COMMENT:

History is a funny old thing. One person's discovery is another's invasion. One person's explorer is another's murderer. Which version of events gains prominence usually comes down to who had the best weapons and who got to tell the story afterwards.

This year, we are set to celebrate the beginning of the invasion of Aotearoa. With more than $20 million allocated to commemorating Captain James Cook's arrival in New Zealand 250 years ago, the celebration – dubbed Tuia Encounters 250 – includes a replica of the Endeavour retracing Cook's journey around New Zealand. Or, to look at it another way, an ocean tour from one murder scene to the next.

Despite what we were (or weren't) taught at school, Cook was no hero. His arrival in Tūranganui-a-Kiwa (or as he infamously and uncharitably named it, Poverty Bay) occurred on October 8, 1769. It's described in Te Ara, our national encyclopaedia, thusly: "Two days later [after sighting land] Cook landed at Poverty Bay. But skirmishes on that day and the next resulted in the deaths of several Māori, including the leaders Te Maro and Te Rakau. The incidents appear, like Tasman's bloody experience at Murderers Bay (Golden Bay) in 1642, to have been in part the result of Māori efforts to deal with strange newcomers in a traditional way."

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"Skirmishes" and "incidents" seem strange words to use when describing murder. They're just part of an extensive suite of euphemisms employed in the retelling of history to gloss over unfortunate things like abductions, theft and homicide.

Captain James Cook, drawn by John Webber the artist on Cook's third voyage and engraved by Francesco Bartolozzi. Photo / Supplied
Captain James Cook, drawn by John Webber the artist on Cook's third voyage and engraved by Francesco Bartolozzi. Photo / Supplied

During Cook's first week in New Zealand, his men managed to kill at least four Māori, and wound many more. Some of those deaths were caused by misunderstandings. Others were caused when Māori understandably tried to defend themselves against the strange invaders who trespassed upon their land. Cook ordered the shooting of at least one Māori warrior, who had seized a sword from one of his men. He also ordered a musket to be shot over the heads of a waka full of fishermen who he hoped to gain the friendship of. Which, if you ask me, begs more than a few questions about Cook's relationship-building skills. When the fishermen threw fish and rocks to defend themselves, some of their number were shot and killed, while others were abducted.

Cook apparently regretted those deaths. Nevertheless, the only written accounts we have of the events during Cook's first week were recorded by Cook himself, and his crew. Over the years details of Cook's journey have been sanitised and swept under the rug. These sterilised depictions of our history have become the definitive, "official" versions. Descendants of the Māori who were killed by the crew of the Endeavour tell a different story.

Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust manager Amohaere Houkamau has called for an apology for the conduct of Cook and his men from the Royal Society, Cook's employer during his voyage to New Zealand. "Our experience wasn't a great experience in the sense that a number of our tīpuna were killed during that first encounter. A number of our taonga were stolen [and] taken. That is a story that hasn't been told."

Academic Tina Ngata says describing Captain Cook's killing of Māori as 'encounters' minimises the truth. Photo / Duncan Brown
Academic Tina Ngata says describing Captain Cook's killing of Māori as 'encounters' minimises the truth. Photo / Duncan Brown

Indigenous academic Tina Ngata has called into question the use of the word "encounters" in the branding surrounding Tuia Encounters 250. "When somebody lands and then shoots the first person that they see, and then the next day shoots another 15 and then wants to get a closer look at a waka so they shoot everybody in the waka so they can get a closer look at it and everybody in that waka was unarmed, they were just fisherpeople," she told the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, "you know, to call that an 'encounter' is egregious in the extreme and a complete purposeful minimisation."

A growing movement wants to boycott the 250th-anniversary commemorations. Deputy chief executive of Tuia Encounters 250 Tamsin Evans responded to criticism by telling RNZ that "experiences [from] 250 years ago lose a little or are embellished in the telling and this is an opportunity for both sides of the story to be told". When one side of the story has been given prominence over the other for 250 years, however, I would argue that a rebalancing of the scales is needed. We've heard Cook's side of the story for centuries. Surely it's time for Māori accounts of the invasion of their land to take centre stage.

Minister for Māori Crown Relations, Kelvin Davis, has certainly distanced himself from the glorification of Cook, telling RNZ, "Tuia 250 is an opportunity for us to honour those tūpuna who were killed and to tell their story." Stories like those of the murdered tūpuna of Rongowhakaata have often been buried, devalued by past generations of academics who have prioritised written histories over oral, and whitewashed by an education system that still refuses to compel its students to learn their own history. Tuia 250 risks doing the same.

Members of Tuia Encounters 250 on board the R. Tucker Thompson. Photo / Supplied
Members of Tuia Encounters 250 on board the R. Tucker Thompson. Photo / Supplied

I think the time for "both sides of the story" has long passed. The only Captain Cook story I'm interested in, in 2019, is the one told from the perspective of the sovereign people of this nation, minding their own business, and murdered because they sought to defend themselves and their land from intruders. Because – whether we want to acknowledge it or not – that is what happened when Cook arrived.

There are also countless other allegations surrounding Cook and his crew's conduct around the Pacific, including rape and knowingly spreading sexually transmitted diseases. The reality of Cook's voyages was far removed from the folkloric retellings they enjoy today.

Two hundred and fifty years later, it's still the Crown that has the best weapons and the control over the narrative. Time will tell whether it will repeat the mistakes of the past.