Move over, James Cook: Māori and Pacific voices on Tuia 250

The first encounter between Māori and Captain Cook and his crew ended in the murder and brutalising of nine Tūranaga-nui-a-kiwa ancestors. The Ministry of Culture and Heritage’s intention to include Māori history and voyaging traditions in the commemoration of the 250th anniversary of that tragedy has prompted a mixed reception.


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In 1766 Toiroa, a tohunga Māori from Tūranga-nui-a-kiwa prophesied a time of darkness approaching, and the arrival of a people with red or white skin:

Tiwha tiwha te pō. Ko te Pakerewhā. Ko Arikirangi tēnei rā te haere nei.

Three years later, Captain James Cook and his crew aboard the Endeavour reached their shores.

Ngāti Oneone tipuna Te Maro was one of the men who went out to the beach to see the arrivals. According to Cook’s reports, the Māori numbered them more than 100. They brandished taiaha and other weapons. Cook’s crew, perceiving this as a threat of violence, opened fire with their muskets. Te Maro was shot dead.

“There’s a view that [Te Maro] didn’t have a taiaha because he had the responsibility of care for the gardens, so he perhaps was holding a , which may look like a spear to any untrained eye, but it’s actually for digging the ground,” explains Charlotte Gibson, the chair of Tūranga hapū Ngāti Oneone.

For her people, this first encounter and the resulting death of their tipuna has left lasting scars. A hapū that was once confident and open became submissive, feeling a shame at not understanding how Te Maro had died.

“When you look through our history since that event we became passive. Our people have carried that mamae, that hurt, since then. We’ve carried embarrassment since then. It took a while to understand what had just happened, what a gun was.”

Now, 250 years on, a replica of Cook’s ship, the HMS Endeavour is closing in on Tūranga to participate in anniversary commemorations.

Tuia – Encounters 250 is the name given to the anniversary commemoration coordinated by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, based on the date of the arrival of Captain Cook to Aotearoa in 1769. For just over two months from today, two flotilla comprised of Māori waka hourua and English-style ships will make their way around the country, berthing at 10 destinations along the East coast.

Fa’afaite on its way around New Zealand. Photo: Danee Hazama.

Original plans had the Endeavour replica berthing at 12 destinations, but a decision from Northland iwi Ngāti Kahu to ban the ship from docking in Mangonui, and a more recent decision by Tūranga iwi to do the same for Gisborne has changed these plans.

In a joint statement on behalf of Rongowhakaata, Ngāti Oneone, Te Aitanga a Māhaki and Ngāi Tāmanuhiri (the four iwi of Tūranga-nui-a-kiwa), collective coordinator Amohaere Houkamau said the iwi would no longer be welcoming the British-style “tall ships” into the bay, instead focusing on the tīpuna who died at the first encounters.

“On the morning of October 8 we will conduct a dawn karakia, an inter-denominational church service, to commemorate the nine tīpuna that were shot or injured during the events of October 1769… 250 years on, we hope that we have the courage to share all our stories, the respect to listen to each other and the resilience to grow and learn from all the Tūranganui-a-Kiwa experiences during this period.”

While the cancellation of the pōhiri for the Endeavour could be seen as a backlash against the commemoration as a whole, the same iwi groups that made the decision have been working with the ministry towards the events.

However, Moera Brown, chair of Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust says they weren’t invited to be involved until after much of the event had already been planned. “The crown machine has a tendency to roll over you because ‘this is a tier one commemoration and we’ve been planning for three years’. It’s been a really challenging space for us to say, ‘what is our participation? what should it look like and should we participate?'”

Rongowhakaata did get involved, on the basis they could tell the stories of their hapū and the previous millennium of Māori exploration.

Pene Brown, chair of Te Aitanga a Mahaki trust, wishes his hapū had the platform to be able to share their stories without tying them to a Cook commemoration, but he says Tuia 250 provides a bigger audience for the Māori stories that have previously been ignored.

“There is an agreement between the four iwi and all the rest who will participate that the story won’t be one-sided, it has to start now with all the other parts, and it will take some time to reach parity with Cook’s story.”

Charlotte Gibson, chair of Ngāti Oneone trust agrees it’s disappointing that the events are connected to Cook. She’s angry the decision to invite iwi into the process was not made earlier, but her reasons for participating reflect Pene Brown’s.

“Because we’re a little hapū, there’s no way in hell we could start getting our stories into print and into the wider world, so in that case you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, by all quarters, not just by our people.”

But some of the loudest voices of the protest movement assure there’s no hard feelings against any Māori participating in the events. Their grievances are with the Crown.

Tina Ngata at the UN in 2016. Photo: Facebook.

Indigenous rights activist Tina Ngata spoke to the United Nations in April 2018 about Tuia 250, arguing the narrative of New Zealand’s discovery “underpinned the denial of indigenous rights”. Since then, she’s been one of the loudest voices speaking out against Tuia 250, and what it represents for Māori.

“The government needs to be held accountable to the way in which they have put this fund together in the first place, to the mere suggestion that they should be commemorating the birth of colonialism in the face of significant issues to do with racism in our country.”

She says it’s disappointing some iwi groups felt they had to participate in the commemoration so that Māori stories were heard, despite having no say over the heavy Cook influence in the event’s name and timing.

“The conversation needs to be had around that power being taken out of their hands, and coercion that’s in play with things like the waka agreeing to escort the Endeavour around the motu, because it’s placed people and communities in some very awkward positions. ”

For Moera Brown, there were some important changes needed before she signed up to play a role.

She says the first thing Tūranga iwi pushed for was replacing any suggestion of a “celebration” with the label “commemoration”.

“Initially it was a celebration, that was the first cab off the rank. They wanted to have a navigations celebration and we said ‘what about the 1000 years of Māori navigation?’ We’ve managed to change some of the landscape.”

And it’s not just the terminology that’s changed since the early stages of the project. While the name could be inferred as a commemoration of the past 250 years of voyaging, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage is adamant Tuia 250 will be a commemoration of all Aotearoa’s voyagers, including the Pacific navigators of the past 1000 years.

In a statement to The Spinoff, Tuia 250’s deputy chief executive Tamsin Evans wrote: “I hope people understand that Tuia 250 is about acknowledging our history – the good, the bad and everything that comes with it – in an open and respectful way. This commemoration is just one step towards growing more understanding of one another – whenever we arrived here, however we arrived here, we have a past and a shared future together.”

For some, that’s not enough. ActionStation director Laura O’Connell Rapira is one who believes the commemoration remains too Cook-centric. “It’s called Tuia 250, it’s commemorating the arrival of James Cook to New Zealand, it’s claiming that it’s about our dual heritage as these ‘great Pacific voyaging traditions’, but of course one of those traditions was grounded in an ideology that came out of the Holy Crusades of the early to mid-1400s and has a whakapapa of being based off the idea of white supremacy.”

Without Māori onboard, the event would have been even worse for the continuation of that historic narrative, says O’Connell Rapira, but ultimately the event still promotes a mostly Pākehā history.

“Our maunga are in this land, our awa are in this land, we whakapapa to this land and I think there are good attempts to recognise and tweak what was ultimately a problematic idea anyway, to fit the desires of many Māori, but to me it still feels primarily about the dominant narrative of Cook, with Māori bits hung on the side.”

Pene Brown, Moera Brown and Charlotte Gibson are participating in the commemoration, but welcome any protest, which they consider healthy and appropriate in such a contentious situation.

Brown says he understands where the protestors are coming from, and hopes the protest movements encourage discussion around the significance of Cook’s arrival in New Zealand to Māori.

“Discourse or discussion is encouraged, and I think in our parents or grandparents time you felt you were letting somebody down if you did something wrong, if you protested. Protestors now are encouraged to have their views heard, regardless of what they say. If they were to be stood with a flag on any other day in two years’ time they would only get a very small audience, if any audience at all.”

The death of Captain Cook in Hawaii, 1779.

For people like Emalani Case, the story of Cook’s voyaging surfaces a lot of historic pain. Originally from Hawai’i, Case is now a lecturer of Pacific Studies at Victoria University, and was shocked when she heard about the commemorations.

“It seemed completely absurd to me that a government would spend so much money to celebrate a man who murdered islanders, murdered Māori here in Aotearoa and spread diseases, and who brought a lot of death, destruction and devastation to the islands… Not only is it disrespectful to tāngata whenua here but to everyone else in the islands who has been impacted.”

The history of Cook in Hawai’i is a grim one. It was where, in 1779, Captain Cook was killed after his attempt to kidnap a Hawai’ian king during a messy battle over a stolen cutter.

Case says it’s not appropriate to commemorate the “coming together of two cultures”, when the effects of racist colonialism are still alive today.

“The amount of money that’s been spent on Tuia 250 is a direct symbol of how important it is for the nation’s state to celebrate itself and perpetuate this myth that colonisation was a given, or that it was inevitable or that it is over. This whole idea that we can have conversations about the past totally ignores the fact that this problem is ongoing.”

Gibson wants the conversation to be centred around mātauranga. She says some people don’t understand the mamae because they’re unaware of what happened at the initial encounters between Cook and the Tūranga iwi.

“Cook was just the start of a whole regime of stuff that impacted negatively on our people. We have been busying ourselves trying to grow the strengths, learn from the weaknesses and past mistakes and build strength within our own, and a lot of that is educational… It’s now about making sure our kids know that story and then anyone else who wants to have a listen and see who [Te Maro] was, apart from when he got shot.”

Gibson knows there are problems in the way this event has been planned but she is also optimistic about Tuia 250, as a platform for beginning to tell stories like that of Te Maro.

“Our kids don’t know the stories, and some could say we’re selling ourselves out, but we’re actively involved in our hapū and our marae, so we see where the shortfalls are. We’re trying to move forward and in the same way we’re trying to get our voices heard… It’s time for our stories.”

Ngata says the problem is Māori people have been telling their story for years, and it shouldn’t take a colonial anniversary to make people finally listen.

“We have a rightful expectation for action to be taken about the impacts of colonial racism and how that manifests, particularly in our decision making structures in central and local government. If this government is real about its intention in relation to those issues, then we should expect to see some clear commitments and time frames for addressing those legacies.”

Charlotte Gibson and British High Commissioner Laura Clarke in Gisborne after an expression of regret from the British government was presented. Photo: Anusha Bradley, RNZ.

Despite the cancellation of the tall ships pōhiri, Pene Brown is optimistic about the commemoration. He hopes the events planned will provide space for the Māori story to be told, and that it can be the start of a wider discussion about the history of Pacific voyaging.

“This opportunity is for people to be part of a journey going forward, and not a tool for division. I think New Zealand is big enough to have two stories and go forward without being divided. We’re using our stories to get people back into thinking about who they are.”

Moera Brown says the ministry has done a lot of learning in the time it’s taken to pull the project together. She hopes in another 50 years there’s a greater understanding of Māori feelings towards Cook.

“Central government never really realised the depth of ill-feeling towards the arrival of Cook from a Māori perspective. I think that has been a bit of an eye-opener … The ātea is our space and it can be an ātea of peace or one of war. It’s an opportunity for people in that space to start to express all the hara that happened.”

“If they think what Cook did with a little bit of wood was fantastic, they should remember what their own people did with a little bit of wood and a flax sail.”

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Read more of The Spinoff’s coverage of the Tuia 250 commemorations:

The right to conquer and claim: Captain Cook and the Doctrine Of Discovery

Calling out Cook: Porirua’s Pātaka gallery confronts the complexities of Tuia250 

The man hijacking the Cook commemorations to tell the story of Polynesian exploration 


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