The Yorkshire Moors seem to have a special place in English history and literature. They bear the marks of a long human presence and they have provided the setting for evocative novels and sometimes gruesome violence. At Easby, they’re also the site of another storytelling that obscures a different history of violence committed far away from its often misty beauty.
For in that little corner of the Moors is a monument to James Cook. It’s a fairly nondescript example of monumental art — rather like a tottering brick chimney. But its inscription has all the misleading rhetoric, the false grandeur of all statues erected to purported heroes:
While it shall be deemed the honour of a Christian nation to spread civilisation … among poor and savage tribes, so will the name of Captain Cook stand out among the most celebrated and most advanced benefactors of the human race.
In many ways, the monument is an example of history being retold. For histories are really just stories that people tell in their own way, about themselves and their past. They are “our-stories” that exclude as much as they include, and forget or misremember as much as they choose to tell.
When the our-stories are erected in bronze or marble monuments, they become physical statements of power embedded into the land. They are not just memorials to the good works of men deemed worthy and great — and most of them seem to be of men. Rather, they are a point of view, an our-story about who has the power to define what is “great” and memorable.
Colonisers have always built lots of monuments, both at home in Europe and in the lands of the Indigenous Peoples they’ve dispossessed. They, too, are a point of view, and stand as fabrications, rationalising their power and their right to places that were never theirs.
In England’s streets and great cathedrals, there are so many colonising monuments they seem to trip over each other in their storytelling. There are homages in marble to an official who “saved an empire by … warlike genius”, a politician who ruled it with “pietie as much as armes”, and a soldier who conquered it with “justice, wisdom and power.”
None of them even allude to the actual injustice of colonisation but tell “our-stories”, with scant regard for those who were dispossessed with such “warlike genius.”
They are a particularly dishonest “our-story”, because they actually silence the violence of colonisation into some sort of noble calling. They transform the process of dispossession, and the deaths and suffering of “poor and savage tribes”, into the glorification of an individual.
James Cook is glorified more than most and there are memorials to him throughout England and the many places where he travelled. There is a virtual Cook’s tour of monuments from Sydney in Australia, to Anchorage in Alaska. They recall his “brave exploits”, and his desire “not to be a colonial master” but simply to “discover” new lands.
Yet the very assumption of a “right to discover” new lands was invented by the colonisers as a legal justification for them to become the colonial master. Cook’s journey across the Pacific is thus marked by both the death and destruction that always accompanied colonisation and the legal pretence that justified it all.
In each place, the killings of Indigenous Peoples were usually quick and brutally dismissive. The rituals of discovery, on the other hand, were carefully planned, with the raising of flags and solemn proclamations that the land concerned had become the property of England.
There is a certain strange magic in the belief that waving a piece of coloured cloth could transfer indigenous lands to someone else, but it was a theatre that had long been established in the law of all European colonisers. The fact that it would have had no legitimacy in the law of the Indigenous Peoples being “discovered” was never deemed to be relevant.
The people in the Hupacasath First Nation in Canada often relate how Cook “discovered” what is now known as British Columbia. At Nootka Sound and other places that Cook renamed with the familiar sounding Queen Charlotte Channel and Resolution Cove, the rituals included cutting trees as well as waving flags.
Further north, at Point Possession in Alaska, he varied the procedure again by burying a bottle that contained “some documents claiming possession in the name of the king plus some coins.” The act was not witnessed by the local Indigenous Peoples, but it still causes some amazement that their land was supposedly taken by what, in their eyes, amounted to the depositing of some litter.
Today there are monuments to Cook in British Columbia and Alaska. They do not mention flags or bottles or the violence that inevitably followed the “discovery.” They are instead memorials that gild and dazzle in fibreglass bronze but cloud over history in their own impassive stolidity.
Like other colonising monuments, they both reveal and conceal. For, wherever they are erected, they reveal who and what should be remembered, and what form the remembering should take. They also conceal the power behind that presumption, and the ways it is now presumed to be a seemingly unchallengeable reality that needs neither justification nor explanation.
The monuments are mute expressions of what it means to be the “master”. They brood in some stoned certainty with the same arrogance expressed by a former Minister for Treaty Settlements, who stated that the Crown’s assumption of sovereignty (and, thus, the subordination of rangatiratanga) is beyond question, because “what is, is.”
It is the same implacable belief in the unchangeability of colonising power that characterises every colonising memorial or commemoration. It’s one of many reasons why the upcoming Crown commemorations of James Cook’s voyages are so worrying and problematic.
It’s heartening that, as part of the preparations for the commemoration, the Cook statue on Titirangi Maunga in Gisborne has been removed. However, the suggestion that at its new site it will be a reminder of “how times change” is also of concern. Colonising statues are never just symbols of changing times, or mere “products of their times.” They are statements of a dominant point of view that reaches into the present, as the past always does.
Indeed, the very use of a phrase like a “product of its time” is a kind of reflexive deniability that is reserved for statements about power. Mozart and Shakespeare were “products of their times”, but no one denies the ongoing influence of their work. Yet somehow the work of colonisers can seemingly be consigned to “another time”, and their power and influence simply redefined as the new normal.
There will nevertheless be some pleasure, too, in the fact that there will be an opportunity for some waka hourua to sail and showcase both their history and the navigational skill that they embody. But they and their crews are surely worthy of recognition in their own right, even if it is only to acknowledge that the tīpuna were sailing the Pacific hundreds of years before Cook or other European explorers even knew it was there.
When many Europeans were still nervously venturing into what Socrates called the “little pond” of the Mediterranean, the peoples of the Pacific were charting the greatest ocean in the world. They mapped its currents, reached for stories in its depths, and established a whakapapa that joined all of its islands together. That is a story worthy of being honoured — but in the Crown commemorations, it is only being told in the shadowed narrative of someone else.
There is a certain wry accuracy in the comment made by some Māori commentators, that few people may remember the life and deeds of Harrison Schmitt, the twelfth American astronaut to set foot on the moon. His achievement was extraordinary but has never led to nationwide commemorations because, in the strange European pantheon of worthiness, he was not the first.
James Cook was obviously not the first human to traverse the Pacific, nor even the twelfth. But he was the first European to land in New Zealand, and so the commemorations have less to do with his feats of navigation, or even whether he was or was not a white supremacist. He was, of course, because colonisation was founded on the presumed European right of white people to rule the “other”, who was thought to be inferior. But the commemorations are actually part of a wider narrative in which racism has been denied more often than it has been acknowledged.
That narrative is the story of New Zealand’s “nation-building” that Cook has always been credited with initiating. It’s a variation on an old story about legitimising the power that was first asserted in his acts of “discovery.” It’s also the story of how the colonisers have tried to find a new identity by morphing themselves from colonisers to “settlers” and then “Kiwis”.
The commemorations are therefore just another our-story, an expensive reaffirmation of what the colonisers have always thought about “what is, is.” They merge the glorification of Cook into the glorification of a colonisation that the Crown has always described as occasionally flawed but, essentially, benevolent. Like the plaque on one Cook monument, it was motivated by a “kind and humane usage”, rather than some violent will to dispossess.
Thus, in some of its publicity material, the first killings in Tūranga are reframed as an unfortunate encounter marred by misunderstanding and bloodshed. But in the history of colonisation, Indigenous Peoples were always killed in the first meetings with the colonisers. Whether it was Columbus’s landfall in the Caribbean, or that of von Trotke in Namibia, the death of innocents followed.
For the colonisers had learned too well that they were destined, in their view of the world, to be the “masters”, and in that situation, the ones deemed less worthy have always suffered. There may well have been some misunderstandings across the natural cultural divide that arises when different peoples meet, but history shows that those who presume a right to dispossess others are rarely impeded by the nuances of cultural sensitivity.
Because it is an “our-story”, there is a risk that any Māori stories in the commemoration might also get lost in the dominant narrative, like those of the waka hourua. There is a danger that just as the killings have been decontextualised as misunderstandings, the independence of the Māori story may be seen by many as merely a subtext, another Māori perspective.
The hope, though, is that Māori people will continue to cling to the stories, because they have survived for so long as defiant truths in spite of the odds. They will no doubt tell of the killings because time never entirely heals sad memories. But they will also tell of the joys of survival and the adaptations that had to be made in succeeding generations. Adaptations that have never meant subordination but an ongoing quest for rangatiratanga.
The stories are also a quiet reassurance that, in every iwi and hapū, there are other monuments that are more firmly planted in this land than any ersatz statue. They are the mountains which remain the centres of Māori identity and the heights to which mokopuna can aspire. Knowing them, and remembering the truths in the land around them, will, in the end, be a more honest commemoration of what this country could be than some replica Endeavour sailing with its own half-told stories.
Sometimes, in the restful quiet of an early spring morning on the coast, it is easy to imagine how the wind would have moved across the foam of foreshore sand as the tīpuna first saw the first Endeavour. It’s also easy to understand why Rangi Faith has described the colonisers’ landing as the “noisy transit” of a people who
came in cocky
with only one man for the seeing,
rowing with their backs
to a stranger’s land …
& then they beached
like professionals —
planting the flag
& setting up guards
with feet rammed into the sand.
This country is still dealing with that “noisy transit.” The Crown’s approach in the Cook commemoration unfortunately indicates that there is still some way to go in dealing with all that it means, and with whether there is a different narrative about what this country could be.
The Treaty of Waitangi has always offered that other narrative — a story where people can firmly plant their feet in this land, not out of any cocky presumptions of a flag-waving right to rule but a sharing of the power to make constitutional decisions. New stories that may even one day define what new monuments we might want to sit in the lee of our mountains.
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