COMMENT

Captain James Cook arrived here in 1769. The arcane antics of cricket statisticians involve deriving twisted pleasures from pinpointing odd happenstances in their oddball world. You know, noting that so-and-so took the most wickets on test debut for an off-spinner with a middle hair-part – that sort of thing.

A similar breed operates in the wider world, usually of a public service bureaucratic bent. From time to time, they take a break from honing cryptic crossword skills to point out to their political lords and mistresses certain occasions possibly worth noting.

Often this involves ceremonially marking long-gone events in a manner that may just fortuitously dove-tail with their lords' and mistresses' predilection for nourishing their public profiles.

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One such occasion is the up-coming 250th anniversary of the initial visit by the intrepid mariner James Cook and his good ship Endeavour. I suppose 250 is a roundish number to pin an occasion on, but not everyone shares the same sense of occasion.

For instance, Government minister Kelvin Davis and National's Paul Goldsmith are already doing handbags at 10 paces over whether proceedings should be called a commemoration or a celebration — the nuanced terms representing opposing attitudes as to the benefits or otherwise of Cook's visit. Gisborne's Cook statue has been graffitied, and our neighbour, Marton — named after Cook's birthplace — doubtless has CCTV on theirs.

On one hand, are we talking about a staunch seafaring Yorkshireman simply obeying Admiralty orders, a dab-hand cartographer and navigator, who introduced the wonders of industrial-age technology, and who also dropped off the potatoes and pigs that soon became favourite local chow-downs?

Or are we talking about a harbinger of an invasion of accursed foreigners, who ultimately deconstructed local society? Tricky.

This Replica of Captain James Cook's ship, HMS Endeavour, is scheduled to visit Mercury Bay during November 2019 to mark the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook's arrival in New Zealand.
This Replica of Captain James Cook's ship, HMS Endeavour, is scheduled to visit Mercury Bay during November 2019 to mark the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook's arrival in New Zealand.

But there's a third option. Namely, to briefly note the event, if needs must, then simply move on minus the fanfare. In the grander scheme of things, James Cook's first and subsequent visits didn't really make much difference. The die was already cast: the big wide world of foreign civilisations and their trappings were heading this way from all directions. It was just pot luck who ended up main influencer.

The Dutch bolter, Abel Janszoon Tasman, had already been and gone a full century and a quarter before Cook. His resulting map was a bit threadbare, but enough to let the seafaring world know where the place was. Indeed, the British Admiralty's instructions to Cook specified the "land discover'd by Tasman" as one of his destinations.

Just a few months after Cook's arrival in 1769, the Frenchman Jean de Surville was also plying New Zealand waters. The two ships passed nearly within coo-ee of each other in Doubtless Bay. Another French navigator, Marion du Fresne, arrived a few years later, and a slew of ships of various provenance, including a Spanish expedition in 1793, blew through before the century's end.

Statue of Captain James Cook on the Gisborne seafront with the white cliffs of Young Nick's Head behind.
Statue of Captain James Cook on the Gisborne seafront with the white cliffs of Young Nick's Head behind.

In short, all these various nations had the capacity to introduce the same European arts, artefacts and appurtenances (not to mention diseases) — and subsequent settlements — as Cook's expeditions. But ultimately, it was the sheer numbers seeking elbow room and relief from the grinding poverty of their European — mainly British — homelands that tipped the scales.

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Cook's list of accomplishments is long and substantial (his pet goat was the first recorded animal to circumnavigate the globe), but he was just part of a much larger paint-box that coloured New Zealand's future.

Cook would probably be embarrassed by the attention we still accord him. At day's end, he was just a Yorkshire lad who liked messing around in boats, whose orders took him to the ends of the Earth.

When it comes to elaborate anniversaries, you can almost hear a gruff Yorkshire voice admonishing, "It's grand to be remembered, but look, your sails need a tight trim. Jump to it — and mind you all pull together!"