A statue, lies, and the legacy of James Cook

There is an argument going on at the moment about replacing the statue of James Cook on Mount Titirangi at Gisborne. Barney Tupara, a representative of Ngati Oenone says that the first meeting between Maori and Pakeha was violent and nine Maoris were killed. This is a blatant example of the lies Maori activists tell now about the first encounter between Maori and Europeans, and when it is not a lie it is a distortion of the truth. The journal of Captain Cook is clear, four or five Maoris were killed, the only query being if one was killed or injured, and it was the result of Maori aggression.

From the 17th century onwards mariners, cartographers and explorers were aware of the bellicose nature of the Maori. In 1642, four of Abel Tasman's crew were killed at what was then named Murderer's Bay. Tasman took fright at the incident and never attempted to land again in New Zealand. As a result, for the next 130 years New Zealand remained untouched by European navigators. They would have read about this incident in the magisterial book of the savant Charles de Brosses, president of the parliament of Dijon, Histoire des Navigations aux Terres Australes, (Tales of navigations to southern lands containing all that one knows of the customs and produce of countries discovered up to the present era) published in two tomes each of 500 pages in 1756, the handbook of all sailors, adventurers and explorers of this period.

In the Society Islands and the Friendly Islands (Tahiti and Tonga), Cook and his crew met an enormously friendly reception from the natives. Dozens of canoes came out to greet them. One of their faults, perhaps the only one, was that they would steal anything they could lay their hands on, a penchant also shared by the Maoris. Immediately a commerce was established, the sailors exchanging trinkets for fresh water, vegetables and pigs. For his journey to New Zealand, Cook took on board Tupaia to act as an interpreter and his servant Taiata. Tupaia was a chief and priest and versed in the customs and lore of Polynesia and was indispensable as a guide.

The guiding principle Cook enunciated to his sailors was, “ to strive by all honest means to make friendship with the natives and to always give proof of humanity.” The first contacts between Maori and European were difficult to say the least, and without Tupaia who acted as ambassador, interpreter and mediator, they could have been disastrous. According to tradition, at first sight of the Endeavour the Maoris thought it was an island adrift or a giant bird that they conceived the intention of seizing by force. On October 9, 1769, Cook attempted to land at Gisborne in two small boats. Immediately, natives surged from the woods brandishing weapons in an attempt to steal the boats. The master of one of the lighters fired two volleys over their heads, to which they were impervious. A third round aimed at them killed one of them on the spot. Monarchs of the period, Louis XVI and George III prescribed to explorers to use force only in cases of extreme necessity. Louis XVI gave instructions to the ill fated Laperouse that he exercise sweetness and humanity towards the natives. Charles de Brosses's books advocated the same philosophy. We are at the heart of the cult of the noble savage. Cook who was very uneasy at what had happened returned on board and had a sleepless night.

The following morning, accompanied by Tupaia and a detachment of sailors, he returned to the spot where the man had fallen hoping to regain the confidence of the natives. Assembled on the opposite bank was a menacing crowd brandishing clubs, pikes with blades at their tip who began a war dance, the haka, with all its ritual, poking the tongue, uttering ferocious sounds and imitating axe blows. It may not have been as frightening to them as it is now to opponents on the rugby field. Then feigning to cede to the pacific propositions of Tupaia, about 30 warriors threw themselves into the water. They repulsed the presents of the English and, emboldened, they attempted to tear the weapons from the hands of the soldiers. When one of them ran off with the cutlass of Charles Green, the astronomer of the expedition Cook gave the order to fire in the air. A second round killed one of the men and three of his comrades were injured. Cook wrote in his journal:

I do not know what the majority of people who feel human sentiments, when they have found themselves in such situations, would blame me for having fired on these men in their boat; if I had foreseen that they would oppose the least resistance I would not have approached them but the fact having happened I was not going to remain indifferent and suffer that neither myself nor my comrades would have the head broken or that we would retreat and let them triumph which would have been attributed to their courage and to our cowardice.

But even this argument cannot dissimulate Cook's malaise which was shared by Joseph Banks, the first to fire, who declared having experienced the worst day of his life. A few days later there was another skirmish when Maoris in boats attempted to throw missiles and projectiles; warned by shots over their head which did not deter them they were fired on and the journal records that two or three were killed. Because of the bad experience Cook had in this spot instead of naming it after the Endeavour he called it Poverty Bay simply because he had not been able to take on any fresh supplies and the overwhelming hostility of the natives. Last year, the Maoris demanded the name be changed because it shows them in a bad light, just one more example of the re-writing of history that they are engaged in.

He continued his progress along the coast towards Hawke's Bay handicapped by assaults from large war canoes filled with warriors launching missiles; other smaller boats which crossed their path attacked them as well. At some point Taiata, Tupaia's servant who was standing by the side of the boat was kidnapped in an audacious assault from a posse of natives who managed to clamber on board and abduct him. Taiata managed to swim free but in the effort to free him two or three of his abductors were killed. Cook named this area Cape Kidnappers, after the brazen assault of the Maoris, which stands to this day, but no doubt which Maori activists have in their sights to change. Between 9 – 15 October I have counted a maximum of eight Maori fatalities, but only four or five of these on the Gisborne coast and all as a result of provocation on their part. I do not know where Barney Tupara gets his figure of nine from, but I'm sure it is a fabrication; if it is based on oral traditions they are notoriously unreliable.

The Maoris seem to want to downplay the significance of the discovery of New Zealand by Cook and claim primacy for themselves. The problem is that nothing came of it it because they were so remote and had no written language.The discoveries Cook made on his three epic voyages echoed round the world and contributed to progress in many scientific domains.

In his first voyage he was commissioned to observe the transit of Venus and confirm or not the existence of the great southern continent, Terra australis incognita. The English astronomer Edmund Halley (1656–1742) predicted that the next transit of Venus would occur in 1769 and The Admiralty thought that Tahiti would be the best place to observe it. The measuring of the transit in Tahiti and other parts of the world permitted some years later to calculate with an astonishing precision the distance which separates the earth from the sun. They estimated it then at 151 million kilometres, very close to today's figure of 149.6 million kilometres.

One of the major achievements of the second voyage was the determination of longitude by means of the first chronometer. Up to that time sailors could not rediscover easily the lands they had stumbled across because they could not determine the longitude and the latitude. In November 1769, the astronomers on board were able to observe the transit of Mercury at Hawke's Bay. In making the observation they could determine the longitude of the country with precision. The great southern continent, Terra Australis Incognita was believed in since antiquity because it was believed there had to be something to balance the northern world. Ptolemy, the Roman geographer (100–170AD) was the first to expound this. There were still savants in the 18th century like Joseph Banks and Alexander Dalrymple who firmly believed in it. During the second voyage Cook was finally able to disprove it; New Zealand was not attached to a greater land mass.

On his third and last voyage he was commissioned to find the north west passage; this was believed to be a shortcut between Europe and Asia and any country which found it would steal a march on their commercial rivals. Atrocious weather meant he could not continue the search and so he returned to Hawaii, where he met his death. Throughout this time he mapped the coastline of all the places he had discovered with such precision that his charts were still valid generations later; this skill he had gained in Canada going up the Saint Lawrence River, which brought him to the attention of Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser, who in effect promoted his career because of this.

One of the great merits of Cook's voyages was that he found a cure for scurvy, epidemic which raged among seamen. On Bougainville's voyage which had taken place just before a third of the crew had died of it. The panacea was very simple;it was fresh food and Cook was rigorous in imposing it. One of the most effective remedies was sauerkraut. It consisted of cabbage cut into small pieces to which one added salt, juniper berries and grains of aniseed. The concoction was then stored in vats and fermented. Initially the crew disliked it but the trick Cook discovered was for he and his officers to eat it first, and then the rest of the crew would follow. He was proud of the fact that on the first voyage none of the crew died of it. On his way home in1770 he anchored at Batavia (modern day Jakarta) and the capital of the Dutch East Indies. This was the most insalubrious city in the world and it is hard to imagine any other place on earth which can take over this moniker. It was estimated that 90 percent of the Dutch garrison sent out died within the first year. Another horrifying statistic, barely credible, is that 50,000 inhabitants died each year from malaria. During the three months they were there there was an outbreak of dysentery; eight of them died including the talented Tupaia and his servant. Cook was bitter but there was worse to come. On the remainder of the voyage another 20 died from illnesses contracted in the sepulchre of Batavia. He had set out with a complement of 94 and returned with only 56. One can only imagine how each man's death afflicted him on the voyage.

The Enlightenment defined itself above all as an unrelenting struggle of philosophers and European intellectuals against religious and state obscurantism. In the 18th century, many savant societies were founded; astronomic observatories were established at Paris under the aegis of the king and in an earlier century the Royal Observatory at Greenwich was founded under the aegis of Charles 11. Now astronomers, naturalists, scientific draftsmen became indispensable parts of voyages of discovery. France had lost the Seven Years' War, and so was anxious to compensate this by finding new lands in the Pacific. So there was rivalry between the two super powers of the age. Who could find these lands first would acquire new sources of wealth and so gain a commercial advantage.

On the first expedition there was the wealthy Joseph Banks who had contributed 4000 pounds of his own money to finance the expedition; Dr Daniel Solander was the Swedish botanist who worked alongside him. They botanised wherever they could; they found so many plant specimens in Sydney that the place was named Botany Bay. There is a hilarious incident when they disembarked at Rio de Janeiro; the Portuguese governor didn't like the English so refused to let the ship come into port. Banks and Solander were besides themselves. Not content, they managed to find a small skiff to take them into town in the middle of the night; they then rushed around the town collecting as many specimens of plants as they could before being discovered and frogmarched back to the ship. There were many other savants on board including Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg. The father exercised 17 languages and could be described as an ethnographer as much as a naturalist as well as many other things besides. There was also Charles Green, the astronomer, the painters William Hodges, Alex Buchan and Sydney Parkinson who produced hundreds of sketches before dying at Batavia aged only 26.

These were voyages of discovery not voyages of conquest, although Cook observed in passing that the Maoris would be easy to subjugate as they were a group of warring tribes. Cook believed that if there had been a political nation the Maoris would have practised cannibalism less because there would have been fewer enemies to eat. Cannibalism here was not a source of food but a final insult to your vanquished opponent. But Cook maintained that it was thanks to the superiority of weapons that he was able to maintain a relationship with the natives.

There was one period when they had been four months at sea without seeing land; the crew were exhausted and there was always the threat of a rebellion. It was essential to establish a rapport with the indigenous inhabitants because sometimes they had to stay on dry land for months.The procedure was to establish an encampment near the harbour. The ship may need to go into dry dock, the masts would have to be repaired or replaced so trees would have to be cut down; the sails could be torn and so needed to be mended. The blacksmith would need to install a forge to repair the ironwork, the carpenters and coopers a workshop to repair barrels and rotting timber; and the cooks their boilers. They needed to find sources of fresh water and local knowledge was essential. Bartering took place and in exchange for trinkets axes and nails, fruit, vegetables and pigs were traded.

Peaceful relations between natives and Europeans developed and soon there was a flourishing commerce. Sex and commerce were the two commodities traded, recognised from one end of the world to the other.A third of his crew were infected with syphilis; in Tahiti the populace was already suffering from it because Bougainville's men had been there a few years before. On his second voyage in 1776 he noticed a degradation in the behaviour of the Maoris. That time there was no reticence and women were brought to the ship by their brothers, fathers or husbands and traded for baubles and trinkets or whatever the Maori deemed valuable.

Local knowledge was very important. They wanted to find out if anyone had preceded them in the lands they discovered and claimed for in the name of the king. At Easter Island they were accorded an enormous reception by the inhabitants, hundreds of canoes rowing out to meet them. One of the natives was wearing a rather worn broad – brimmed hat, provenance European obviously; another waved a red silk handkerchief, evidence of the passage there in 1722 of the Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen.

Cook claimed that one of the greatest benefits the islands gained from his discovery was the donation of so many animals. Just before the last expedition departed King George 111 donated a bull, 2 cows with their calves and some lambs. Cook saw a future where pastoral farming would take root, a food supply not only for shipwrecked mariners but also for the local population. George III was an avid promoter of the voyages of discovery and read his journal; so too did Louis XVI, devotee of marine exploration and geography who devoured it in English although it was soon translated into European languages. A few days before he set off on his last voyage there occurred the Declaration of Independence, and so France and England were at war. But such was the fame of Cook that the king instructed Antoine de Sartine, Secretary of State for the Navy to inform all the French ports to welcome him and to treat him as though he were the captain of a neutral vessel. Here Cook is active in promoting international peace, and never let us forget that his crew included an international caste of scientists, amateur or otherwise.

In 1772, Cook handed over to Dr John Hawksworth, writer and editor, the task of publishing his notebooks and journals. He was not happy with the result and had to do a lot of re-editing. Cook did not want any mention of the sexual license of the sailors included in the text but Hawksworth took liberties. Just before the third voyage Johann Forster and his son took extracts from the common journal to publish before Cook. There was an uproar and Forster and his son were ostracised by London society and soon returned to Germany. Cook's journal in three volumes appeared in 1776. A warning should be given about Cook's authorship. He says himself that he had had a very limited education and I find it hard to believe that he could write the erudite passages which appear in it. After describing a stay in whatever land there is a detailed description of the native population, their dress, customs, religious practices and many other observations from a sociological and anthropological perspective. The knowledge brought back was colossal. The notions of totem and tabou, key concepts of modern anthropology find their first expression in his writings. The journal was a collaborative effort; the pen of Joseph Banks, Dr Solander, Charles Green and many other savants on board contribute largely to it.

Cook and his crew always suspected the Maoris were cannibals because the rumours abounded, and it did not take long to confirm them. In January 1770 in Queen Charlotte Sound they came across two Maoris who had just regaled themselves on human flesh because one of them gave Cook the bone of a forearm which was still quite fresh and of which the flesh had only just detached itself; they told him that they had just eaten it. They then made them understand that a few days before that they had taken, killed and eaten the crew of an enemy canoe. On many occasions Tupaia reproached them for their cannibalism but they laughed in his face. He was shocked because the practice was unknown in the Society Islands and the Friendly Islands, although they practised human sacrifice for propitiation of the Gods. Religion meant little to the Maori so this custom was unknown. They generally conserved the heads of their unfortunate victims and showed them to Cook and Banks. Banks was able to obtain one with a little bit of bartering although its owner was unwilling to part with it. This macabre specimen found its way to a museum in England but I think it may have been repatriated in recent years, if you can say that of a skull!

On the second expedition, 1772–1775, there were two ships which set out, the Adventure and the Resolution and Tobias Furneaux was captain of the former. In October 1773 the boats got separated from each other for the second time and returned independently to England in July the following year. Furneaux was responsible for taking on board Omai, who had his portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, was paraded round London society and made many conquests of fashionable ladies. It was nearly a year later that Cook learnt of the massacre of Grass Cove, which he was reluctant to believe. However it was confirmed by a letter Furneaux delivered to the Admiralty and this report is produced in full in his journal.

The Adventure was anchored in Queen Charlotte Sound and Mr Rowe with a contingent of 10 went out in a boat to find edible plants. It got later and later and they had not returned and the Captain, very worried, sent out Lt Burney ( the son of the musicologist Dr Charles Burney and brother of Fanny Burney, the novelist) and others to search for them. They did not find the boat but came across, “a gripping spectacle of carnage and barbarism that one will never be able to think of without horror because the heads, the hearts, the lungs of several of our men were lying on the beach, and a small distance away dogs were devouring the entrails.”

What had happened? It appeared they were having a picnic on the beach when they spotted a Maori attempting to steal something. In the fracas that followed Jack Rowe, well known for his infringements of discipline killed two of them; before they could reload their guns a group of Maoris fell upon them and massacred them. There was definite provocation though most would agree that the punishment did not fit the crime. What is most interesting is Cook's reaction. Two years later on his last voyage he found himself in Queen Charlotte Sound and made his own inquiries. The locals told him it was the warrior Kahura and his troops who had carried out the massacre. Though urged on by other Maoris and Omai to exact revenge he refused to do so. He did say that if such an outrage happened again the response would be different. When he left the Sounds the family of Kahura, including children and babies came to bid him farewell. Nothing illustrates better the clemency Cook exercised towards native races than this episode and apologists for another version of history are simply propagandists.

Cook's expeditions produced a wealth of knowledge. From the first voyage alone Sir Joseph Banks and his scientific colleagues brought back more than a thousand species of plants, hundreds of insects, 500 fish conserved in alcohol, 500 stuffed birds, several animals stuffed including the famous kangaroo, several hundred mineralogical specimens and more than 1300 drawings of landscapes, plants and animals all of which embellished Cook's narrative. These artifacts were donated to museums in London, Oxford, Edinburgh, and in Germany, thanks to the Forsters, Munich, Berlin and Gottingen to be admired by a growing public captivated by voyages of discovery. There are statues to Cook in many parts of the world, the Captain Cook Memorial at Canberra, the monument to him on the site of his death in Hawaii, Cook Bay at Moorea in Tahiti and the replica of the Endeavour in Sydney harbour.

While there are statues of Cook in other parts of New Zealand it seems shameful to dismantle the one in Gisborne, site of his first attempted landing in New Zealand, on spurious grounds. Cook's voyages echoed around the world, which certainly wasn't the case with the Maori landing in New Zealand which stayed undetected for hundreds of years.

Peter Bacos

February 28, 2019




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