On October 8, 1769, the British explorer James Cook made landing at the Tūranganui River, not far from the modern-day city of Gisborne, New Zealand. As the country prepares to commemorate—and grapple with—the 250th anniversary of this defining event, the British government has expressed its regret for the killings of nine Indigenous Māori in the wake of Cook’s arrival. The government did not, as the BBC points out, go so far as to offer a formal apology.
Laura Clarke, the British high commissioner to New Zealand, met with local iwi, or tribes, in two separate ceremonies. “I acknowledge the deaths of nine of your ancestors … who were killed by the crew of the Endeavor [Cook’s ship],” Clarke said. “It is impossible to know exactly what led to those deaths, but what is clear is that your ancestors were shot and killed by the crew of the Endeavor and others were wounded.”
"It is deeply sad that the first encounter happened in the way that it did,” Clarke continued, “And, to you, as the descendants of those killed, I offer my every sympathy, for I understand the pain does not diminish over time."
“What we did today, really acknowledged, perhaps properly for the first time, that nine people and nine ancestors were killed in those first meetings between Captain Cook and New Zealand Māori, and that is not how any of us would have wanted those first encounters to have happened,” she added.
The colonization of New Zealand by European settlers has had a wide-ranging and lasting impact on its Indigenous peoples, ushering in a loss of population, land, language and culture. But Clarke’s expression of regret focused on the disastrous first encounters that took place between Māori groups and Cook’s crew in the immediate aftermath of the Europeans’ arrival in New Zealand.
The local Māori were mystified by Cook’s great ship, reportedly believing that it was a floating island or a giant bird. A number of armed men approached the boat, in what some experts think was a “ceremonial challenge,” according to a New Zealand government site. But the crew members believed that they were under attack and shot Te Maro, a Ngāti Oneone leader. Not long afterward, Te Rakau, an important chief from the Rongowhakaata tribe, was killed—perhaps once again due to a misunderstanding, when the Māori attempted to exchange weapons with the new arrival. More Māori died when the Endeavor’s crew tried to seize a waka, or canoe, and bring its inhabitants on board the ship, with the goal of establishing a positive rapport with them.
Before departing on his voyage, Cook had been instructed to foster alliances with the indigenous peoples of the lands he discovered, and he reportedly regretted these bungled encounters. “He is often credited with showing forbearance, restraint and understanding,” the government website acknowledges, but adds that Cook’s “record is ambivalent: while he made every effort to avoid bloodshed, Māori were killed on both his first and second voyages to New Zealand.”
Today’s Māori view Cook as a highly problematic figure, one who brought violence and devastation to New Zealand’s Indigenous peoples. Events marking the 250th anniversary of his arrival in New Zealand are expected to draw protests; last month, some Māori groups objected to a replica of Cook’s ship that is circumnavigating the country as part of its national Tuia 250 initiative.
“[Cook] was a barbarian,” Anahera Herbert-Graves, head of Northland’s Ngāti Kahu iwi, told Graham Russell of the Guardian. “Wherever he went, like most people of the time of imperial expansion, there were murders, there were abductions, there were rapes, and just a lot of bad outcomes for the indigenous people.”
The BBC reports that some Māori advocates are upset Clarke’s statement stopped short of a full apology, but others see it as a positive step toward reconciliation.
"I think for me [an expression of regret] is better than an apology; an apology suggests to me that you make a statement and we have left it at that,” Nick Tupara, a spokesperson for the Ngāti Oneone, tells Radio New Zealand. “Whereas a statement of regret suggests there is an opening for some dialogue going forward. It suggests a possibility of a relationship working together and growing together helping each other out.”