Captain James Cook’s first landfall in New Zealand 250 years ago was in my home town Gisborne/Turanga-nui-a-Kiwa on 7 October 1769.
Things went badly from the outset – 4 young midshipmen left to guard Cook’s yawl on Kaiti Beach shot Te Maro, a chief of Ngati Oneone, his customary haka (challenge/warning) being interpreted as aggressive intent. For Maori, the arrival of the strange vessel and invaders was unworldly and highly disturbing, requiring challenge and declaration of territory. Cook’s men may well have been still teenagers and from small villages and farms of Yorkshire, another world away. One side with legends of ancient spirit folk arriving from the East, one side with over-told stories of deaths on Tasman’s voyage from 1642. 2 worlds in collision.
On day 2, the 2 sides lined up on opposite sides of the Turanga-nui River, 100 or more warriors on the southern side doing haka, which must have been both fearsome/magnificent. Cook’s Tahitian navigator Tupaia spoke to them which encouraged one unarmed warrior (history hasn’t left a name) to swim across. He stopped at a rock close to Cook’s riflemen. Cook waded out and the 2 exchanged a hongi (nosepress greeting).
More warriors swam across after that but things quickly went astray again. Cook’s men shot another chief Te Rakau who had taken a sword as muru (customary compensation for the death of Te Maro). Cook then took to his boats and sailed south towards Mahia, naming the area Poverty Bay because “it afforded us no one thing we wanted”.
I’ve tried to capture their mutual courage and mistrust. The faces borrow from the old faces/candlestick optical illusion and a Pink Floyd album cover.
The rock – Te Toka-a-Taiau – was formerly a tribal boundary between Ngati Porou and the local iwi (tribe) Rongowhakaata but was detonated when the port expanded in 1877.
Young Nicks Head (Te Kuri-o-Pāoa – The Dog of Pāoa, captain of the great waka Horouta) in the background is reputed to be the expedition’s first sighting of land (some recent histories argue for Hikurangi, an inland peak further North) by Cook’s surgeon’s boy 12 year old Nicholas Young, who was given a gallon of rum for his troubles.
There have been many attempts since the 1860s to consign the awful Poverty Bay name to history – unfair also in that the sediments laid down by the Wai-Pāoa (waters of Pāoa) River have made the flatlands highly fertile. It was retitled at last as Turanga-nui-a-kiwa/Poverty Bay early in 2019, maybe 30 or so more years to finish that off.
Footnote – First contact between Cook and Maori that is, Abel Tasman was here in 1642 but that gets shuffled aside in the history books, along with much of Maori history. History gets written by those in power of course; dampening down the old anglo-centric viewpoint is happening, albeit incrementally, we are still finding “our” voice.
Acrylic on canvas 12″x18″