The Reconciliation Lie

Exploring the Logic of Achieving Sovereignty Through Celebrating Cook.


Many questions have been raised about the impending 2019 Cook Commemorations, and the various activities associated to the commemoration of Cook’s arrival in 1769. From the very outset, the idea was challenged at Gisborne District Council level, and has continued to be a contentious issue amongst our Tairāwhiti communities.

Still our government has thrown significant resourcing towards the commemoration of Cook’s arrival, and have, some would say, graciously allowed Maori to utilise some of this resourcing, along with supportive relationships, all launched under the banner of the commemorations in order to try and make this a positive experience for us all. Discussions have included the potential reconfiguring of our landscape, which is currently very Cook-centric (to date Cook’s arrival is immortalised through 2 Cook statues, a statue of his crew member, 2 statues of the Endeavour, a memorial of the landing site, a plaza, three streets, a park, an observatory, a hospital, various references through town, and of course through the name “Poverty Bay”). Relationships have been set up to facilitate the return of taonga from the extensive Cook collections held overseas. Waka hourua have been recruited to support the return of the Endeavour, and potentially to escort the Endeavour around Aotearoa in an apparent maritime version of “he iwi kotahi tatou” – a project which itself has already had millions of dollars pledged to it by the NZ government.


Of course, such support, and funding, for kaupapa Maori is novel in a region where we have traditionally struggled to fund such ideas. Which begs the question – why is the government so willing to fund and facilitate these endeavours (excuse the pun) under the mantle of the Cook commemorations, but not at any other time?

Is the overarching interest here an actual honouring of dual heritage, or is this an exercise in social licensing – where the government recognises the power of indigenous support, and more importantly, the damage of indigenous objection? So much so, in fact, that it will go to great lengths to secure that support. More importantly – is there something more at stake here than historical perspectives? What is it that they, and indeed we, stand to gain or lose in these transactions? In order to fully explore these questions we must consider the upcoming Cook Commemorations through a range of contexts. The common position seems to be that this is a historical event, the commemoration of which holds positive impacts for local hapu and iwi – but I would like to extend this discussion out, both in terms of time, and distance.

In the first instance – although this is seen as a historical event, there are a number of aspects to Cook’s arrival that can be seen to still exist in a contemporary setting, and certainly still impact upon current indigenous realities.

When the Royal Naval vessel HMS Bark Endeavour was commissioned to sail to the South Pacific, with Captain James Cook as its Captain, the ostensible purpose of the expedition was to observe the transit of Venus. Other, sealed orders were given to Cook but he was under strict instructions not to open them until after his work was completed in Tahiti. It’s important to remember at this point that many other European countries were vying for opportunities to strategically annex parts of the Pacific – and the British Crown were very careful not to alert other nations as to their intentions. Upon completing his work in Tahiti, the secret orders were opened, and they instructed Cook to locate Terra Australis, the great southern continent encountered by Tasman, chart its coasts, obtain information about its people, cultivate alliances where possible, and annex any convenient trading posts in the King’s name.

Cook's Secret Orders
Cook’s secret orders

This activity of “strategic annexation” is a part of what historians relate to as the “Age of Discovery” – the time range of which reaches from the 15th to the 18th century, and was characterised by European imperial expansion. European nations would fund “voyages of exploration” – and where new land and resources were discovered, they would be claimed in the name of the discovering nation.

From where did these many explorers, from different European nations, over three centuries, all derive the right to claim land and resources for themselves? How is it that, across such a wide expanse of time and distance, so many acquired this mindset of entitlement? Well it wasn’t a coincidence, it was in fact declared an activity sanctioned by Pope Alexander in a 15th century papal bull which came to underpin an international legal concept called the Doctrine of Discovery. This doctrine declared that lands occupied by non-european, non-christian populations were able to be claimed as the property of the colonizer, as could all the resources within, and the indigenous populations forwent all rights of sovereignty.

The Papal Bull “Inter Caetera,” issued by Pope Alexander VI on May 4, 1493, which shaped the Discovery Doctrine and incepted the “Age of Discovery” – which, as Moana Jackson notes, is probably more accurately described as the “Age of Genocide”.

The act of taking possession of lands through the Discovery Doctrine was carried out through the ceremonial raising of the flag. It is broadly accepted by historians that Captain Cook’s journeys fall within the age of discovery. It is also well accepted that his primary (albeit secret) orders were actually to “discover” the great southern continent (including Aotearoa) and “claim” it for Britain. It is also accepted that he raised the British Flag in Whitianga, and again in Te Waipounamu, each time claiming the land for Mother England.

Now even though Cook was under orders to, as much as possible, befriend the locals, one must remember that this did not mean that he was not permitted to kill them, and that he did. He and his crew killed them when he saw something of theirs that he wanted, like in Australia when he fired his musket at local indigenous people, then tracked them as they fled to steal from their homes, or here in Turanga when he decided he wanted a waka and so chased it down, and shot everyone inside it in order to seize it. He did when he thought he was under threat of any kind (whether he actually was or not remains to be seen) such as was the case for October 9th when Te Maro was killed by the coxswain in the first encounter.
Was this normal behaviour for Europeans? Did they kill each other with such ease when back in their homelands? Well no, of course not – but it WAS permitted behaviour under the Discovery Doctrine. Under this doctrine, Cook was able to take what he wanted – and this included not only other people’s property, but also other people. In fact, throughout his own journals, and those of his crew, and through indigenous accounts, we have reports of Cook and his men killing, stealing, and kidnapping their way around the Pacific. Of course, even here in Turanga Cook kidnapped 3 young men during his failed theft of the waka.

So we can see that in very nearly every sense – Cook was very much operating under the Discovery Doctrine in claiming lands and resources for England by raising the flag, and the manner in which he carried out his activities. It was this very first act that paved the way for the arrival of further settlers, and their own sense of entitlement. We must resist the concept that Cook was a noble explorer – and accept the fact that he was deliberately sent out as a military naval captain, with a naval vessel, as the vanguard of British imperial expansion – armed with the Discovery Doctrine to claim indigenous lands and resources. This was not unique – the military has always been the front foot of imperial expansion (and still is used as the front foot of corporate imperial expansion).

From Standing Rock to West Papua to Honduras and indeed here in Aotearoa – military forces are utilised to facilitate extraction from indigenous territories.

Importantly – while it is the Treaty that compels the Crown to consult with us – it is the Discovery Doctrine that enables our government to consistently ignore those consultations. It is the Discovery Doctrine that enables them to ignore their obligations under very document that validates their occupation.

And that is how we find ourselves in the contemporary context of the Discovery Doctrine. For if we accept that Aotearoa is, in fact, indigenous land – then the questions, very soon, begin to mount up:

  • Why, on indigenous land, does our government get to ignore our voices?
  • Why, on indigenous land, do we find ourselves looking to the likes of Maggie Barry for funding?
  • Why, on indigenous land, do we get such little say about what happens to our land?
  • Why, on indigenous land, do so many indigenous people die so soon, so often, and so tragically?
  • Why, on indigenous land, can we not protect and effectively promote our own indigenous language?

Again – some may well say “well this is because the treaty gets violated” – but then the question remains “so how do they get to remain in power, after they violate their own treaty?”

The answer is the Discovery Doctrine.

The very legislation that established the settler government, and paved the way for countless unjust legislative violations from then, until now, and onwards into the future, are reiterations of the Discovery Doctrine again, and again, and again.

And because Discovery Doctrine reaffirms the power structure of the “discovering” people, and the subjugation of the indigenous people, it is, of course, something that the discovering nation likes to reaffirm through celebrations, commemorations, and the creation and support of “hero’s tales” that, in totality, aim to “move past unsavoury pasts” in order to cement one’s place in the colonised country. Cue Columbus Day; cue Magellan celebrations; cue the Cook commemorations.

In fact, the social licencing of the Discovery Doctrine grows more difficult for governments to carry out every year. In the 1969 Cook Celebrations, Maori validation and support was inconsequential – pre-Waitangi Tribunal, pre-Maori Language Claim, pre-indigenous rights – the sixties were a time when indigenous erasure was commonplace.

Cook Celebrations 1969 involved another military invasion, complete with aircraft and naval vessels.

Indeed it’s only in recent years, thanks to much work from the likes of Moana Jackson, Linda and Graham Smith, Leonie Pihema and Aroha Mead, that colonial history has been exposed for its fallacy, and damage. Thanks to this groundwork, any history that marginalises indigenous peoples can be viewed as racist, and archaic.

Can you see, now, why it is so vital for our government to court indigenous approval for their festivities?

Now that we see what they stand to gain – let us now consider what we have to lose.

Of course we have heard of various benefits being channeled through these commemorations – the return of overseas taonga, the funding of voyaging events… and perhaps most interesting are the “opportunities to tell our version of the story”. Implicit in this statement are a number of assumptions – firstly that we cannot tell our truths in other ways, which of course is patently absurd. Second is the assumption that through telling our truths, we will find healing and reconciliation. Certainly this is lauded as a pathway to bicultural harmony – the languaging around the celebrations is deliberate in its continued reference to the event as a celebration of “dual heritage” and a way of “coming together”.

Yet given the disproportionate power system set up by Cook’s arrival and maintained by the celebration of that event, just how realistic is it to expect actual reconciliation?
While it may “feel good” to have our versions placed alongside other versions that heroicise Cook – is it still relevant, in this day and age, to be thankful for allowing that to happen, when this is now the minimum standard anyway?

Again, I must return to the concept of ground – for another position of the Cook promoters is that, in presenting 2 different versions of history, we reach a “middle ground”. This is reminiscent of the suggestion that Treaty principles are a fair middle ground between the differing versions of the Treaty and Te Tiriti.

But as Ani Mikaere points out – they’re not a fair middle ground- because we did not sign the Treaty – we signed Te Tiriti.

This tactic is known as creating a “false middle ground”. There is no middle ground here. There is only indigenous ground. The pakeha version of events has been repeatedly embedded in the nation’s consciousness for 200 years. It has dominated history. It is the default position for most of Aotearoa. Setting it alongside the marginalised indigenous version does not create a middle ground. There are also aspects of this version that have been challenged and disproven throughout much of the Pacific. Placing falsehood next to the truth does not make the falsehood any more truthful.


Actual reconciliation cannot be said to occur without fundamentally challenging the power systems which drive the continued oppression of our people in our own lands. This much will not happen as a result of these commemorations – we know that because this much is not even able to happen WITHIN these celebrations. Just look at who is holding the purse strings, who dominates the decision making, and (of course) whose anniversary we are basing everything around.

In Canada, our indigenous brothers and sisters face the same struggle. The banners of “truth and reconciliation” fly strong and high in the era of Trudeau. Yet still indigenous communities are robbed of their lands, and literally poisoned, by the Alberta Tar Sands giga-project – and we bear witness to instances where treaty promises are consistently broken every single day – all the while indigenous communities are asked to stand and smile for the cameras in the name of truth and reconciliation. Indigenous journalist Steve Newcombe writes:

Reconciliation is a false-word that makes it appear as if something positive is being done without once addressing the persistent and ongoing process that is causing the problems experienced by Original Nations of Great Turtle Island in the place now commonly called “Canada.”

Photo by Brian Encas – original article here

He couldn’t be more right – just how much “reconciliation” rhetoric should Sylvia McAdam be expected to swallow while she continues to fight the theft and ruin of her lands and oppression of her people on a daily basis?

This brings me to the next context within which we may consider this event – the global indigenous context. For as much as we must consider the benefits for our own hapu and iwi – we also enjoy membership of a global indigenous community. We regularly celebrate our indigenous relationships, we gather together and stand by each other by virtue of our many shared experiences – and in many spaces, we share a strong bond of solidarity and even alliances. When we consider what Cook meant to us – it makes sense to also at least consider what he meant for our indigenous brothers and sisters who encountered him after he left our shores.

As I mentioned earlier, Cook’s three voyages around the Pacific, Captain Cook managed to leave a significant legacy and impact with indigenous peoples – and not a good one.
Indeed – the fateful first 48 hours of Cooks time in Turanganui a Kiwa, which featured theft, kidnapping, and murder, are roughly representative of his modus operandi around the Pacific in general. In addition to those that he and his crew shot and killed, Cook also knowingly brought infected men with him and allowed them to sexually transmit their diseases throughout indigenous communities – which had devastating consequences for multiple generations.

For many, many other indigenous relations across Te Moananui a Kiwa, Cook’s exploits represent one more hurtful, destructive page in history where indigenous people are the unfortunate footnote in the story of European imperial expansion. Some of them are very much still trying to wrestle their own identity from the aftermath of Cook’s “discovery” (if Poverty Bay is not difficult enough consider being called the Cook Islands) – let alone pursue a platform for their experiences of encountering him. In providing a platform for Cook to be celebrated, we cannot absolve ourselves of the impacts this will have upon those who are also a part of Cook’s story.

And finally, for the broader indigenous community, the issue of the Discovery Doctrine continues to impact them, as it does us. Not only through the domination of history – but also through continued seizure and occupation of indigenous lands by settler governments and corporations. Even though it was Christopher Columbus who was famously credited with “discovering” the USA – it was in fact England’s recognition of the doctrine that was famously cited by the US Court of Law in removing the sovereign rights of First Nations peoples – and in fact it was acknowledged that the Discovery Doctrine formed the basis for US law. The doctrine has subsequently played a direct and indirect role in the theft of first nations lands, the theft of first nations children, and more recently, it has played a role in the sale of indigenous assets to corporate interests. Indeed, every year, still, indigenous nations stand before the United Nations and cite the continued use of the Discovery Doctrine by member state nations to pave the way for corporations to abuse our rights, and alienate our lands and resources.

The very curious, and human, condition of exceptionalism, exhibits as a tendency to think that we are the exception in the case – that racism is something that happens in other families, that other nations have experienced colonisation so much worse than us, and in fact that our experience is negligible in comparison. Yet – the discovery doctrine has underpinned legislation which has stolen much of our land, and displaced generations of our children, has robbed us of our language and forced the vast majority of us off our ancestral lands, into the cities, and away from each other. In failing to call out the Discovery Doctrine for its contemporary role in our own oppression, and that of our brothers and sisters, we perpetuate a power relationship that continues to set us back in the struggle for full sovereignty in our own lands.

Importantly, in the case of the Cook commemorations – if we are not willing to consider the role of discovery narratives in maintaining a system of domination over ourselves and other indigenous peoples, then the vision of mana motuhake will remain a distant mirage.

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