In the midst of debate last year about the national commemorations to mark the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in Aotearoa, poet and scholar Alice Te Punga Sommerville wrote an article for a history journal about the commemorations and Cook’s global colonial legacy. It has now been turned into this BWB Text: Two Hundred and Fifty Ways to Start an Essay about Captain Cook. Here are numbers 1 to 49.
1 In a history department
There we were: five of us. It was awkward but we made the most of it and tried to focus on the presences rather than the absences. I had been invited to a history department to give a talk on my research about Māori writers in the first decade or two of the nineteenth century, and four people were there to listen. The person who’d invited me, a Māori PhD student, a Pākehā literary scholar, and Dame Joan Metge.
I did my talk, we got to the end of it, it was fine. But when I look back on that, a talk that is listed on my CV without a hint of who had (and hadn’t) come to listen, all I recall is the elephants in the room making more noise than me. All those empty chairs: deafening. This wasn’t history.
2 With beginnings
There was never a single beginning point for the history of this place. It wasn’t Cook on a beach, it wasn’t the confiscation of land and storming of Parihaka, it wasn’t Gallipoli, it wasn’t the pushing apart of primordial parents, it wasn’t goldfields, it wasn’t the arrival of waka, it wasn’t a lover’s tiff between mountains, it wasn’t a boat full of influenza docking in Sāmoa, it wasn’t the Treaty, it wasn’t (certain) women getting the vote, it wasn’t a fished-up fish. It was all of these. It was all of these and more besides.
3 With middles
We all know the middle part of the story: if Cook is the beginning of something, and the end is our country finally healing from the massive ruptures that his presence on our shores has caused, then we are in the middle. It’s not a nice middle. It’s a middle where I have a shorter life expectancy because I am Māori, and am less likely to be arrested because I look white. It’s a middle with so many gut-wrenchingly terrible statistics that we can all chant them without thinking about what they really mean.
4 With a gun
Or, to cite the Royal Museum Greenwich’s website, because after spending two centuries underwater near what’s now Australia, the gun is now back in British hands:
Iron muzzle-loading smoothbore 4-pounder gun (now on a replica sea carriage). Calibre: 3 1/4in. Marks: crown over GR 2 No14 Broad arrow 11-2-7. G on right-hand trunnion. One of six guns from Captain Cook’s Endeavour salvaged from the Great Barrier Reef off Queensland in 1969 . . . it was recovered with others by an Australian expedition to mark the bicentenary of Cook’s Endeavour voyage and presented to the Museum in 1969 after conservation treatment.
Salvaging weapons in 1969 is one way to commemorate 200 years since Cook’s visit. It’s certainly a variation on the theme of picnics, concerts, statues and speeches. It might seem a little awkward but it’s probably more honest than compulsory happy stories of happy bicultural happiness.
5 With another gun
This one was also Cook’s, and is listed on an Australian website for an auction house. Captain Cook’s Pistol:
An early 18th century Continental Flintlock holster pistol, the lock signed “Corbau-AMaastricht” with plain 13 bore barrel, brass fore-sight, spurred brass pommel (minor damage to spur tips), brass trigger guard, replacement ramrod and pipe, pale fruitwood full stock with carved shell behind tang (some minor damage at fore-end), 50 cm long, 31 cm barrel.
6 With death
Guns, disease, violence, war, genocide, lateral violence, poisoned rivers, institutionalised racism, land erosion, suicide, micro-aggressions, food insecurity, non-communicable diseases ultimately caused by dysfunction. Do we blame it all on Cook? The buck has to stop somewhere.
7 On a computer
The cursor is blinking. All this fatal impact is causing writer’s block.
8 At my kitchen table
A minister of the Crown and I sat among empty KFC packets and talked about the 250th anniversary of Cook’s arrival. She told me there had been a 200th anniversary focused on Māori–Pacific voyaging connections back in the ’60s, but no one seemed to remember it. She joked that we should add an extra 0 because Māori–Pacific connections didn’t start with Cook. “It would be the 2,500th anniversary.” That sounds more like it.
9 In the shower
I have resolved to email the editors of a journal and withdraw my commitment to write a piece about Captain Cook for inclusion in their special issue on commemorations. I feel like I am selling something or someone or someones down the river. I am standing in the shower, where all good decisions are made, and plan to write the email as soon as I hop out . . . then I start to write this in my head.
10 In 1779
If we started one essay for each year since Cook arrived in Aotearoa, and this is #10, this is the year he died. If you start an essay about Captain Cook at 1779, that’s a decade since he first got to Aotearoa.
11 Oh my God
Oh my God you say to yourself, suddenly panicked. We’re only up to number 11 and the title says there are 250. This is way too much. This is way too long. Maybe I’ll start skimming. Who would do this? What kind of point is this person trying to make? Okay okay I get the point. But surely it doesn’t take 250 to do the job?
12 At a pie shop in Te Rapa on a rainy day
My 13-year-old nephew asks whether we were cannibals. The conversation moves fast, and soon we get to 14 February 1779 when Hawaiians killed Captain Cook. “Was he a bad person?” he asks. We sit back and talk big-picture. It’s not just who you are as a person (although it’s also that). It’s also the consequences of your actions. The flow-on effects. I am thinking, but do not say, Cook is the reason that you my dear nephew are the first one in a few generations in our whānau to speak Māori.
13 On a couch
The same nephew, many years ago. He’s a little kid. I am reading him a story: a library book called Horeta and the Waka, and as Matiu curls up in his PJs, I open the book and quickly recognise it is a version of the story written by Te Horeta Te Taniwha about his recollections of Cook’s visit. A few pages in, Matiu starts chuckling when Horeta describes the thundersticks — “they’re not thundersticks, Auntie Lala,” he says. “They’re guns.”
I decide to check whether he understands what is happening in the story so I ask him straight up — “Matiu, who are these men in the blue outfits?” He looks at me. We talk about how they are European, like my Dad, his Koko, and veer off into a discussion that would have made the ears of Hobson’s Pledge members burn. We chat about how Matiu’s Koko and Nannie are both New Zealanders even though one is Māori and one is Pākehā and Matiu’s Abba (Dad) is also a New Zealander even though he is from Eritrea.
After dealing with the small matter of multicultural citizenship in a settler state, I try to redirect our attention back to the book: “Matiu these are the first Pākehā men this boy Horeta has ever seen, because they are the first ones to ever come to Aotearoa.” He looks at the pictures and turns to me: “Oh I get it Auntie, I know who they are — they have come to steal our land.”
Matiu identified himself with Horeta and knew that the presence of Pākehā with guns is logically connected to the theft of land — “our land”.
I have tried to think through our conversation ever since. Hopefully by the time Matiu is reading to his own nieces and nephews, we as historians and we as Māori (and we as his whānau) will have expanded the range of stories he has to tell them.
Yes, nineteenth-century Māori history is about guns and raupatu and land stealing; yes, that history continues to play out and makes its effects known in my generation and in Matiu’s; yes, that history demands further and deeper attention, always; and yes, Māori are connected to “our” land. But Māori histories are also about movement and travel and negotiation and agency and more besides.
14 In a tutorial room
I’m an undergraduate student. We’re talking about Te Horeta Te Taniwha’s recollection of first encounters in my history tutorial this week. We’re also, coincidentally (not that I believe in such a thing), looking at it in my literature tutorial. I enjoy the conversation more in English, but still aspire to be a high school history teacher. Business before pleasure or something like that.
15 Twenty years later
I have my own tutorial rooms now. I left History after my BA, and left English a handful of years ago after two MAs, a PhD and a decade of academia. I’m in Indigenous Studies now — Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty I’m free at last! — and a Māori student tells me in her first week at university she plans to be a history teacher. I wish she had a different reason than the reason I had the same dream/goal/commitment 20 years ago. I wish it wasn’t because she wanted to do a better job for students than she experienced at school.
16 In Australia I
An Indigenous Studies classroom in Australia. Students think Captain Cook arrived in 1788. They have conflated his arrival with the First Fleet. But on some level, don’t we all?
17 In Australia II
“Captain Cook left England for Australia,” writes a student who thinks (a) that Australia existed before Cook and (b) that Australia was Cook’s sole destination. I think about the kind of parochialism that enables these kinds of assumptions, and know that a student in New Zealand could just as easily write the sentence (about New Zealand). And on some level, don’t we all?
18 In Australia III
Someone applied pink paint in haphazard fashion and wrote “We remember genocide” on a statue of Cook in Melbourne. “These vandals are trashing our national heritage and should be prosecuted,” tweeted Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs Alan Tudge. He told local radio station 3AW: “I want Australia Day to be a great unifying day for our country. It has been for many decades now.” Police said they were investigating the incident but no suspects had been identified. One cannot help but think about the distance between the “we” of remembering genocide and the “our” of national heritage.
19 Before an argument
Before getting to an argument you must start with facts. Here are some facts: in the beginning, there was Cook. By sailing around the Pacific, he created the heavens and the earth. If these are the facts you start with, you are already deep into your argument before you begin.
20 With an argument I
Captain Cook was absolutely the bestest explorer ever. He was a hero.
21 With an argument II
Captain Cook was a violent murderer.
22 With an argument III
Captain Cook was a sacrificial lamb, a martyr, a saint.
23 With an argument IV
Captain Cook was a paedophile, a rapist, a misogynist.
24 With an argument V
Captain Cook was the founding figure of our country. (People in lots of countries make this argument.)
25 With an argument VI
Captain Cook was a man of his time.
26 With an argument VII
Captain Cook was a man ahead of his time.
27 With an argument VIII
Captain Cook was a humanitarian. He can’t be blamed for what other people did or for what came after.
28 With an argument IX
Captain Cook was responsible for other people, and for his own actions. And most of these sit on the spectrum between problematic and despicable.
29 With a non-argument that’s actually an argument
Captain Cook? It’s all so very complex. I’m going to sit on the fence. (Whose fence? On whose land? Dividing what from what? You only have a fence when you fear something or when you’re trying to keep something in. Or, as a renovation show on TV informed me, when you want to upgrade your street appeal.)
30 In 1799
If we started one essay for each year since Cook arrived in Aotearoa, and this is #30, we are now almost into the nineteenth century. That’s a lot of time between Cook and the 1800s. If you start an essay about Captain Cook at 1799, Cook has already been dead for 20 years and the Treaty is still 41 years into the future.
31 In an email
I almost pull out of writing this (several times) because I don’t want my name to be associated with a commemoration of Cook. Sure, this isn’t about Cook The Hero, but how much can you push back against a conversation that you have agreed to be a part of?
32 With Ne Toka Hifo e Kuki e Higoa Haana he Tau Aelani
The translator Togakilo (Tongakilo) produced a Niuean translation of an adaptation of a text containing selected sections of Cook’s diary that was originally published by R. R. V. Blanc in 1959 in Wellington under the title West of 170 Degrees; Cook Leaves His Name in the Islands. When West of 170 Degrees was republished in 1964 the title was corrected to East of 170 Degrees. This detail about republication is noted in the rich online resource the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection — it comes from a 1976 book called Discoverers of the Cook Islands and the Names They Gave.
Ne Toka Hifo e Kuki e Higoa Haana he Tau Aelani was published by the Islands Education Division of the Department of Island Territories in 1965. A remarkable range of texts was published by the IED over many years, and I am doing work on these publications and the way they circulated a bizarre but sizeable list of texts around the region.
I am surprised so little work seems to be done on the IED (or indeed the Department of Island Territories) and it makes me think about how our histories are shaped and revised. Wests become Easts, English becomes Niuean, Cook and his names endure, we keep forgetting more than we remember. Cook renames our islands, but we rename him too. An essay about Captain Cook is going to have its own logic if it is written in Vagahau Niue and Cook is called Kuki.
33 With Maories
This isn’t history. This isn’t academic. Where are the footnotes? Who accepted this self-obsessed drivel? What publisher would allow this self-indulgent list to be published by their otherwise reputable press? That’s what happens when you ask Maories to write about Captain Cook. They break the rules. Maybe they don’t even know the rules. Why can’t Maories just do what you ask?
34 By pushing back
One of the projects of Indigenous people is to push back against colonial narratives. This is the bit I describe to my students as walking into a room on the TV show Hoarders, getting a broom and a rubbish bag, climbing over all the junk until you get to the centre, and making a space that reveals some of the floor underneath.
If you started at the door and tried to work your way in, you would get discouraged by the sheer size of the job. This is probably how people end up on Hoarders in the first place. It’s not that they trashed their room in one day, and it’s not that they can’t see there’s a problem. They just get tired when they stand at the doorway and start timidly picking through things. So tired they can’t tell the difference between rubbish and keepsakes anymore. So overwhelmed they confuse tiredness with sentimentality.
But when you clamber over the junk to the centre you can see how much of it can be discarded. And when you see the floor again, for the first time in years maybe, you feel a bit emotional. You see a glimpse of the floor, and you suddenly remember how the room used to be — but also how it could be. You suddenly realise, with a shock, that when you see the floor, you shift your focus on the junk piled on top of it. You used to see a room full of hard work. Now you see an alternative future. You could live in this room again.
35 By holding the space
There is quite a process between starting the clean-up and getting to the part of Hoarders where the shiny clean room is revealed in its glory. Most of this is edited out because it’s not compelling viewing. There is a lot of trudging in and out, there are a lot of rubbish bags, there is a lot of stopping for meals and sleep.
There are a thousand tiny decisions and daily conversations about the hoarder, about how this is a good decision even though it feels so painful and disorienting right now. There is a long period of time where the clean-up crew have to expend as much energy holding back the towers of trash from falling into the clean centre as they do actually cleaning.
Things could topple — but not in a riveting, adrenaline-pumping, suspenseful way. Things are just really precarious for a really long time and people need to hold back the mess while other people clear out the accumulation of decades. No one wants to watch this bit.
36 With a clean room I
Finally there is a room again, and this is where everyone is so happy and excited about the future. It looks amazing and the audience can’t believe anyone could have let such a nice room get so chaotic and dangerous. Of course, the mess is psychological. It’s a pattern of coping (or not coping). The risk is that the mess reappears. The hope is that, having seen the room with new eyes, the psychological side of things has changed too. Despite or maybe because of the painful process, the hoarder has found other ways to cope with being in this space.
37 With a clean room II
Once the room has been cleared and cleaned, something glimpsed through the chaos is now the foundation of the space. You can do so much in a room that is this clean. When you look at it, you see a room. You don’t see a pile of junk. You aren’t involved in endless conversations about the hoarder anymore — you can find new things to talk about. You can see out the windows. It’s not a perfect room, but it’s a room that allows you people to live in it. And this, after all, is all you need.
38 With a clean room III (This is a nation, not a reality TV show)
That’s true. We don’t get to edit out the boring bits or watch it on demand to suit our own schedules. Sometimes we need to all slow down just because we’ve run out of rubbish bags. Sometimes we are distracted by someone having a tantrum as they try to hold onto something they swear isn’t junk. Everyone needs time out to eat, sleep, shower.
39 With a clean room IV (This is meant to be about Captain Cook, not a reality TV show)
We have been hoarding stories about Cook for 250 years now. Some of those stories are valuable, important, useful. Most of them are junk. We hold onto stories because we can’t bear to let them go, or because we can’t make a decision right now, or because someone gave them to us and so we feel responsible for them, or because we are overwhelmed with the size of the job of cleaning, or because we would rather do other things with our weekends than clean a house, or because we are not coping. We are hoarders — all of us. All of us tell too many stories about Captain Cook.
40 So don’t tell another story about Captain Cook
41 Via a Word document
One afternoon when I opened the laptop to write, I couldn’t find this file anywhere. In my “te mahi rangahau” folder, the list of files and their respective sizes listed this file as comprising zero bytes, an impossibility that cannot be true even if the page had been blank because even an empty file has some heft. It’s the kind of impossibility, I found via frantic Google searches, that indicates a corrupt file.
Over a year and a half and a global pandemic later, I am working on an updated version of this file for publication with Bridget Williams Books; I’ve printed out the previous version and added handwritten edits and have been entering them on the electronic file. The file disappears, and doesn’t appear to be in any folders or dropboxes or drives. I search for it for a long time then realise I need to start again with a new file. Enter the edits again.
Just when you think you’ve been working hard on editing the Captain Cook story, it’s as if that work never happened and you’re back to square one. I don’t know how these files were corrupted or lost but I do realise this is a metaphor. And perhaps a tohu.
42 With predictive text
My phone tries to guess I am writing the word “cooking” rather than cook. Cook is more verb than noun. I do not take up the suggestion so it offers two possible follow-up words: “lunch” and “for”. Again, cook is more verb than noun. To cook. To Cook.
I think of grad school friends, and how we turned “Columbus” into a verb — to Columbus is to discover something that had already been known by others for a long time. We use the term quite often and no longer have to explain to each other what we mean. It’s funny, and cynical.
I think about how Cook doesn’t work quite so well as a joke because there’s already a verb by the same name. “I cooked this idea” or “I cooked this book” already means something. It’s not funny or cynical. It’s just confusing.
43 With the beginning of On Cooking Captain Cook by Brandy Nālani McDougall
“If you ask the blonde-haired concierge/at the Grand Kīhei, he will tell you that we ate him whole.”
44 With the beginning of Absolution Chorus by Robert Sullivan
“In this quadrant of the journey/ we look to redeem from burning/ James, a man of his day, in hellfire —/ we have twenty-first century hindsight —/ while he thought he discovered/ these islands already discovered by lovers/ Kupe and his wife Kuramarotini.”
45 With the beginning of Captain Cook by Percy Mumbulla
“Tungeei, that was her native name.”
46 With the beginning of Australia Day 2014 by Sandra Gael Hayman
“I am not black/ I am not white/ I am not wrong/ I am not right/ I am now here/ Not been before/ My ancestors/ Are here no more.”
47 With a book by another Cook
There’s a Hawaiian historian, Kealani Cook, who teaches at University of Hawai‘i-West O‘ahu. His book Return to Kahiki: Native Hawaiians in Oceania explores the many connections between Hawaiian people and the rest of the Pacific region in the nineteenth century.
This Cook (along with other amazing Hawaiians, including David Chang with his wonderful The World And All the Things Upon It, and the fabulous manuscript-in-formation of Emalani Case) is on the cutting edge of shifting the focus of Hawaiian history away from the greedy attention-seeking United States and back to the relational, relation-filled context of the broader Pacific region.
In particular, he is interested in the ways that Kanaka Maoli sought to reignite, affirm and articulate their connections with other Pacific peoples as an alternative network to those championed by white empires and American businessmen. He writes: “While Cook’s arrival opened the way for a flood of ideas, people and objects into Hawai‘i, it also opened paths for ideas, people, and objects to flow out of Hawai‘i.”
In this Cook’s version, Hawai‘i is not a colonial place that things happen to: it is a place that makes things happen. The revolutionary significance of this agentic starting point forecloses the telling of the usual story of the other Cook’s impact. Hawaiian Cook puts British Cook in his place.
48 In history departments
Who teaches what? Who asks what questions? Who works with which students? I know of several Māori people with PhDs in history who have taught in New Zealand history departments and no longer do. Please don’t bore me with details and institutional specificity — take a step back to see something structural.
(I bump into the student I mentioned in #15 in the last week of her first year as a student, and she is about to drop history because none of the papers she can take next year relate to New Zealand or Māori.)
49 With a book review
I’ve written a book about Māori–Pacific connections. It’s called Once Were Pacific: Māori Connections to Oceania. It was reviewed in a history journal and was described as not being a work of history because it didn’t include any archival research or bring to light any new documents. Then the reviewer noted the many Māori and Pacific literary texts the book engages with for the first time. What’s an archive? What’s history? What’s new?
Two Hundred and Fifty Ways to Start an Essay about Captain Cook by Alice Te Punga Somerville is a BWB Text published by Bridget Williams Books, and extracted here with permission.
Alice Te Punga Somerville (Te Āti Awa, Taranaki) is a poet and scholar. She is an associate professor in Māori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Waikato. Alice studied at Auckland University, earned a PhD at Cornell University, is a Fulbright scholar and Marsden recipient, and has held academic appointments in New Zealand, Canada, Hawai’i, and Australia. Her book Once Were Pacific: Māori Connections to Oceania (Minnesota) won Best First Book 2012 from the Native American & Indigenous Studies Association.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.