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Hero or villain?: The still-debated legacy of Captain James Cook

Illustration/Anthony Ellison/Listener

In reassessing James Cook’s influence on this country, it’s unfair to blame him for all subsequent events, including colonisation, says writer Graeme Lay.

When I was growing up in New Zealand in the 1950s, Captain Cook had the status of a deity. And like all deities, he was mysterious. The recurring image of Cook was a reproduction of the portrait painted in London in 1776 by Nathaniel Dance. This depicted him in his Royal Navy dress uniform, one hand on a navigator’s chart, his expression reflective, his gaze penetrating. The person behind that pensive gaze was an enigma, like the Sphinx or an Easter Island statue.

I was taught that New Zealand was discovered by Cook in 1769. Pre-Cook history was largely ignored, although the textbooks did include the Louis J Steele and Charles Goldie painting The Arrival of the Māoris in New Zealand. This depiction of a Polynesian voyaging canoe holding a starving, skeletal crew gave me nightmares. In our school atlases were places named after Cook, such as New Zealand’s highest mountain and its greatest strait. We studied the chart that Cook had drawn of our country, the first man to have done so.

Fast forward 50 years. After living in Europe, I’ve returned to New Zealand and developed an interest in the history and cultures of the South Pacific. I’ve published stories and novels set in the Cook Islands, Tahiti, the Marquesas, Tonga and Niue.

Five years ago, I attempted to decipher the enigma that was Cook by writing a trilogy of novels that fictionalised his life. Born into a lowly, disadvantaged household, through his ambition, dedication and intelligence, Cook rose to the top of his chosen profession in the Royal Navy. His navigational and hydrographical abilities were outstanding. He sailed among icebergs in the frigid Antarctic and Arctic Oceans. He meticulously charted the fretworked coasts of Newfoundland, the Society Islands, New Zealand and eastern Australia. His bravery in the face of natural and human threats amazed those who witnessed it. He made perceptive, fair-minded assessments of the indigenous peoples he encountered, including the Māori of New Zealand and the Aboriginal people of Australia. Unlike most European observers before or since, Cook extolled the Aboriginal way of life, especially its absence of materialistic concerns.

While visiting the islands of the South Pacific, I became aware of how important Cook’s relationships still were with their indigenous peoples nearly 250 years later. Local people showed me where he had come ashore, where he had been welcomed (or repelled), and where he had set up his encampments. With few exceptions, Cook was a revered visitor to the islands and was recognised as a person of great mana. This included New Zealand. One hundred and fifty years after Cook’s visits to New Zealand, the eminent Māori anthropologist Te Rangi Hiroa, Sir Peter Buck, spoke of him as “to tatau tipuna, ko Kapene Kuki”, our ancestor, Captain Cook.

Good-behaviour guide

Enlightenment values impinged on Cook’s voyaging. When he left England in July 1768 on his first world voyage, he carried with him on HMS Endeavour written “Hints” from the Earl of Moreton, the president of England’s prestigious Royal Society. These embodied the Enlightenment spirit of enquiry and tolerance. Included in Moreton’s advice were directives that Cook was to “exercise the utmost patience and forbearance with respect to the Natives of the several Lands where the ship may touch”, and “to have it still in view that shedding the blood of those people is a crime of the highest nature”.

These instructions were followed by Cook as far as was humanly possible. His first New Zealand landing place, on October 8, 1769, was at Tūranganui-a-Kiwa, now Gisborne, in what Cook named Poverty Bay. During two skirmishes, nine Māori men were shot, some on land and others on the water. Although both clashes occurred after Endeavour’s men were attacked by Māori, the killings were matters of extreme regret to Cook, as he realised he had been forced to contravene Moreton’s guidance. Civilian naturalist Joseph Banks was also appalled at the violence that occurred in the bay, recording in his journal: “Thus ended the most disagreeable day my life has yet seen.”

The sestercentennial of Cook’s first landing in New Zealand will be commemorated in various hubs associated with his several visits here. No doubt, Dance’s Cook portrait will again become a prominent motif. It therefore seems timely for a reassessment of Cook’s role in New Zealand’s historical narrative. Was it positive or negative? Beneficial to Māori or harmful? And how did Cook view the country that he literally put on the map?

Regrettably, this reassessment has come to include simplistic and misinformed views of Cook. I have read of the man being described as an “imperialist”, a “murderer”, and a “destroyer of indigenous cultures”. One Hawaiian activist called Cook a “syphilitic, tubercular racist” and declared it a point of pride that he didn’t leave Hawaiian shores alive. These charges against Cook are demonstrably untrue, but regrettably some Māori activists are parroting the falsehoods. At one talk I gave about Cook at the Auckland Central Library, I was berated by a middle-aged Māori man who accused Cook of turning his superior weapons on defenceless Māori people without provocation. There was a refusal to accept the fact that Cook only ever acted in defence of himself and his men. But no amount of reasoning would alter the man’s preconceived opinion. Finally, all I could say to him was, “I think you should read more widely.”

Some of the more strident critics amplify the initial confrontation between Cook’s men and a group of Māori on the banks of the Tūranganui River. The Cook demonisers conveniently ignore Endeavour’s visit to Uawa-Tolaga Bay, 45km up the coast from Gisborne, just 10 days after the Tūranganui confrontation. At Tolaga Bay, with the assistance of Society Island priest-navigator Tupaia, who had joined the voyage at Tahiti, relations with Māori during Endeavour’s week-long stay were cordial and productive.

A similar cordiality prevailed at Mercury Bay in the eastern Coromandel in November 1769. In the Bay of Islands, friendly trading followed an initial confrontation, and early in 1770, in Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound and Dusky Sound, in Fiordland, relations were friendly. During all these visits, just one Māori man was shot – by ship’s officer John Gore in Mercury Bay, an unjustified killing that greatly angered Cook. This was the only killing by one of his men that was not carried out in self-defence.

Grass Cove massacre

Killings did occur during Cook’s second voyage to New Zealand, but not while he was present. His vessel, HMS Resolution, had become separated from its consort ship, HMS Adventure, during a gale. Adventure took shelter in Tolaga Bay, then when she returned to Queen Charlotte Sound, found that Cook and Resolution had sailed on. In December 1773, a party of sailors from Adventure rowed across to Grass Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound to gather fresh greens for the next stage of their voyage. While there, the 10 crew members were killed, dismembered and eaten by local Māori. When Cook returned to the sound on his third voyage and the facts of the massacre were ascertained – some of Adventure’s crewmen had angered the Māori over the theft of an adze – Cook was told a chief called Kahura had led the killings. Cook took no retribution against him. This reaction not only embittered his crew, but angered other local Māori, who didn’t much like Kahura either. They urged Cook to take utu, but he refused. Instead, he invited Kahura to Resolution’s Great Cabin, where the chief had his portrait painted by the expedition’s artist, William Hodges. This puzzling reaction was the first of several misjudgments made by Cook during his final voyage that culminated in his violent death in Hawaii on February 14, 1779.

It is important as we approach the 250th anniversary of Endeavour’s visit that the story of Cook’s relationship with New Zealand is evaluated from a balanced, rational viewpoint. In the face of misinformation, it has been heartening to read the positive views of those in possession of the historical facts and able to articulate them – chroniclers such as Lisa Reihana, whose marvellous multi-channel video work, In Pursuit of Venus [infected], tells the story of Cook in the South Pacific candidly but without rancour. Eminent historians, such as Michael King, Anne Salmond, James Belich and Paul Moon, have documented early Māori-European relations empirically and from a bicultural perspective.

Leading members of the Te Hā 1769 Sestercentennial Trust – mostly Gisborne Māori – though recognising that Cook’s first contacts with their people at Tūranganui were largely unhappy events, realise, too, that these episodes were later eclipsed by much more positive exchanges around the New Zealand coast.

Better the British

Let’s not make Cook a scapegoat for the lapses that later accompanied the colonisation of New Zealand. His visits actually laid the foundation for a society based on a blend of Europe and Polynesia. It’s true that mistakes were made, and there were casualties on both sides. As colonisers, the British were far from ideal, but they were infinitely preferable to the Dutch, Spanish and French, who were often brutal in their treatment of the indigenous peoples they colonised.

The real culprits in our colonisation story were not Cook and his crews but the hordes of men who came in his wake: the whalers, sealers, traders, land speculators and gun-runners who saw New Zealand mainly as a place ripe for plundering. The activities of these men helped sow the seeds for the disastrous Musket Wars, the land wars and the punitive confiscations that followed.

But again, let’s commemorate the positives. The 19th-century missionaries may have been overzealous, but they helped end the internecine tribal wars and brought literacy to both Māori and European settlers. Later, following large-scale European immigration, interbreeding wrought its genetic miracles and created a society that, for all its faults, does provide a model for others.

Over the next year, it is fitting that we commemorate the events of 1769-1770, when Cook circumnavigated and charted the coasts of Aotearoa and established the colonial connection between Britain and New Zealand. We should also recognise the navigational feats of the first people to arrive in this land, skilled open-ocean navigators from Eastern Polynesia, who sailed their double-hulled vaka to Aotearoa-New Zealand about 370 years before Endeavour appeared on the horizon. The people of the Te Hā Trust will ensure that this happens.

Paying homage to all these courageous navigators – Polynesian and European – can only enhance the understanding of our history. So let’s not rush to judgment and ascribe to Cook motives and actions that are untrue.

Graeme Lay’s books include The Secret Life of James Cook, James Cook’s New World and James Cook’s Lost World, published by HarperCollins. His next work is 100 Days – James Cook in New Zealand and the South Sea (New Holland, 2019).

This article was first published in the October 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.