There are so many stories we could tell about Captain Cook, writes Alice Te Punga Somerville, the author of Two Hundred and Fifty Ways to Start an Essay about Captain Cook. Stories that “don’t just end up either naturalising the New Zealand state or defending the ways that Cook was a nice bloke”. 

In this excerpt from her Michael King Memorial Lecture, delivered last week as part of the Auckland Writers Festival Waituhi o Tāmaki, Alice explores two possible stories that we could, and should, be telling about Cook. (The full lecture is available here.)


1. The story of Cook and how it relates not just to colonialism but to structural racism and white supremacy.

For my Christmas present to myself last year, I bought a really fabulous book I highly recommend by Seattle-based writer Ijeoma Oluo. It’s called Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male Power. 

It’s a great book to read, and I will add that, because of the title, it’s a great conversation starter to have on your coffee table or desk at work. Or, if not a conversation starter, a starter of rolled eyes or knowing chuckles, depending on who is noticing it. 

I loved the book, but one of the things I kept thinking throughout it was that it repeated something you see in a lot of American stuff — where things like racism, colonialism and democracy are spoken of as if they have been historically produced and historically and contemporarily experienced only within the borders of that state. 

As if European representations of blackness, and imperial engagements with Indigenous peoples, didn’t both precede and exceed the US colonies or nation state. As if European writers and thinkers had not being framing the discourse about race for centuries. 

I don’t think anything Oluo said was factually incorrect, but there was a missed opportunity to understand things in a broader context, and also perhaps a suggestion that such things didn’t occur, or issues were completely different, elsewhere. 

In New Zealand, lots of us like to roll our eyes about this sort of thing and condescendingly mutter things about US exceptionalism which is hilarious because we are obsessed with New Zealand exceptionalism. 

Before working in my present role, I taught in the department of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University in Sydney where my students were convinced Cook left England to come to Australia. 

The fact that Australia didn’t exist at the time makes this version of the story incorrect and anachronistic, sure, but the idea that intrigues me most is that way that stories in New Zealand and Australia about Cook focus on his arrival as if this was the sole and most important purpose of his trip to this part of the world. 

It’s entirely possible to tell a story about Cook being the first English person here, who set in motion a sequence of events (passing through the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty, the assumption and later delegation of British parliamentary power etc etc) and in this story we end up with the bounded state we live in today. This story is connected to a story about a man called Cook who left England to come to New Zealand. 

This is perhaps the main way we hear about Cook: as an essential part of our national origin story. 

We desperately need stories that explain how we connect to places other than London, even if many of those connections pass through London. 

Having taught in New Zealand university classrooms in which Indigenous students are a minority and in which Indigenous studies are a majority, I am convinced that we need to talk more about colonialism — as a global, multi-layered and ongoing project. 

It is really hard to understand what’s going on here if we don’t understand the context in which it has taken place and the logics of various empires. Too many students have never even heard of New Zealand’s Realm nations (Tokelau, Niue, Cook Islands) despite the Cook Islands being named after the same dude whose name is used for the water between the North and South Islands here. 

We need to talk more about colonialism in general but also about settler colonialism in particular — this relates to places like this where the form colonialism has taken is not merely resource extraction but also the mass migration of people from the colonial metropole to the extent that Indigenous people now form a minority in their own homeland. One of the central ideas of this body of work is famously articulated by the late Patrick Wolfe who wrote that “Colonialism is a structure, not an event.” 

This is why telling Indigenous people to “get over” or “move on from” colonialism is illogical. It’s possible to “get over” something that happened in the past, but how can you get over a structure in which you’re enmeshed? 

I’m not going to whip out my powerpoint and give you all my lecture on colonialism and racism, but I do want to draw attention to the impossibility of removing race from stories we tell about Cook. But also I want to suggest the impossibility of removing Cook from stories we tell here about race. 

The feminist postcolonial thinker Sara Ahmed writes about the inherent place of history in any “encounter”: 

Encounters are meetings . . . which are not simply in the present: each encounter reopens past encounters . . . the particular encounter both informs and is informed by the general: encounters between embodied subjects always hesitate between the domain of the particular — the face to face of this encounter — and the general — the framing of the encounter by broader relationships of power and antagonism. 

We could, if were brave, tell stories about Cook that get us talking about the devastating ongoing effects of racism in New Zealand, and we could start telling those stories by thinking about how white supremacy is reinforced when we refuse to talk about racism. 

We could use Cook as a starting point for understanding the “broader relationships of power and antagonism” not just in New Zealand but globally. 

Some of us are already doing this. On Valentine’s Day each year, my social media feed is full of heartfelt posts from Indigenous people around the Pacific thanking the Hawaiians for killing Cook on 14 February 1779. We do this not to be crass or to advocate cannibalism, but to connect with one another and express the ways in which we understand not just our histories but our futures to be intertwined. 

Yesterday afternoon, I was proud to stand for a while with my mother and daughter in solidarity with the Palestinian community and their supporters on Aotea square. Our stories of Cook here must not distract us from or blind us to many other sites and forms of colonialism. I am seeking to suggest this morning that it’s at least theoretically possible for stories about Cook to make these complicated global links visible. 

Our stories of Cook need to explain why we need a Māori Health Authority and why such a thing isn’t apartheid or racist. Our stories of Cook need to provide ways for people on city councils to understand why there is such a broad call for Māori wards. 

If our stories about Cook can’t help us understand these, they are doing the opposite — they are helping us misunderstand them. 

On some level, the question of whether Captain James Cook was or wasn’t personally racist is irrelevant. Whether you would accept a friend request from him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter because you think he was actually a nice guy is entirely up to you. 

What we do know is that his visit here in 1769 wrenched this place into an already developing British imperial world which was just one strand of broader European imperial networks and these both underpinned and continue to have a life in all forms of structural racism here. 

Joan Druett. 'Tupaia', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2017. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 November 2019) Joseph Banks bartering with a Māori for a lobster. Watercolour and pencil by Tupaia, 1769. British Library Reference: ADD MS 15508, folio 12

Tupaia’s painting showing the exchange of kōura for a piece of tapa between a Māori man and Joseph Banks, in 1769. (British Library Reference: ADD MS 15508, folio 12)

2. The story of how these islands are a part of the Pacific. 

Speaking of structural racism . . . 

I work at the University of Waikato. At the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies, where I have worked since the beginning of 2017, we have a subject students can study called “Pacific and Indigenous Studies” which means they graduate with training in the two separate disciplines of “Pacific Studies” and “Indigenous Studies” and, importantly, they understand the important ways these disciplines do and don’t relate to each other. 

In PACIS100, our foundation paper, we start with the connections between Māori and the Pacific region, as well as the connections between the Pacific and Aotearoa. 

These are two of my favourite lectures to give to the first years, because they often end up helping the Māori and Pasifika students see each other with new eyes — and also because so many students live in worlds in which “Māori” and “Pacific” aren’t tucked away in neat little boxes apart from each other, from which the only view is of the state. 

And, because the lectures challenge so much of the logic of national narratives which shout at them regardless of what they experience in their own quiet lives. 

Like many people, I first realised the significance of Tupaia in the story of Māori encounters with Cook from reading Anne Salmond’s The Trial of the Cannibal Dog, an expansive text that was published, to put it in context for me, when I was about halfway through my PhD. 

Because I studied for my doctorate in the US where the PhD takes several years and includes a bunch of coursework and learning two languages and a whole lot of stuff before you decide what your dissertation (thesis) is going to be about, I had just gotten underway with my research and thinking by this halfway point. 

My focus for my dissertation was on what I called “comparative contexts” of Māori writing in English, and I was interested in what happens when we think about Māori writing as Pacific literature, Indigenous literature, Postcolonial literature or New Zealand literature — in that order. 

Although I was enrolled in Cornell which was in Ithaca in upstate New York, by my fourth year, I started really missing the ocean, so I moved to Hawai’i. 

I was part of some really wonderful communities in Ithaca — including the community around the long-established American Indian Program (which was one of the main reasons I had gone there in the first place), and informal networks of New Zealanders at Cornell which meant I made a soft but invigorating landing when I first arrived in Ithaca in the vibrant social and intellectual posse of Michelle Elleray and Anne Lyden (now based in Toronto) and my flatmates from my first year, Jolisa Gracewood and Richard Easther (who are here today, having relocated to Auckland after post-Ithaca stints in New York city and New Haven). 

I often think of the evenings spent with all of them over kai in our respective lounges during my first semester at Cornell — three Pākehā from very different backgrounds, one Tongan and one Māori — to have functioned not only as a great social space but also an additional graduate level course in thinking critically about New Zealandness. 

But in Ithaca I was landlocked and wanted to be near more people who had heard of where I was from. I also, at the time, thought this would be my one chance to be in the unique and rich intellectual space of the University of Hawai’i-Mānoa before I moved home and lived in New Zealand for the rest of my life. (This is hilarious looking back, considering how much I have continued to move between here and overseas through my academic career. Funnily enough, I ended up returning to that university (UH) as an associate professor back in 2012.) 

I had randomly (not that I believe in such a thing, of course) been introduced by Robert Sullivan to three fabulous Hawaiian writers and literary scholars — ku’ualoha ho’omanawanui, Ka’imipono Kaiwi-Kahumoku and Brandy Nālani McDougall — when I had been on a research trip in Auckland the year before. At that time, Robert was teaching in Hawai’i too. I had this sense that these were conversations I wanted to be a part of. 

So, thanks to some additional mobility enabled by a Fulbright award, I flew to Hawai’i in mid-2003 and spent a year living in a tiny room and writing my first full thesis draft on a blueberry clamshell laptop. I didn’t have a formal affiliation with the university, although I am grateful for the way that less official connections provided me with the resources and networks I craved. A senior Sāmoan scholar in English (Sinavaiana) went on sabbatical and let me use her office, and the Centre for Pacific Islands Studies gave me an affiliation that enabled access to the library. 

The first week that I got to Honolulu, I stayed with the parents of a guy who went to university with Lauren, my downstairs neighbour in Ithaca. They generously let me stay in their downstairs spare room while I found a place to rent. After I’d been there for a few days and realised the enormity of stretching an Ithaca budget across even an extremely modest Honolulu life, I realised this had been a stupid idea and I should stop being so spontaneous and theatrical in my life and doing things like moving to Hawai’i to feel some kind of vibe — intellectual, social or cultural. 

I wondered what to do, and thought I might as well at least read the stack of books I had dragged back to their little guest room from the library. I picked up a book called Islands and Empires by Ernest Dodge, and read: 

In the course of his circumnavigation and survey of New Zealand Cook was in constant contact with the Maoris [sic]. Beads and nails were good currency for fish and sweet potatoes, but curiously enough large sheets of tapa obtained earlier at Tahiti were the best trade articles and were valued more highly by the New Zealanders than anything else the English could offer. 

I sat there, blinked, and read again.

In the course of his circumnavigation and survey of New Zealand, Cook was in constant contact with the Maoris [sic]. Beads and nails were good currency for fish and sweet potatoes, but curiously enough large sheets of tapa obtained earlier at Tahiti were the best trade articles and were valued more highly by the New Zealanders than anything else the English could offer. 

The author decided the next sentence after this one should be one that clarified what this meant for Cook’s side of the interaction: 

Thus began the first inter-island trade in native products by white men in the Pacific.

But I had a sudden rush of realising that this wasn’t the only possible next sentence — that the story could continue by considering why and how “the Maoris” — my people! — connected more with tapa than with beads and nails. 

And I have more slowly come to realise over the almost two decades since reading Dodge’s phrase “curiously enough”, that the phrase is an apt totally understated euphemism for the gaping chasm between Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholarly, cultural and political conversations. 

“Curiously enough,” what I write about is not for me just a matter of curiosity. 

I find it astounding that he wrote a sentence about a fascinating juxtaposition of worldviews, values and networks — where British expectations of what Māori would value were not just not met because Māori didn’t like stuff from other places — but weren’t met because there was another whole system of value taking place that we glimpse in the reaction to the tapa. 

And then his next sentence was “so anyway back to the interesting thing, which is white men and money.” I find it astounding — maybe even “curiously enough”. But I don’t want to be derailed by Dodge, just as I don’t want Cook to play too big a part in my — or our — story. 

I knew in that moment, reading those lines in Dodge’s book, that I was in the right place to write my dissertation — yes, it felt like a tohu — and that there was a place for storytellers that didn’t think stories about Cook in New Zealand were all best treated as explanations for new knowledge about white men. 

I kept reflecting on this insight, and then Salmond’s book came out, and I finished the PhD in which, in one chapter, I traced the tapa reconnection story as a way to think about the instinctive relationship between Māori and the Pacific region. 

The place of Tupaia in revised stories of Cook has been incredibly productive for many of us. Shortly after I moved back to New Zealand to take up a position at Victoria University, I saw Michel Tuffery’s “First Contact” exhibition at Pataka — in which he rethinks, reclaims, reimagines and recasts not only Cook but also Tupaia. And I was particularly taken by the way Tuffery added Tupaia’s perspective into how we engage Tupaia’s famous painting of exchange of kōura and tapa between Banks and a Māori man in 1769. 

Banks was asked later in his life about the moment of exchange depicted in Tupaia’s painting, and he responded by recalling an exchange of koura for nails rather than tapa, which beautifully and violently demonstrates the power of European assumptions about colonial encounters. 

And, the ways these assumptions can be held, even in the face of usually acceptable forms of evidence found in colonial archives. How are we meant to remember that the painting represents the exchange for tapa that Māori valued most highly in that moment of encounter, when Banks himself — who was there — had forgotten it? 

False memories that evacuate the presence of Indigenous people, products and networks have been a bit of a theme here in these islands. 

The late Tongan thinker and writer Epeli Hau’ofa, whose thinking is central to Pacific Studies as a discipline and to Pacific studying people in so many places, clarifies the ways in which colonialism has chopped the dynamic networks of our region into small discrete parts, and how rethinking mobility and connection can help restore the sense of region to this region: 

the contemporary process of what may be called world enlargement that is carried out by tens of thousands of ordinary Pacific Islanders right across the ocean . . . making nonsense of all national and economic boundaries, borders that have been defined only recently, crisscrossing an ocean that had been boundless for ages before Captain Cook’s apotheosis. 

So, when I lecture the first years in PACIS100 about Māori connections to the region, we don’t just look down from drone view at maps of a region and little arrows showing human migration, language families, oral traditions, mitochondrial DNA, and the distribution of particular pottery, chickens, pigs and dogs (although we do look at those too). 

We also look across, from beach view, at the moment at which Māori connected with Tupaia and the tapa. 

The profound change to how we as Māori can recall who we are when we shift our attention from the state for long enough to nurture our regional connections inspired my first book in 2012, Once Were Pacific: Maori connections to Oceania. 

I am deeply committed to what’s possible when we as Māori push ourselves to remember in meaningful ways that New Zealand has only been our key site of reference for the blink of an eye in the context of the stretch of time humans have been in the region. 

I opened that book with words from Cook’s own journal, which is something I had forgotten until I wrote a 250-thing list

#191 With Tapa 

I chastise myself for taking on this task. Who am I to write about Cook? I’ve never written about him before! Then I realise that this isn’t true. His words are the very first words of my book Once Were Pacific. I was intrigued and inspired by his description of still-existing paper mulberry in Aotearoa and Māori responses to the Tahitian tapa they saw on the Endeavour in 1769: 

We met with about half a Dozn Cloth Plants, being the same as the inhabitants of the Islands lying within the Tropicks make their finest cloth on: this plant must be very scarce among them as the Cloth made from it is only work in small pieces by way of ornaments at their ears and even this we have seen but very seldom. Their knowing the use of this sort of Cloth doth in some measure account for the extraordinary fondness they have shew’d for it above every other things we had to give them, even a sheet of white paper is of more Value than so much English cloth of any sort whatever. 

After Cook’s opening words, I spend the rest of the book unpacking the ways in which we as Māori do and don’t articulate our connections with the rest of the Pacific; I end with a hope that we learn to see these connections outside and beyond what we can see through the colonial spectacles Cook and his legacy have forced us to wear, as if our vision needed correction in the first place. And yet, the book starts with Cook. He becomes the line in the sand, the pivot, the start. Oh dear. I am still trying to think about the fact I’d forgotten that he was front and centre in this way. Cook: ubiquitous, ever-present, inescapable. Cook: can’t see him for looking. Cook: hidden in plain view. 

I say to the PACIS100 students, and I say to you today, the painting by Tupaia depicting Māori engagement with Pacific tapa is something to remember when the state makes us fight each other for crumbs. 

But Tupaia’s very presence that enabled him to paint the picture in the first place is the evidence you can tuck away up your sleeve for the next time someone tries to tell you that there was a historical period in these islands after Cook’s arrival during which everyone was either Māori or European. Non-Māori Pacific people have been here as long as any Pākehā person’s ancestors have been here. As long as English people have been here. 

This might sound like quite a small point to be so dramatic about. But, I hear this idea all the time that New Zealand is somehow a country produced by the relationship of two peoples — Māori and Pākehā — and then some other random beige people who rocked up in the later nineteenth or mid-twentieth century. 

I even hear it loudly said (or quietly underpinning) ideas about the Treaty — this idea that Māori signed a Treaty with Pākehā rather than with the Crown. 

I hear people thinking that biculturalism is a tool of accounting in which the cultures are counted (1 + 2 = bi) instead of an analysis of diplomacy in which we clarify the two parties involved in an agreement (Māori, and the Crown/non-Māori). 

I cannot tell you how many times this idea then seeps into bizarre suggestions that Māori commitments to things Māori are myopic or racist because what about all the Pacific Islanders (or Asians, or whatever other group of non-white people are scapegoated to reinforce white supremacy). “But what about multiculturalism?” is a fervent cry of anti-Indigenous white supremacists everywhere. 

When I was prepping this lecture, I remembered that in a footnote in my PhD, I also took my first steps towards more metaphorically working with this Dodge-y moment of Māori connection with the region: 

Further, when Māori first came into contact with Cook’s ships they did not recognise them as being captained by Cook; to Māori, it was apparent that Tupaia, the Tahitian explorer who travelled with Cook and provided translation as well as navigational services, was in charge. I am grateful to Robert Sullivan for pointing this out to me, and suggesting that I consider its place in this metaphor. 

I regret that I am still unsure as to exactly how this part of the story fits within this allegory, but I wonder if it emphasises the role of Oceanic practitioners and scholars already operating within the University system. 

It is their ability to operate within many knowledge spheres that earns them not only a place on the ship (Tupaia was highly respected by the Europeans on board, especially Cook) but also recognition of a place within the academic structure. 

It is not, after all, for us to second-guess Māori and chuckle at their innocence as to the “real” captain; for Māori, Tupaia was in that position. 

This is, of course, not to naively downplay the issue of power in this situation; just as Tupaia was ultimately at the mercy of Cook, so too Oceanic scholars are ultimately — even if they occupy crucial roles — at the mercy of the institution.  


Alice Te Punga Somerville(Te Ātiawa, Taranaki) is a poet and scholar. She is Associate Professor and Associate Dean (Academic), Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies, University of Waikato. Alice is the author of Once Were Pacific: Māori Connections to Oceania and Two Hundred and Fifty Ways to Start an Essay About Captain Cook.

This is an excerpt from Alice’s Michael King Memorial Lecture at the Auckland Writers Festival Waituhi o Tāmaki on May 16. The full lecture is available here

© E-Tangata, 2021

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