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Sam Neill: Why the old view of Captain James Cook no longer cuts it

Sam Neill.

In Uncharted with Sam Neill, the actor finds that the history of James Cook hits home at a personal level.

There is an encounter Sam Neill keeps coming back to. It was in the Bay of Islands. He was on the road – and the high seas – travelling in the wake of Captain Cook for his new documentary series Uncharted with Sam Neill. Talking to tour guide Kihi Ririnui, he happened to mention actor and writer Oscar Kightley’s view of James Cook. “He said, ‘Well, at least he wasn’t French. The French never leave. Look at Tahiti.’ And she turned to me and said, ‘But here you are.’ That’s when I said, ‘When you look at me, do you see a colonist?’ and she said, ‘How else am I to look at you?’ I haven’t quite recovered from reeling from it.”

History hits home at a personal level. “A very personal level. I don’t necessarily see myself that way. I see myself as tied into the fabric of this country. I’m part of it.” He’s fourth generation. His father’s family has been here since 1860. “Perhaps that’s not long enough but for me that seems like a long time.”

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He was called out the minute he tweeted the name of the series. Those “uncharted” seas, it was pointed out, had been traversed by navigators of the Pacific for thousands of years before Cook. “Exactly,” Neill tweeted back. “Cut that off at the pass,” he says briskly when we meet. The day before, he’d launched the series at the New Zealand Maritime Museum in Auckland with celebratory bubbles and a question-and-answer session with Annabelle Lee. He was at pains to explain that Uncharted looked at Cook 250 years after he set sail from England on the first of three astonishing expeditions “from both sides of the beach”. He’s also quick to say he’s not an expert on Cook, or on anything. “I’m just an actor.”

As an internationally successful artist who lives in New Zealand, he’s had decades of practice at this sort of pre-emptive self-deprecation. But of course he’s not just an actor. He has, over the years, made some intelligent, personal, quietly subversive local documentaries – Cinema of Unease, Anzac: Tides of Blood.

At the launch, he also said, “We didn’t realise when we began we would be right in the middle of history wars.” The next day, he says: “Of course it’s political. I was only dimly aware of these things going on, that history is being upended and torn apart and put back together again by those who still care about history.” He soon learnt. “Oh, there was anger all right,” he says of what he encountered in his travels. “But that’s good to know and humbling.” At the project? “Not at the project, really, once we made it apparent this wasn’t a gung-ho, Boys’-Own-paper thing; that we were really interested in a more nuanced evaluation of who we are and where we are and who Cook was and what happened. We didn’t know entirely what we would find or who we would find. Like Cook himself.”

The official portrait of Cook by Nathaniel Dance that hangs in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Image/Getty Images

Uncharted’s six episodes set out to centre the voices of the people who live with Cook’s colonial legacy and to disrupt the stubborn notion of Terra nullius – nobody’s land – “the preposterous idea that nobody lived there or nobody owned the land that led to all sorts of criminal activity: seizure of land; massacres; appalling behaviour.” He cites Aboriginal history in Australia. “It was buried completely. It was like history started when Cook sailed into Botany Bay. This completely ignores the fact that there were people in Australia for probably 80,000 years. Now people are starting to think about 100,000 years.”

So, Cook history isn’t safely back there somewhere but a present, living thing. “Oh, yeah. All around the Pacific people were so generous with their time and their insights and some of those insights were heart-breaking, just cut you to the quick. A real sense of such loss and such grief for their ancestors, for what happened. Someone in Australia said, ‘You don’t know loss until you’ve lost a whole continent.’ That hit me pretty hard. The scale of that.”

The journey also involved an interrogation of his own place in the Pacific. There are scenes where he looks overtaken by emotion. “You can’t feel otherwise if you’ve got any kind of humanity in you. And then you have to feel as a Pākehā New Zealander, perhaps, how much have you or your people been complicit in this? I don’t know.”

So, was the series also about staking his own claim to be at home here? “No. I don’t feel obliged to do that. I talked last night about [historian] Anne Salmond’s notion that Cook kept coming back here and, in a sense, was colonised by the Pacific. That happens. My family have become part of the Pacific. My grandchildren are Māori. My nephews are Māori. We’re all tangled up in this place and tangled up in each other.”

The Death of Captain Cook, by John Webber, c1784. The British explorer met his end at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, in 1779. Image/State Library of New South Wales

Evidence isn’t far away. We’re talking at Auckland’s Hilton Hotel, a stone’s throw from Michael Parekōwhai’s sculpture on Queens Wharf, The Lighthouse, a model of a state house in which a giant, stainless-steel Captain James Cook sits striking a ruminative pose, the shiny, impenetrable surface reflecting neon constellations of the Pacific sky. As Neill said, “You see yourself in Cook, literally.”

For all the reflex self-effacement, Neill seems okay with that reflection these days. The last time we spoke, in 1993, after The Piano and Jurassic Park, New Zealand wasn’t so relaxed about celebrity and Neill wasn’t so relaxed about his. “Sexy star back home but sick of same old questions,” went a headline. When the subject of success came up, he said, “Not that I wake up thinking, ‘Another day in my miraculous life.’”

Now, he has the air of one who might just wake up sometimes thinking that. And then post a selfie with his pig, Angelica, both in fine beaming and whisker-bristling form, at his Two Paddocks vineyard in Central Otago. In the 90s, he fretted about trying to adapt his slow speech rhythms – “Humming and hawing around in the accepted South Island manner” – to American interviews. He still takes his time. I ask how he thought the launch went. “Look, I just open my mouth and hope something sensible will come out by the time I get to the end of whatever convoluted thing I’ve dug myself into,” is his convoluted reply.

But enduring success – there’s an action figure of his Jurassic Park character, Dr Alan Grant, having his arm gnawed by an indignant velociraptor – has given him the confidence to say what he thinks. Just try to stop him. “Shall we talk about Te Papa?” he proposes, with his most vulpine smile. He was at our national museum to see a portrait of Cook by John Webber. “It’s not flattering. He looks pretty plain and humble,” he says happily. “And where is it?” he demands. “In the basement. In the basement!”

Cook at Queen Charlotte Sound, painted by John Clevely. Image/Getty Images

It’s since gone on display with a bunch of other portraits, but that hasn’t mollified him. “Now, I would have thought this is one of the great national treasures. But Te Papa is so PC, see what I’m saying? If you want a measure of how Cook is perceived these days you only have to go to Te Papa. He’s in the friggin’ dog box. Thank you, Te Papa,” he intones.

“It is a disgrace that, as a First World country, we are without a national art gallery. This extraordinary collection that’s down below is entirely neglected and unseen. And it makes me …” – cue the well-judged pregnant pause of a veteran actor – “angry.” Uncharted’s producer, Owen Hughes, is sitting in. “It’s probably going to end up being the sole controversial thing because when Sam did his bit down there the curator was in the room,” Hughes says. “Heh-heh-heh,” says Neill.

As with a Cook expedition, an interview with Neill can sail into unexpected territory. It’s my fault. His Jurassic Park accent had been raised on social media. “Was it meant to be American?” tweeted someone. “Bit harsh,” replied Neill. So I mention that his Northern Ireland accent as evil Inspector Campbell in UK television series Peaky Blinders, about a 1920s Birmingham crime family, was magnificent. Cue a small performance for an audience of one of The Ballad of William Bloat. “It’s about an unpleasant Protestant man,” says Neill, looking it up on his phone. Mr Bloat slits his wife’s throat then kills himself, which sounds pretty funny in Neill’s best Ian Paisley tones: “He went to Hell but his wife got well/And she’s still alive and sinnin’/For the razor blade was German made/But the sheet was Belfast linen.”

Inspector Campbell also met a sticky end, as has his impressive moustache. “You see the beard is returning? I’m sticking with the beard for the rest of my days. It’s so uncomfortable looking at myself without the beard now.” He’s not far off 71 when we speak, though you wouldn’t think it.

Beards, ballads, Belfast linen – it’s a bit of a segue from the topic at hand. Though not entirely. Neill was born in Northern Ireland. And Uncharted is, in the end, about where you come from, what you bring with you and where you end up.
The explorer and Resolution crew members in Hawaii, by Angelo Biasioli. Image/Getty Images

So where has Neill ended up in his relationship with Cook? “He divides people. People love him or loathe him. But I don’t see that you need to be on a side on this. He’s part of our story. He’s part of the tapestry that makes this place what it is.”

This place: it’s getting on with changing, sometimes for the better. Neill is in this year’s devastating, critically acclaimed film Sweet Country, about issues of race and colonisation in 1920s outback Australia. Neill plays a preacher. A good man? “A well-meaning man. But then you see him erecting a church. The stolen generation – the church is very much to do with that.”

He seems to be specialising in post-colonial projects. “It’s been lovely for me to be asked to be part of the work that some of these indigenous voices are producing. Warwick Thornton is a very interesting Aboriginal director. There’s a whole wave of people coming through who are just doing extraordinary stuff.”

In the foreword of the book that accompanies the series, The Pacific: In the Wake of Captain Cook, Neill says, “I love this vast blue hemisphere.” He’s inclined to be optimistic about its future. “You see signs of renaissance and regeneration everywhere around the Pacific, most particularly in our country. There’s still a long way to go but I think there are great grounds for optimism. I won’t be around to see it peak, but for my grandchildren, yeah, I’m cheerful.”

Uncharted confirms that history is always up for grabs. What would his parents have made of the series? “I grew up with a diehard Daily Telegraph reader who turned into a Guardian reader at the end of his life. I’d be curious to know. He’d changed a lot by the time he got to my age. He became a much more reasonable man.”

So his father would appreciate his perspective? “I reckon. If I have a perspective. I don’t come out of this with any hard-wired, rusted-off conclusions. I’ve got mixed feelings about a lot of this. I’m conflicted about a lot of it. There’s no black and white.” So, no easy answers to be found in the wake of Captain Cook. “For good or ill he mapped it,” said Neill at the launch. “That changed everything.”

Uncharted with Sam Neill, Prime TV, Sunday, 8.30pm.

The Pacific: in the wake of Captain Cook with Sam Neill, by Meaghan Wilson Anastasios (HarperCollins, $45).

This article was first published in the September 1, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.