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Captain James Cook. Image/Getty Images

Bill Ralston: Don't judge Captain James Cook by today's standards

Cook and his crew were the astronauts of their day and faced challenges of a similar scale.

It’s a little hard when you hear a man you grew up admiring for his feats of seamanship and relatively enlightened approach to meeting and dealing with indigenous peoples being smeared as a racist and colonialist oppressor. Captain James Cook is being judged by folk who live 250 years on from when he first arrived in New Zealand.

Today’s social mores and folkways are very different from those of the time the Endeavour was at sea on its voyage of exploration. Just as the Royal Navy in those days had ready access to lethal force, so did Māori.

Cook’s journal from October 10, 1769 records his feelings after his crew fired on and killed four Māori, including three in a waka, in an early encounter: “I am aware that most humane men who have not experienced things of this nature will cencure my conduct in fireing upon the people in this boat nor do I my self think that the reason I had for seizing upon her will att all justify me. and had I thought that they would have made the least resistance I would not have come near them but as they did I was not to stand still and suffer either my self or those that were with me to be knocked on the head.”

Read more: Hero or villain?: The still-debated legacy of Captain Cook | The little known story of the great Polynesian migration and its radical navigators

And that is the nub of the issue. These were times when an Endeavour crewman could be lashed for shipboard infractions and there was ready recourse to firearms with which to threaten anyone met along the way who infringed codes of British law. Similarly, the Māori of that day were a slave-owning society that resorted to cannibalism, and property rights were endowed by acts of conquest. We are looking back with the benefit of 21st-century values and pronouncing judgment on the actions of people in the 18th century.

I wonder what assessment New Zealand society in 2269 will bestow on us today: what will it think of our acceptance of homelessness, gross income inequality, a burgeoning prison population, a methamphetamine epidemic and our readiness during my lifetime to participate in dubious foreign wars?

Cook and his men were the astronauts of their day, sailing into the unknown, encountering societies with often completely different attitudes and beliefs from their own. The Endeavour was a kind of Star Trek under rigging and canvas and for Māori on the shores of Aotearoa, seeing it would have been like an encounter of the third kind.


What is remarkable is not the sporadic outbursts of violence that accompanied the first meetings of the two peoples but the more prevalent occasions when exchanges of goods, ideas and friendship occurred.

It is good that British High Commissioner Laura Clarke has expressed to iwi her Government’s sincere regret over those long-ago clashes, but I suspect it will not appease those who lost ancestors in them. I note our Government is not issuing any statement of regret or apology because there was no New Zealand government at the time and it believes the Treaty of Waitangi process is sufficient to redress any Māori grievances from those early clashes. Maybe.

The lesson from the 250th anniversary of Cook’s arrival in New Zealand is that we should all look back at our less than illustrious history in race relations and resolve to do much better in the future.

We have the opportunity over the next 250 years to profit from the past and create a truly fair and equal nation.

This article was first published in the October 19, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.