New Zealanders take a new look at Cook

UK High Commissioner Laura Clarke expressed regret on the bloodshed in Captain Cook's arrival in NZ.
UK High Commissioner Laura Clarke expressed regret on the bloodshed in Captain Cook's arrival in NZ.

Reflections on Captain James Cook's role in New Zealand history around the 250th anniversary of his arrival have instead elevated another man: Tupaia.

New Zealanders have begun a government-sponsored commemoration of Cook's first landing on New Zealand soil.

The English explorer landed on the east coast of the North Island at present-day Gisborne in October 1769, making the first substantive engagement between Europeans and indigenous Maori.

Cook's arrival heralded the start of European settlement of New Zealand, but the initial meeting was a confrontation marked by misunderstanding and the killing of Maori.

The New Zealand government has funded a flotilla of Polynesian and European vessels to mimic Cook's journey, with events and commemorations across the country aimed at reflection rather than celebration.

The Tuia 250 event has a markedly different feel to the 200th anniversary back in 1969.

Then, the bicentenary was heralded as Cook Week, with a statue unveiled at Gisborne.

"Cook was central and it was a way of celebrating New Zealand connections with Britain and with Empire," University of Otago pro-vice chancellor Tony Ballantyne told AAP.

"Through that event, Maori perspectives were at best marginal and frequently silenced."

Ballantyne, the author of forthcoming title Remembering James Cook, said the way New Zealanders thought about their history had "changed a lot in 50 years".

"That's been driven by the work of a whole sequence of historians ... (and) the work at the Waitangi Tribunal," he said.

"Our views have changed a lot and that's really positive.

"Tuia 250 is another opportunity for critical historical reflection and hearing voices that have been rendered marginal."

Leaders have also shown a change of tone.

The British High Commissioner travelled to Gisborne to express regret for deaths at the hands of Cook and his men during early interactions.

Pointedly, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern attended the arrival of the Polynesian boats last Friday.

She didn't stay for the arrival of European ships on Tuesday - an arrival which was protested and boycotted by some Maori leaders and groups.

For Tina Ngata, the Tuia 250 reflections don't hit the mark.

The prominent indigenous rights advocate wrote this week in The Guardian that the "vital opportunity for the New Zealand government to demonstrate leadership in facing up to its own history of colonial racism risks being lost in a parade".

She said the desire to tell "both sides of the story" in Tuia 250 events downplayed the reality of "genocide and land theft" by Europeans.

Still, Ballantyne believes from the "undeniable violence" of Cook's arrival, there is one man worth celebrating.

Tupaia, a Tahitian navigator that travelled with Cook to New Zealand, acted as a mediator through early engagements between Cook's crew and locals, enabling more peaceful interactions.

"He is really significant," Ballantyne said.

"He is key as a cross-cultural broker, a diplomat, a translator, a person who orchestrates the more positive interactions between worlds, between cultures.

"He's a remarkable figure and he's significant in Tuia 250 because it's a recontextualising of our history.

"It's a way to triangulate New Zealand's history and grapple with that Pacific dimension ... Tupaia's arrival was a reconnection between Polynesian cultures. That is really powerful."

Australian Associated Press