Reaction to Ngāti Kahu's vetoing of a visit to Mangonui by the replica of James Cook's Endeavour has ranged from anger to disappointment, understanding of the iwi's stance to dismay that a grievance emanating from one man's actions a quarter of a millennium ago should be alive and well, and showing no signs of dissipating.
Most of all we should be feeling a profound sense of sorrow at the exposure of what seems to be a deep-seated sense of injustice that no one has the power to ease (although some are arguing that apology would be a good start. Apology for what? The actions of a man in 1769, actions that were seemingly inspired by fear and a lack of understanding? Who among us today would have acted differently?
Many societies around the world hold grudges stemming from the actions of others many hundreds of years in the past. Surely there is nothing to be gained from that. The nurturing of grievances is a poison that can and does permeate entire peoples, to the benefit of no one.
It cannot truthfully be said that Ngāti Kahu made the decision to stop the Endeavour's visit to Mangonui, but clearly the organisers of Tuia 250, the commemoration — for some the word celebration might be too much — of the first encounter between Māori and European are not prepared to risk inspiring protests. The fact though is that Tuia 250 is not simply about the arrival of Europeans. It will also celebrate, and that is very much the right word, the achievements of Māori and Polynesians, with the focus very much on the extraordinary feats of seamanship and navigation that are at the very heart of this country's history, pre- and post-European influence.
This, surely, is an opportunity not only to pay homage to the extraordinary men and women who preceded today's New Zealanders, and more importantly to educate those of us who need to learn about these people and what they achieved, how they have influenced what we have and who we are in the 21st Century. That opportunity, at least as far as a specific event at Mangonui is concerned, has been lost. How does anyone benefit from that?
Ngāti Kahu's view includes the assertion that Cook sailed straight past Doubtless Bay, so a visit by the Endeavour would make no sense. Tuia 250's response to that is that the visit was intended as a mark of respect for Sir Hekenukumai Busby, whose skill as a navigator and builder of waka earned an international reputation, and deep and abiding respect and affection amongst New Zealanders of all ethnic origins. One cannot help but wonder what he would have thought of putting out the Not Welcome sign for an event that was intended to pay respect for the skills that he spent much of his life perfecting.
It is said now that Cook did in fact come ashore in the Doubtless Bay area, sending men to collect firewood and to plant potatoes, cabbage and turnip seeds. That, no doubt, will be disputed by some, but true or not, Cook, preceded by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman as he might have been, is universally recognised as the man who opened the door for the European colonisation of this country. And now Ngāti Kahu describes him as a barbarian.
A barbarian is defined as a hooligan, lout, ruffian, a savage (a term that some in this country today might well find particularly offensive), a vandal, or if your prefer as an illiterate, bigoted philistine. It is difficult, even from the perhaps biased perspective of someone descended from the English who followed Cook to this country, to see how any of those descriptions fit a man who, as even his critics must accept, was a courageous, highly skilled sailor, who, contrary to the norms of 18th Century European exploration, was devoted to the welfare of his crew.
Yes, he practised flogging, as was common in those times, and not perhaps without good reason. The need for unquestioning discipline, and the preservation of total command, while at sea aboard tiny ships for very long periods of time is not difficult to understand. And yes, his first encounters with the inhabitants of these islands was not without violence, but to portray him as a barbarian, presumably meaning that he showed a wanton disregard for the wellbeing of the people he found here, is ridiculous.
More worrying for some is the suggestion that those who have come to this country over the last 250 years are cut from the same arrogant cloth. One can hardly hold the view that Cook opened the door for an "invasion" of these islands without believing that those invaders are as unwelcome as he supposedly was, and remains, even if suggesting now that some of those who followed were not welcome is palpably wrong.
Many of the English who came here, to the Far North at least, in the early 19th Century were very welcome indeed. There was a special quality to the relationship forged between Māori and Pākehā in this part of the country, a degree of mutual goodwill and respect that continues to benefit those who have followed. Are the descendants of those founding European families to accept that they are despised as invaders? Are they to believe that they and their forebears have never been welcome here? That the apparent ease with which Māori and Pākehā have lived and worked side by side, the extent to which Māori and Pākehā have assimilated, is all an illusion? That they were never welcomed, but until now Māori have been too polite to tell them that?
Has the vetoing of the Endeavour's visit to Mangonui exposed a fundamental rift between Māori and Pākehā in this community of which Pākehā at least have been blithely unaware? One would hope not, but how can that not be true?
The writer believes, without question, that Ngāti Kahu has genuine grievances dating back to the arrival of Europeans, including over the ownership of land. Those grievances must, and hopefully will, be addressed via the Treaty settlement process. Imperfect as that process might be, it is the only one we have, or will ever have. But Ngāti Kahu do not exist in isolation. The iwi is part of a bigger society, and has an obligation, however distasteful it might be to some, to recognise that.
The proposed Endeavour visit was not intended as an insult, a deliberate attempt to remind the iwi that it had been subjugated, and must not forget that. Rather it was to have been a reminder of where we who live here now, whatever our ethnic origins, have come from, and an opportunity to sow the seeds of greater understanding. It could have been used by Ngāti Kahu to promote that understanding. The abandoning of the visit will perhaps cost the iwi more than anyone else.
There is no point in arguing, as some are, that our history is littered with instances of Māori and Pākehā behaving badly, that there has been violence on all sides, that these islands were colonised by Māori long before Europeans began exploring the Pacific, or that if it had not been Cook who came it would have been someone else. We all know this. What we must do, surely, is understand and accept our history, especially our shared history, as just that — history. By all means we should strive to resolve injustices that can and need to be resolved, but we must cease nurturing anger.
Understanding and acceptance are a two-way street, and what many clearly perceive as a petty, spiteful action by Ngāti Kahu will not foster either.