When Captain Cook and his crew landed in New Zealand in 1769, he left a permanent imprint on the consciousness of New Zealanders. For some, he's a hero but to others he's a "genocidal murderer".
To many, Cook is the most important navigator to discover the Pacific, so much so, that $22.5mil has been given by government to commemorate his arrival here 250 years ago. And that’s not counting other money spent by government departments and local bodies.
Gisborne District Council, for example, has been given nearly $8mil by a range of government and community funders. The money will be used to redevelop Cook’s landing site and the maunga above it, plus an historic self-guided walk– outside of central government’s $22.5mil spend.
It’s a spend that’s been labelled “unnecessary and wasteful” by indigenous scholar Tina Ngata, who says Cook was a “genocidal murderer who enabled the spread of venereal disease throughout the Pacific".
“The roots of racism flourished in NZ after Cook’s arrival and his heroism is colonial fiction,” says Ngata. “His orders by the British Crown were to claim lands and that same imperial entitlement we see is present today as well. This idea that they have an entitlement to land and an entitlement to indigenous people of those lands as well.”
Ngata’s views have been well documented and were presented as a formal complaint at the United Nations earlier this year. She’s organised an online petition called ‘Kia Mau’, with Māori artist Robyn Kahukiwa and indigenous activist Sina Brown, to stop a replica of Cook’s ship, the Endeavour, coming to NZ.
The petition comes even though a flotilla of traditional Māori and Pacific voyaging canoes will be accompanying it around the country.
“My concern is that because this is centred around a colonial narrative, everything that we do and say falls under the shadow of that colonial narrative,” says Ngata. “If we accept that these commemorative events are one of those tools that sit alongside the statues and the memorial days that function to uphold colonisation then our participation becomes problematic, it becomes a kind of endorsement.”
Cook learned some hard lessons about race relations during his first two landings in New Zealand.
At the Endeavour’s first landing in Gisborne on 8 October 1769, the visit was marred by the shooting and killing of local leader, Te Maro, by Cook’s crew.
A month later in Mercury Bay, Cook and his Tahitian translator Tupaia were more cautious about their approach when they encountered local chief, Toawaka.
Descendants of both 18th-century men are choosing to participate in the government’s Tuia 250 commemorations of Cook to ensure their tupuna stories are told.
Joe Davis, chief treaty negotiator for Ngāti Hei and a descendant of Toawaka, says his tupuna knew massive change was about to happen and he did everything he could to learn about the new arrivals.
Cook and Tupaia sought permission to land and visited Ngāti Hei’s former pā site Wharetaewa, where Cook gave the first potato seedling to Māori.
“Cook described him as a chief of the past and present,” says Davis, “Their relationship was amicable. Cook saw how we lived and noticed the engineering of our palisades, our extensive horticulture and fishing. Our men demonstrated the use of our weaponry. He spent a good day at Wharetaewa. The general public doesn’t know this place has been sitting here all this time and we’re still fortunate to have it,” he says.
Davis will be leading a special pōwhiri for the Endeavour and the flotilla of Māori and Pacific waka hourua in October at Wharetaewa. A book has also been published by the Mercury 250 Trust about Toawaka called “When Toawaka Met Cook”.
Further down the East Coast in Gisborne, Nick Tupara from Ngāti Oneone, an uri of Te Maro, is working with local authorities to erect a new statue of Te Maro on Kaiti Hill.
Despite living in a town that’s built itself around Cook’s legend, Tupara says Te Māro’s story is virtually unknown in Gisborne.
“A big part of these commemorations is an opportunity for us to articulate our place and find new strength to live in a Cook town,” says Tupara. “I come to celebrate Te Maro and that ancestor is my sole purpose for being involved in anything this year. And I’m only involved to the extent that I can successfully assist in putting our tipuna on our maunga.”
Te Ao's news report Political statement, social commentary or vandalism?