Image: Arrival of Captain Cook by Louis Steele/collage

Making sense of Tuia 250 through Barry Barclay’s prescient work

The great filmmaker Barry Barclay (Ngati, The Kaipara Affair) also wrote books on Māori screen arts and philosophy. Miriama Aoake delved back into Mana Tūturu: Māori Treasures and Intellectual Property Rights, in which he reimagines Captain Cook’s landing in Aotearoa if cameras were present. 

Two hundred and fifty years ago, a white man from England washed up on shores of Tūranga on the east coast of Aotearoa. He was not the first, or the second. He is responsible for dragging and disseminating the Westminster charters (and syphilis) some 1330 nautical miles, fuelled by the Doctrine of Discovery. Yet his arrival has been memorialised as a nation-making act, entrenching a hierarchy that has prioritised white supremacy above indigenous achievement since 1769. It is a legacy of contention, of racism and trauma that, dressed as commemoration, is uncomfortably entangled in our shared histories. For Māori, the Tuia 250 celebration is an exercise in colonial performativity that equates Polynesian voyaging with imperialist expansion.

Barry Barclay (Ngāti Apa, Ngāti Pākehā) is someone whose body of work I return to frequently. In many ways, Barclay typifies a prophetic and level criticality of Māori thinking. In my struggle to make sense of Tuia 250, I found myself peeling through the opening chapter of Mana Tūturu: Māori Treasures and Intellectual Property Rights again, in which Barclay interrogates the first ‘encounter’ between the mana whenua of Rongowhakaata and Captain Cook and his men. What I find most novel in Barclay’s reimagining is the introduction of a camera, placed in the hands of the Endeavour crew. As Barclay explains, “the pumpkin should have known better than to hit the dry land without one”.

Mana Tūturu is an expansive rumination on the polarity between ‘offshore’ Westminster law and ‘onshore’ tikanga law. While Barclay uses the law/lore binary to examine issues of intellectual property and ownership, the scope of the concerns raised is much broader. From the outset, Barclay establishes a chasm between the behaviour of Cook and co. from the arrival at Tūranga, to the Endeavour’s earlier docking in Funchal, Portugal. When the Endeavour lands in Funchal, a medical team boards the ship to inspect the crew before they disembark. The British consul is alerted to their arrival, offering his house, connections and resources for the duration of their stay, and supplies for the next leg of the expedition. In Tūranga, a cluster of Māori observe the Endeavour’s arrival with intrigue. Cook and co. attempt to cross the river to speak with them, but, awkwardly, find nowhere to cross. Cook assigns four crew to guard the dinghy, before making tracks inland towards a few huts. The Endeavour’s surgeon, Monkhouse, enters and scrawls detailed field notes. The inspection is interrupted by a musket shot. The lieutenant and his men return, and find a Māori man dead in the sand. Barclay explains: “Cook wrote that ‘the other three stood motionless for a minute or two, wondering no doubt what had killed their comrade. As soon as they had recovered themselves, they made off. They dragged the body a little way, but then left it where it was.”

I must note here Barclay’s discomfort in describing this ‘encounter’. Every iteration of this history dredges the depths of Rongowhakaata pain. It is not a description I wish to use recklessly. Like Barclay, however, I agree that the contradiction between Cook’s behaviour in Funchal and their behaviour in Tūranga is quite important. The wrongful assumption Cook and co. made in Tūranga, and not in Funchal, was the absence of an existing body of law. In Westminster terms, Cook’s party would be charged with trespassing, breaking and entering, loitering with intent and murder.

Writer and director Barry Barclay in the documentary Barry Barclay: The Camera on the Shore (Image: NZ On Screen)

Tikanga, as the living, customary system of values, lore, methods, practices, protocols, conduct, code, conventions and so on, was firmly in place. Were cameras invented, the images that may have been captured on film would mean different things to different people. This of course depends on whose perspective we choose to see from. One set of eyes may look at Cook as a man who went to the farthest ends of the Earth, and another as “… simply a man who arrived”, as Barclay put it. The plaguing question that Barclay proposed is one we continue to negotiate. To whom would this image belong?

Ownership of an image, history or memory is dependent on whose lore/law we apply and uphold which was, and remains, contested. Trying to reconcile ownership within tikanga is a difficult-bordering-on-futile task in itself – you would somehow have to reduce a taonga to an object devoid of mauri, for a start. Mauri is the life force and vital essence, the lifeblood which flows through everything and binds us to everything in the physical world. Mana cannot exist without mauri. With this understanding, Māori cannot exert ownership over another being or inert ‘object’. To do so would be to deny that object its own autonomy. 

To some, Cook was an inductee to the gold-furnished halls of navigation, exploration and adventure. For others, especially Māori, Cook was a greedy, racist, thieving, pillaging, looting, murdering bastard. It’s hardly a surprise that he was killed by our whanaunga in Hawai’i 10 years later on Valentine’s Day, 1779.

I think this is the fear some Pākehā have regarding Tuia 250. The fear that, as Stephen Turner writes, history belongs to both the ‘conquerors’ and the ‘conquered’. The dominant narrative of Cook as the harbinger of ‘civilisation’ has been disrupted and contested by many, but is still held as the most acceptable account in public discourse. Pākehā fear that if they rescind even a fraction of control – of law, sovereignty or history – the foundations upon which the ‘nation’ of ‘New Zealand’ was haphazardly constructed will crumble and descend into something they won’t recognise or like. The ability of Māori to persevere through each attempted genocide has meant that the dominant narrative is never secure. 

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The spectrum of emotions for Māori in this commemorative exercise is justified. We are forced to confront the enduring realities of colonial ‘exploration’ every day. The response from many Māori is that this will further re-entrench a colonial hegemony. Given that it is a State-sanctioned and taxpayer-funded performance, it is hard to imagine otherwise. The expectation that we should regurgitate our mamae so Pākehā can play imperialist vaudeville is egregious, yes. That we are being told how we should engage with our own memories, and fork out a koha and a pōwhiri for it, is paternalistic. But how will this play out, with our collective memories so emotionally interspersed with nation-making, and nation-breaking, memories? Who owns the past?

I return to Barclay, whose foresight is spookily accurate. Protest is inevitable, as is the icy reception from Pākehā audiences. Pākehā may be irritated, but assured, somehow, that they are well within their rights to claim ownership over this history, or control of the narrative, in the very least. Ngāti Oneone, Ngai Tāmanuhiri, Rongowhakaata and Te Aitanga a Mahaki didn’t receive an apology for the nine lives taken in that first ‘encounter’, but rather an ‘expression of regret’ (whatever that means) from the British government. Their position is that there was no system of law in operation at the time, despite the entrenchment of tikanga. The commemorations will trudge forward regardless. Barclay predicted this response, and articulated it best: ‘[It’s] Captain James Cook, for heaven’s sake.’ 

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


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