Captain Cook anniversary caught in larger N.Z. history wrangle

In The Press yesterday were opposing columns by two Members of Parliament about whether we should be celebrating or commemorating the arrival of Captain James Cook in New Zealand in October 1769. With the 250th anniversary just a couple of months away, New Zealand is facing an internal debate on the (de)merits of the visit of the British explorer and what it meant for New Zealand.

One column, by Labour Party Deputy Leader Kelvin Davis suggests that the way to go about acknowledging Captain Cook is to commemorate his visit. Mr Davis, who is of Ngapuhi descent and grew up in the far north of New Zealand is the Minister for Crown/Maori Relations.

An opposing column was written by National Party Member of Parliament and former historian, Dr Paul Goldsmith. Dr Goldsmith suggests that Captain Cook had much to offer and that we should be celebrating the anniversary of his arrival on New Zealand shores.

It is a tough one. I absolutely acknowledge what happened the early days of New Zealand had hugely damaging outcomes for Maori, past and present as well as probably sometime into the future. I acknowledge that serious incidents that would attract the attention of the United Nations today, happened and include the Parihaka incident, which I have opined about elsewhere, the Wairau Affray 1843 as well as the 1st and 2nd Taranaki Wars, the invasion of Waikato as well as those involving Te Kooti in East Cape and Titokowaru.

I accept that in losing their land through confiscations Maori lost connections to their geneaology, their sense of place and culture. I accept that it might not seem possible to undo that damage.

However, as Dr Goldsmith argues there is no doubt that Maori have been massive benefactors of European science, technology, medicine, culture, food and so forth. He points to the high rankings we have achieved in literacy, life expectancy, the freedoms we have achieved which we now see being eroded in countries that used to be the leading lights of democracy and human rights. And all that we have achieved to become in his own words “the best little country in the world” is certainly worth celebrating

I am however of an independent stance. The reality of the matter is neither side came away with an unblemished and how we deal with it today is of concern. I view the whole issue of what happened between Maori and the Crown in the early days as something that needs some substantial progress made on it. We are a multicultural nation now and not enough is being done to make sure that new comers to New Zealand know the history of the country that they are coming to. It matters not whether it is Maori history or European history, the number of people who seem to be unaware of Te Tiriti O Waitangi, of the wars that followed, or of Maoridom on the whole, is something that I find somewhat disturbing.

I have also talked to friends who do not seem to be aware of any of the Treaty of Waitangi settlements that have happened, which makes me wonder what they were taught in school. They openly confessed ignorance and were surprised at the ease that I – who freely admits to not knowing nearly enough myself – rattled off the Iwi who have successfully negotiated settlements with the Crown.

Celebrate or commemorate – your choice – but I choose a third, which is educate. Judging by the reactions I have had from others and willingly admitting to a couple black spots in my own understanding, educating should go down with the same importance as celebrating or commemorating.