Celebrating catastrophe

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Here’s a story: a naval vessel arrives in a foreign land, scopes it out, stakes a claim. Its crew is armed. They murder some of the local people and steal their goods.

We would usually call this an act of war. In New Zealand, we call it an encounter.

On October 6, 2019, it will be 250 years since Royal Navy Lieutenant James Cook first sighted Aotearoa, and commemorations of his visit will be taking place throughout the year. The government will spend $13.5 million on marking this through a program called Tuia Encounters 250, and a further $9 million will be provided for community events through the Lotteries Grants Board.

Using the word ‘encounters’ to describe the first meetings of British and Māori is a euphemism—a poor substitute for the enormity of what took place.

We need to find better words to describe what happened. We need to be honest about the nature of the Endeavour’s mission—to take possession of land and expand the British Empire—and the impact that it had. We have the text of the secret orders that Cook unsealed in 1769, after observing the transit of Venus near Tahiti. (In summary: “Go find Australia, see if it’s got anything valuable, and claim any islands you stop at on the way.”)

This obfuscation discredits New Zealanders. It treats Pākehā as though they are too fragile to cope with remembering the violence that accompanied British migration. Māori don’t have a choice whether to remember this violence or not—the ripples of it are still part of people’s lives. The bloodless word ‘encounter’ turns us away from what we have a duty to face.

When I spoke to Tina Ngata about the symbolism of the Endeavour, she pointed out that remembering Cook’s visit in this manner promotes a false sense of reconciliation and unity, and furnishes the idea that we’ve put all those misunderstandings in the past. (We haven’t—just look at the way Pākehā speak about Māori on social media if you’re not sure.)

Ngata is Ngāti Porou—her ancestors were among the first Māori to meet the British—and is a lone voice calling for plain speaking.

“Those kinds of truths really need to be told,” she says. “It’s not about attacking [Cook], it’s not about attacking anyone—it’s about telling the full truth of the project of imperial expansion.”

I’ll admit that it’s uncomfortable to imagine Cook as the tool of a military, to see his visit as the first stage of an invasion. I much prefer the story where he’s a hero—the story that’s all about daring and scientific discovery and exploration. That’s the one I was taught.

But this is an opportunity to recognise that we’ve only been recounting the Pākehā story for the last 250 years. I’d like to hear the one told by the descendants of the Māori who met Cook. But we need to quieten down the first one in order to listen.

As this issue went to press, Ngata was installing an exhibition at Gisborne’s Tairāwhiti Museum. It’s about Cook’s visit, from the point of view of the people who were already here, and involves art, performances, lectures and workshops. It’s called He Tirohanga ki Tai, A View from the Shore. It wasn’t funded by any of the government-sponsored grants.

Many of these event-organising bodies use the word ‘celebration’. But I think that to celebrate this occasion is an insult to the people for whom Cook’s visit was a harbinger of disease, disenfranchisement, and death.

We should be clear: the Endeavour is the backdrop for the opening scene of a tragedy. It symbolises something that we, as a people, never want to do again. The words we should use for its 250th anniversary are ‘lest we forget’.

Māori have a whakataukī, a proverb, that I think of often: Ka mua, ka muri. ‘Walking backwards into the future.’ We move forward, but the only thing we can see is the past.

We are not, as a nation, looking our past in its face. And we cannot take steps towards a unified future until we do.

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