord of the Admiralty and politician.

The southern group of islands later became known as Hervey Islands, but this was changed to Cook Islands in 1824 by a Russian explorer and navigator, Adam Johann von Krusenstern.

Captain Cook first spotted the islands from his ship The Resolution in 1773. Photo / Getty Images
Captain Cook first spotted the islands from his ship The Resolution in 1773. Photo / Getty Images

Cook Islanders are Polynesians who first settled there around 1,500 years ago after voyaging in large canoes from French Polynesia.

The government committee is considering a list of 60 new names from public submissions and will present one to the government in April. Avaiki Nui, a popular though not universally accepted name for the islands, would be a strong contender for the new title.

Mataroa said the current push for a name change was more likely to succeed than the previous referendum because traditional leaders from all of the main islands had been involved.

He said the new name would have to incorporate the nation's strong Christian faith and Māori heritage.

"And it must instil a sense of pride in our people, and unite our people," he said. "It must also be easy to say."

This article originally appeared on the Daily Telegraph.