Dr Liz Gordon: Contested views

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Well, it is 250 years since the pākeha ancestors, with inferior navigation skills, met nga tupuna Māori at Gisborne. Lt. Cook, as he was then, had embarked on the Endeavour ostensibly to view the transit of Venus across the sun from a vantage point in the South Pacific. Once this task was completed, he opened sealed orders from the Admiralty that asked him to go searching for the elusive Terra Australis, the large land mass that was believed to exist in the Southern Ocean. Perhaps the most charitable way to describe what happened was that he missed Australia but found Aotearoa, with the help of Tupaia, a Tahitian chief and expert navigator.

Cook was explicitly advised by the Royal Society to treat indigenous people with kindness and respect in his travels:

They are human creatures, the work of the same omnipotent Author, equally under his care with the most polished European, perhaps being less offensive, more entitled to his favour. They are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit.

(For those who find the casual assumption of the superiority of the ‘polished European’ offensive, it is indeed offensive, and ignorant, and narrow and a bit daft). He was asked to “check the petulance of sailors and restrain the wanton use of firearms”.  Yeah right! In short, being superior, the (dubious) sailors of Europe should be restrained from shooting South Pacific natives like a pack of dogs. How kind.

Not being able to restrain his sailors, somewhere between five and nine Māori were killed by the Endeavour’s crew on first contact. Shoot first and ask questions later… how common that still is around the world.

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And now the British Government have said, not that they are sorry, but that they regret this wanton killing on first contact. Those who attended the ceremony have said that the expression of regret was made in a heartfelt manner, and acted to heal some of the past wrongs.  Not an apology, but still something. 

Enter Don Brash, who has turned living in the past into a career (sort of the Jacob Rees-Mogg of NZ politics), who said that there was nothing to regret.

Oh dear, what to say about Don?  His past is littered with the corpses of poor judgement, from the use of the weaponised conservatism of the Exclusive Brethren to try to win the 2005 election, to his various affairs, his corned-beef-and-peas lifestyle and the creation of the Hobson’s Pledge organisation which promotes highly colonised views of the history of Aotearoa. He is out of touch not only with people who have progressive views, but even with the political right.  He once claimed he would, as Act leader, get 15% of the vote, and won 1%.

So now we have the unedifying sight of Don Brash arguing with Dame Anne Salmond over how many Māori were actually killed in that first encounter – was it five or nine?  Brash claims, from the account of Cook, that four or five were killed. Local Māori think there were nine, a view supported by Professor Salmond. However, she notes that the accounts of how many were killed are inevitably ‘confused’.  In her (immortal) words:

“When you’re shooting people with muskets you can’t necessarily see who’s dead and who’s not.”

The 250th thus passes this week in some celebration, lots of commemoration, a significant amount of mourning and hopefully some soul-searching about the forms of colonialism this first contact eventually brought to the shores of this incredible nation.

Māori today are finding new pathways through critiques of colonialism, cultural revival and the making of new economic and social opportunities.  Those who hate or fear such movements, or who insist on imposing discredited old white interpretations of history onto the indigenous people, are standing in the way of progress towards a socially just future.

 The National Party no longer embraces Brash’s views, although they did so with gusto in 2005 until the rotten core of racism was exposed through the collaboration with the shadowy and sinister Brethren. Brash’s views are no longer prominent but they are undoubtedly still present in a small proportion of the population. Perhaps, by the 500th birthday, the injustices of the past will be fully resolved and redress achieved, with a full acknowledgement of our remorseful history.  But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society.  She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Brash I have long seen as a Peter Pan of politics – like the boy who never grew up. He can say fairly idiotic things with the endearing earnestness that smart kids use to cajole indulgent mothers.

    At the ballet one night with another woman, we spent as much time watching, totally fascinated, as Brash with his then wife, chatted with another suit with a Chinese wife. We watched the lovely wives in awe, as they held their men’s arms, and gazed up at them adoringly above their single strands of real pearls, in a way that I’ve not really seen in real life. We envied this quintessential display of delicious femininity which our Caucasian genes seem to have denied us, both of us deciding that if we tried to emulate these ladies, then we couldn’t keep it up for more than approx. 5-10 mins.

    I am uncertain whether or not I’d want to treat a man as a god, but with beautiful women gazing at them in that way, it was not too hard to see why some men may think that they are. Learnt a lot that evening.

  2. “….the pākeha ancestors, with inferior navigation skills…..Perhaps the most charitable way to describe what happened was that he missed Australia….”

    For the life of me, I fail to understand why you’d write in such a fashion about Cook. However. If you are intent upon writing pieces of this sort, it’s really important that your account is accurate.

    The Europeans – in particular Cook – were superb mariners, performing miracles of navigation with the imperfect technology of the time. Cook was a very clever man; his intelligence was recognised early in his life, and as a consequence he had access to the sort of education not normally available to a person of his class at that time.

    It would come as a surprise to contemporary Australians to read your claim that Cook missed Australia. Do you not know anything of the history of his explorations in this part of the world?

    “….found Aotearoa, with the help of Tupaia, a Tahitian chief and expert navigator.”

    He took Tupaia on board – largely at the urging of Joseph Banks – at the Society Islands. Tupaia acted as a guide to NZ; I very much doubt that he was of any use in their reaching the coast of Australia, given that the early Polynesians hadn’t themselves gone there and didn’t know of its existence.

    “For those who find the casual assumption of the superiority of the ‘polished European’ offensive, it is indeed offensive, and ignorant, and narrow and a bit daft”

    This bespeaks a serious case of presentism on your part; Cook and other Europeans were men of their times, and their views and perspectives were commonplace. Of course they saw themselves as civilised: they were. Of course they perceived their culture to be superior: it was. Technologically, it was far in advance of the seafaring cultures of the Pacific. Pacific peoples – and Maori – were quick to see the advantages of the technology that the Europeans had brought with them. In particular the musket, of course. The technologies of the Pacific and Australia were stone age; I’d add that by the time of Cook’s first arrival, Maori had either lost the skills of open ocean voyaging, or didn’t have access to the resources which would enable them to build ocean-going waka. Or likely both.

    On his second visit to NZ, Cook brought chickens, pigs (Captain Cookers) and goats. Other early European explorers had given Maori the potato, the carrot and the cabbage. Without these foodstuffs – in particular the mammals – it’s likely there’d have been a population crash due to starvation. By the time of Cook’s first voyage, food supplies were running low; Maori had eaten to extinction all the large flightless birds, and fish and seafood stocks were under pressure due to overfishing in the early years. I read an academic paper on this topic over 20 years ago; I cannot now locate it, but there is this, which deals with the paleological evidence regarding chickens:

    https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rsos.160258

    “The 250th thus passes this week in some celebration, lots of commemoration, a significant amount of mourning and hopefully some soul-searching about the forms of colonialism this first contact eventually brought to the shores of this incredible nation.”

    It is to be hoped that the benefits accruing from colonialism aren’t forgotten. And – lest people run away with the idea that all the violence at that time was done to Maori by Europeans – we’ll be remembering the massacre of The Boyd in 1809, won’t we? It’s a particularly gruesome episode in our shared history.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boyd_massacre

    “Māori today are finding new pathways through critiques of colonialism, cultural revival and the making of new economic and social opportunities.”

    In my lifetime, Maori culture has been alive and well: in the mid-1970s, I learned te reo from a native speaker of the language, I was around when the first kohanga reo were established. Te ao Maori has always been there, humming away alongside pakeha culture and our shared culture. I know this: I spent much of my career working among Maori. It is indisputable that the colonisation of NZ also brought benefits to Maori: nothing is ever wholly bad. Or wholly good.

    But it was neoliberalism – along with the malign effects of drugs – which did the major damage to Maori society over the past almost-40 years.

    “…the injustices of the past will be fully resolved and redress achieved….”

    I think that we deserve to hear what you mean by this. Words are cheap and such things are easy to say; it’s incumbent upon you to elaborate on what you think ought to happen, over and above what already has happened by way of redress.

    • I gave upon this blog at this point D’esterre. I realised it was going to be an agony of frustration. Came back and skipped to the comments just now.
      I found a couple of years ago that I could access Cooks diaries on line. It’s well worth while if you haven’t done so.
      Cheers D J S

      • David Stone: “I found a couple of years ago that I could access Cooks diaries on line. It’s well worth while if you haven’t done so.”

        Many thanks for the tip! Much appreciated. I’ve read the odd excerpt, but that’s all. It’s always good to get the account from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Greatly to be preferred to revisionist contemporary interpretations, which also suffer from an acute dose of presentism: as does this blog post.

  3. “with inferior navigation skills”

    This is by far the stupidest comment I’ve seen posted on the internet in the last year, outside of Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.

  4. “Perhaps the most charitable way to describe what happened was that he missed Australia but found Aotearoa”

    I think you need to go back to school. Hint: Botany Bay 😉

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