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.
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.