How exactly should we remember the important early encounters in New Zealand history? Should we praise or condemn or find a difficult but honest middle ground?
The Government announced in February that it has committed $3.5 million to a national commemoration of the 250 years that have passed since Captain James Cook first visited New Zealand. Words like “discovery” have long since been outmoded. Former Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Maggie Barry talked instead of the first encounters between Europeans and Māori, with a replica of Cook’s ship, the Endeavour, stopping at important sites of contact, beginning with Gisborne in October 2019.
Barry said the Endeavour will be part of a flotilla, known as the Tuia 250 Voyage, that will honour Polynesian sailing traditions alongside European ones. Dame Jenny Shipley, appointed to co-chair the National Coordinating Committee for First Encounters 250 because of her “experience, knowledge and mana”, described it as “a commemoration for all New Zealanders to own, a commemoration which will lead to a greater understanding of our unique heritage in the Pacific and who we are as New Zealanders”. Shipley’s co-chair is Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, of Tainui descent.
These histories will be hard to navigate, and the pun is entirely intended. The legacy of Cook and colonialism has been more openly and painfully contested in Australia, where settlement was much more devastating for indigenous populations. Australia Day has been routinely dubbed Invasion Day and the slogan “No pride in genocide” was spray-painted on a statue of Cook in Sydney.
In New Zealand, indigenous rights advocate Tina Ngata laid a complaint with the United Nations over the “doctrine of discovery” that she expected to see in the planned commemorations. There is a need to be mindful of recent and changing thinking about colonisation, at both the academic and the popular level.
In the popular arena, actor Sam Neill’s critically praised TV series Uncharted put a revisionist view before a mass audience. The six-part series took Neill around the Pacific Cook encountered and colonised, from Tahiti to New Zealand to Australia to Hawaii. Despite the title, which suggested no-one sailed the Pacific before Cook and his men, the series took a nuanced and even view of the dark side of colonialism – disease, war, poverty and land appropriation. People still live with the effects.
Cook’s legacy is being reconsidered in other ways. The Cook Islands is considering changing its name to properly reflect its Polynesian identity. Nearly 60 possible names are being evaluated, with an ultimate contender to be shortlisted in April.
Dual naming has taken hold in New Zealand. Poverty Bay, which had been given a bad name by Cook, was officially renamed Tūranganui-a-Kiwa/Poverty Bay in February.
When she announced the change, Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage spoke of the delicate balancing act of New Zealand history: “On one hand the restoration of the traditional Māori name Tūranganui-a-Kiwa for the bay is long overdue for local iwi, given the importance of their tūpuna or ancestor. At the same time there is significant heritage value associated with the name Poverty Bay being given by Captain James Cook and recognising his first landing in New Zealand, as well as use of the name by local people.”
It is apt that this important change has been made ahead of the re-enactment of Cook’s landing in New Zealand, which could easily look kitsch or insensitive. The anniversary needs to reflect painful histories as well as triumphant ones.
The Press, Editorial March 07, 2019 https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/111073668/navigating-through-difficult-histories
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