Toppling Cook

The Endeavour replica landed on Aotearoa’s shores a few weeks back, its arrival heralding a series of commemorative events for 250 years of settler activity; the ship will sail on to Australia in 2020. Naturally, in a settler-colonial context, this plan hasn’t been warmly received by all, with responses ranging from welcomes to challenges to bans. Much of the focus has been on reactions from Māori communities faced with reliving their dispossession, but it is also worth considering why the New Zealand government – or any settler government for that matter – continues to sponsor memorials to its ongoing occupation of Indigenous lands.

Whether through place names, physical monuments or memorial events, the way a country celebrates its heritage sends strong political messages about its identity, as well as those of its inhabitants. It doesn’t take much to realise the symbolic power of historical monuments: some of the most powerful images of the last century show victorious crowds toppling statues of authoritarian leaders after an oppressive regime has collapsed; those doing the dismantling are fully aware that such monuments represent more than the individual depicted.

More recently, social movements have called on decision-makers to consider the ethics of public memorials glorifying people, places and events associated with oppression. Consequently, we have seen the removal of memorials to colonialists like Christopher Columbus and Cecil Rhodes, and the dismantling of statues of confederate ‘heroes’ like Robert E Lee.

Locally, discussions are being had around whether someone like Cook deserves the millions of dollars being dedicated to his memorialisation (New Zealand is said to be contributing around $20 million, while Australia has spent at least $50 million). One might rightly question which social groups have something to gain from promoting history in this manner. To fully appreciate the stakes at play, we must first consider the history of colonisation and how this has shaped the retelling of Cook’s story.

For many Cook supporters, he is a symbol of New Zealand’s ‘racial harmony’ – a renaissance man, a skilled navigator, a friend to the natives, an expert cartographer who was more interested in science than imperial expansion. Many will contrast him with famously brutal explorers like Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro, insisting that any acts of violence initiated by Cook were necessary or accidental.

Such comparisons imply that the colonisation of our lands was beneficent, a process that elevated the status of those impacted and created the peaceful fusion we see today. This is the version of history that dominates our educational resources, the majority of which don’t even question Cook’s right to carry out his ‘duties’ in the first place. This right is not just presumed, but also regarded as noble and just.

From an Indigenous perspective, such a right is never automatic. In fact, we often begin our critiques of colonisation by questioning this presumption: what gives anyone the right to enter our territories and make any claims on our land, let alone enact acts of violence upon our peoples?

So how did this get positioned as a ‘right’ in the first place? To answer this question we must cast our lens back much further than 1769. The justification for widespread colonisation can be traced to a set of papal bulls from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Collectively, these decrees became the basis of what is now referred to as the ‘doctrine of discovery’. One of the earliest is the Dum Diversas, which accorded King Alfonso V of Portugal the ‘right’ to conquer North Africa:

[This decree grants the right to] invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens [Muslims] and pagans [non-Christians] and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property […] and to reduce their persons into perpetual servitude.

The last part is critical: the decree didn’t just reference lands and resources, but also the people in those territories. In other words, anyone who wasn’t white and Christian.

The Dum Diversas is referenced extensively in African decolonial discourse, but also in African-American discourse, because it formed the basis of the Atlantic slave trade, which would eventually displace over 13 million people, primarily from West and Central Africa.

Later papal bulls include Romanus Pontifex and Inter Caetera, both of which extended the rights that had been previously granted into the New World. As well as proclaiming all non-Christians enemies of God, the decrees commanded the Portuguese, Spanish and other European monarchies, ‘for the defence and increase of the faith, to vanquish them and their kingdoms and habitations, though situated in the remotest parts unknown to us.’

These decrees have never been rescinded.

Over the centuries, they sculpted a belief in European superiority and universal entitlement. In justifying European imperialism, the papal bulls paved the way for Cortés, Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, John Cabot and indeed James Cook. They provided a convenient religious rationale for the hardly imaginable cruelties of colonisation.

This psyche of entitlement – firmly embedded in the consciousness of Europe by the rise of the British Empire – laid the groundwork for the multitudes of settlers who followed in Cook’s wake, overwhelming and eventually claiming unbridled dominion over Indigenous peoples and territories. This goal was typically achieved through genocide – sometimes in short but brutal massacres, but mainly in legislated dispossession and forced assimilation.

European entitlement not only legitimised the voyages of Cook to find, invade, name and claim lands across the Pacific, but also ‘bestowed’ the right to abuse and, through declaring terra nullius, to outright erase whole peoples, histories and cultures.

Cook’s voyages were a continuation of a centuries-long tradition of European entitlement to Indigenous bodies, lands and resources. This is why the journals of Cook and his crewmembers are peppered with violence, such as deliberately infecting communities with disease, abducting both female and male community leaders, and torturing, raping, murdering or otherwise harming anyone in their way. These brutal liberties continued throughout the establishment of self-governing colonies and the apportioning of resources to uphold systems of domination, at great cost to Indigenous peoples.

That is colonisation – and it is a state of injustice that continues today.

Like all structures, colonial supremacy requires purposeful maintenance to reinforce its power – for example, a months-long commemorative sailing trip to mark 250 years of invasion and dispossession. Without these acts, colonial routines crumble under the weight of time and neglect. It is for this reason that place names, education policies, literary works, cultural artefacts, heritage sites, festival programs and currency designs are used to reiterate the system’s supremacy.

We are constantly reminded – sometimes explicitly, but often more subtly – who should ‘rightfully’ sit at the centre of our identity. This process doesn’t require historical accuracy, for it is not really about remembering, and especially not about remembering ethically.

It is generally accepted that Columbus never set foot on the land now called the United States, yet he is still celebrated for its discovery. The function of these ‘misrememberings’ has very little to do with maintaining an accurate record of events and everything to do with solidifying power. At its core, misremembering is about avoiding an honest assessment of injustice, as noted by human rights lawyer Moana Jackson:

The commemorations are really about power and the Crown restating the authority that it has always assumed over Māori since Cook’s alleged discovery.

This is an important step in reasoning to reach, when seeking to understand the stakes held in commemoration.

At a global level, the decrees underpinning the doctrine of discovery remain in effect and have formed the basis of international law (the papal bulls were central to the US government’s legal case defending the dispossession of Native Americans). At a national level, all settler-colonial economies are built off the back of stolen Indigenous land and resources. At a local level, multiple dimensions of colonial oppression function to keep Indigenous peoples out of decision-making roles and therefore unable to prevent the exploitation of their resources.

Power dynamics at all levels stand to be uprooted when addressing the large-scale injustices of imperialism. It is the most immediate threats, however, that tend to inform decisions and behaviours – for this reason, it is the national and local threat to the incumbent settler powerbase that informs people’s antipathy to deconstructing colonial fictions.

It is very rare that you come across someone from a settler background who will freely admit that they squander power over Indigenous people and resources. Some may feel a level of awareness and discomfort, and may even be active allies alongside Indigenous peoples, but most will casually attest to perfectly just treatment, or even a level of privilege enjoyed at the cost of ‘regular citizens’. Interestingly, many settlers are able to empathise with the plight of Indigenous peoples from nations other than their own. Pākehā (New Zealanders of European descent) were more willing to support the Standing Rock protests than local campaigns such as Climate Justice Taranaki (focusing on the devastating effects of drilling and fracking in the region) or the Djab Wurrung tent embassy in Victoria (established over a year ago to protect a number of 800-year-old birthing trees).

This, again, is connected to the idea that our own colonial situation is more harmonious and accepted, that it was one of invitation. This is at the root of the suggestion that we should be ‘thankful’ we weren’t colonised by another (presumably more brutal) colonial power than the British.

This anomaly highlights an intention that shifts well beyond the notion of ‘ethical remembering’ and into the realm of a kind of ‘invested misremembering’. It is not simply an absence of facts that belies the bias of commemoration, but rather a deliberate blind spot: the refusal to recognise the injustices of colonisation, underpinned by a fear of losing the power that flows from being settlers. It is a purposeful evasion of history, a warping of truth, all to maintain colonial comfort.

These are the true stakes of commem­oration – justice, power, privilege.

Which brings us to the crux of the issue: is it possible to have ethical Cook commemorations?

The New Zealand government seems to feel that its planned events are ethical, mainly because of cursory attempts to fund local Māori communities to ‘tell their side of the story’. But celebrating our own Indigenous identity on the anniversary of colonisation has numerous pitfalls (see Australia’s Invasion Day). The very notion of using such an anniversary as a platform for celebrating ‘dual heritage’ assumes a context that was mutually beneficial, rather than one beset with historical trauma. The Pākehā half of that ‘dual heritage’ has held power for centuries and is supported by a broader colonial social context. There is no ethical way to celebrate Cook’s ‘redeeming’ qualities alongside his crimes, or to support the system that perpetuates that privilege, as the Tuia – Encounters 250 commemoration does.

Sailing the replica of a vessel that carried death and destruction to so many communities is undoubtedly on the side of white supremacy. Those who have suffered the devastation following the first Endeavour’s arrival will experience its return differently to those who did not. It is disingenuous to suggest that it will be an equally shared experience of acknowledging history ‘warts and all’ (read: genocide).

I don’t accept that there is an ethical way to impose the Endeavour replica upon Indigenous communities. As scholar, activist and leader Margaret Mutu noted of her people’s official response to the Endeavour flotilla:

Ngāti Kahu [community] has banned the Endeavour from our territories. Murderous barbarians have never been welcome. Neither is the replica of the ship that carried such people and now carries other people who are celebrating the illegitimate assumption of Crown power rather than condemning Cook’s deeds. The hapū [people] of Ngāti Kahu remain the only legitimate power and authority in our territories.

As she deftly points out, people may believe they are commemorating a ‘founding’ event, but this is far from the truth. In light of the historical misremembering and ongoing injustices against Indigenous peoples in New Zealand and Australia, the only ethical events at this time are those that explicitly condemn Cook and the processes of dispossession he initiated.

If settler governments are truly interested in celebrating dual heritage, they will offer generous funding for honouring Indigenous heritage every year. If there is a genuine intent to honour truth, then governments will continue to support ethical remembering beyond the date of the coloniser and take action to dismantle the enduring systems of injustice that have resulted from these events: stolen power, stolen land, stolen wages, stolen children, stolen lives and so on.

The most ethical events for this anniversary are not Cook commemorations but Cook condemnations, where the colonial legacy is correctly positioned as one of ongoing pain and injustice, a situation that demands urgent correction. The first step on the pathway to justice is truth – the truth of colonial practices, colonial histories and colonial legacies. Truth recognises that restitution will never be complete, that processes of redress are ongoing. Until we take that step together, ethically and courageously, we have yet to begin our journey towards a just future.






Tina Ngata

Tina Ngata is a Ngāti Porou mother of two, Indigenous rights advocate, and environmental educator.

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