Anyone who has ever had a problem with someone where there are degrees of fault and an ongoing relationship is necessary, knows how difficult reconciliation can be.
People learn to express remorse in a dozen different ways. Sorrow, regret and apologies are all options in this equation, and each one can be nuanced with differing degrees of sincerity, depending on who says it and how.
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The choice becomes much easier when the ground-rules by which the opposing sides are clear in advance. For example, proven breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi, warrant sincere apologies by the government at the highest level, as this is the foundation document of our country. Rights and responsibilities were set out in advance, agreed, and provide our shared understanding of how partners are meant to behave.
In areas where there was no shared understanding to begin with, the gaps of what is correct, who was "right" or "wrong", and how one should express remorse for the past are much more difficult.
This area of uncertainty, in pre-1840 Aotearoa/New Zealand, for acts committed 250 years ago when two cultural groups with no knowledge of each other or shared understanding of common rules, faced each other and deaths resulted, is at the crux of the current debate.
The starting point for the British consideration of this matter will have been the rules that their explorer, James Cook, operated under. The rules by which the British applied to themselves in this area were similar to those that the Dutch had, when Abel Tasman reached this land in early December, 1642.
These instructions told Tasman, in case he met new populations in this travels to, "prudently prevent all manner of insolence and arbitrary action on your part… against the nations discovered, and take due care their no injury be done to them… or their property".
Punishments for "small affronts" were to be avoided. Despite these intentions and
an initial peaceful landing, the situation soured quickly, when four of his sailors, and perhaps one local, were killed in what Tasman came to call "Murderers Bay" (aka Golden Bay) in an introduction between cultures that was far from plan, tenuous, confused and lethal.
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More than a century later, 12-year-old Nicholas Young, the assistant to the ship's surgeon on Captain James Cook's Endeavour, sighted Tuuranga-nui/Poverty Bay on October 6, 1769.
Under similar instructions as Tasman, Cook's orders told him "to exercise the utmost patience and forbearance with respect to the Natives of the … lands where the ship may touch… check the petulance of the Sailors, and restrain the wanton use of firearms. Shedding the blood of those people is a crime of the highest nature: they are human creatures, the work of the same omnipotent Author, equally under his care with the most polished European… No European Nation has a right to occupy any part of their country, or settle among them without their voluntary consent. Conquest over such people can give no just title… [Only use firearms, when]… every other gentle method has been tried."
Although Tasman and Cook sailed under similar instructions, Cook's advantage was the inclusion of Tupaia on his crew. This man, a kind of priest, who voluntarily joined Cook's voyage from Tahiti appears to have been some type of human Rosetta stone.
Aside from his stunning art, he gave Cook's unprecedented mapping benefits (with his exceptional indigenous navigational knowledge of the Pacific) and also the ability to cross language barriers, making some forms of rudimentary communication possible between ethnic groups.
Despite these considerations, and although peaceful interaction and amicable cooperation with Māori was the norm for most of the expeditions of James Cook, violence, or the threat thereof, was not uncommon. In these situations when violence (in the minds of the Europeans) seemed likely, in what was possibly misunderstood ritual challenges rather than attacks - and deterrence did not work (such as shots fired overhead) - responses were swift and fatal.
This type of lethal reaction occurred on Cook's 1769 voyage at least half a dozen
Given the orders that Cook sailed under, the fact that it was the Europeans who were the foreigners in this new land, and it was a terrible beginning to the relationship between Britain and Māori, expressing regret at the level it was conveyed, is both correct and commendable.
The question is whether others should be expressing similar remorse.
This is particularly obvious with the early French interactions in the same period.
Their difficulties began when, a few months after Cook, the French explorer Jean de Surville, arrived in Doubtless Bay. Here, despite an initial kind welcome for his very sick sailors, after a period of time, breach of local protocol and cultural misunderstandings (around the alleged theft/loss of a small boat) resulted in violence in which local property was destroyed and the Ngati Kahu leader, Ranginui was taken hostage and would die of scurvy.
Three years later in April of 1772 another French explorer, Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne, who despite his own philosophy of using violence only when attacked first, was at the centre of another cultural misunderstanding (involving tapu) and some of the Māori from Moturua Island in the Bay of Islands being accused of stealing from some of du Fresne's crew, to which the chief was made captive in reply.
The tribes, in a situation of escalating cultural misunderstandings, responded by killing 26 of du Fresne's crew who were on land, including du Fresne. The French responded soon after, by levelling their village and killing between a few dozen and a few hundred Māori as a reprisal.
• Alexander Gillespie is a Professor of Law at Waikato University.