The truth about Captain Cook and Maori: it’s not what Michael King told you

2-V40-O1-1777 New Zealand / Hippah / Maori Village Ethnology / Oceania / New Zealand. - Hippah, fortified Maori village on the southwest peak of Motuara, Queen Char- lotte Sound (toured by James Cook on 15 February 1777). - Drawing, 1777, by John Webber (1751- 1793), during the 3rd voyage of James Cook, 1777-1779. Ms.Add. 15513, No. 6, London, British Library. (Newscom TagID: akgphotos117094) [Photo via Newscom]

This week marks the 250th anniversary of British explorer James Cook and his crew making landfall in New Zealand, and the media have been full of stories demanding Britain “apologise” for colonising the country and “murdering” Maori during that first encounter. However, as IAN WISHART writes in his New Zealand history bestseller The Great Divide, Maori tribes had been slaughtering each other and practising slavery and cannibalism for centuries before the Europeans interfered. In this extract from the book to mark the anniversary, it becomes clear that acclaimed historians like Michael King have misled the public about Cook’s first encounter, and its significance in a land where the law of “utu” meant massacres were common:


Captain Cook’s first week in New Zealand was a bloody one, as he and the Maori tested each other’s mettle. The usual routine in the more politically-correct New Zealand history books is to imply that Cook shot innocent Maori because he and his crew were unfamiliar with Maori haka and challenges. Cook may have been new to NZ waters, but he and his officers were not entirely stupid. They had, after all, spent a lot of time in the Pacific islands, and had on board the Tahitian chief Tupaea as their cultural advisor and translator.

Michael King reckons the first tragic meeting happened like this:

“Poverty Bay Maori paid a price for confronting the unknown visitors. When a Maori party approached the Endeavour’s pinnace ashore on the bank of the Turanganui River and ceremonially challenged the crew, a sailor judged their intention to be hostile and shot one man dead.”52

Readers can make their own minds up as to whether that’s an overly simplistic paraphrasing of what follows, taken directly from Endeavour’s diaries.

On Monday October 9, Cook and his men had gone ashore in several boats for the first time to make contact with the Maori, whom at that stage Cook called “Indians”. With the language barrier, the Maori retreated into the bush, leaving Cook and his officers exploring the deserted Maori village while four cabin boys waited in the river by one of the smaller boats, a yawl. Suddenly, one of Cook’s watchkeepers back at the beach saw four armed “Indians” running for the boat containing the cabin boys. The

52 The Penguin History of New Zealand, Michael King, p103
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Coxswain yelled at the boys in the yawl to rapidly begin rowing down stream towards the beach, “which they did, being closely pursued by the Indians,” recorded James Cook.

“The Coxswain of the pinnace53 who had the charge of the boats,” wrote Cook in his journal, “fire’d two musquets over their heads, the first made them stop and look round them, but the 2nd they took no notice of, upon which a third was fired and killed one of them upon the spot just as he was going to dart his spear at the boat; at this the other three stood motionless for a minute or two, seemingly quite surprised, wondering no doubt what it was that had thus killed their comrade: but as soon as they recover’d themselves they made off dragging the dead body a little way and then left it.”54

Hearing the gunshots, Cook and his men sprinted back to the beach, took one look at the dead Maori and another look back at the bushline where the rest were hiding, and the order was given to retreat to the safety of Endeavour.

Four armed warriors sprinting to a boat containing four young cabin boys doesn’t sound like much of a “ceremonial challenge”. Here’s how Sir Joseph Banks recorded the incident:

“In the evening went ashore with the marines. March from the boats in hopes of finding water. Saw a few of the natives who ran away immediately on seeing us; while we were absent four of them attacked our small boat in which were only 4 boys, they got off from the shore in a river, the people followed them and threatened with long lances; the pinnace soon came to their assistance, fired upon them and killed the chief.”55

The following morning, October 10, as previously recounted, Cook and his men were back on the beach with their Tahitian translator Tupaea in tow, hoping to get the message across, “we come in peace”. The Maori gathered on

53 Endeavour’s main tender vessel
54 Cook’s journal, 9 October 1769, see
55 Banks’ journal, 8 October 1769, see


Me Tarzan, You James

the opposite bank of the river that cut down to the beach, and began a full-on haka. Now this was a ceremonial challenge, and was recognised as such.

“We called to them in the Georges Island Language, but they answered us by flourishing their weapons over their heads and dancing, as we supposed, the war dance.”

Realising there was no Scotty to ‘beam us up’, Captain Cook did the next best thing, calling on a regiment of Endeavour’s marines to take formation 200 metres behind the officers. Like a world cup rugby encounter, but with guns, the English team watched nervously as the haka was performed.

To their surprise, the “Indians” understood translator Tupaea perfectly, but naturally the events of the previous day had left everyone shaken.

The Maori initially acted friendly, and first a handful then “20 or 30” swam across the river to meet the British. The first few were unarmed, but as more leapt into the water Cook’s men noticed the latest arrivals were carrying weapons. The Endeavour officers handed out gifts to all, but what the Maori really wanted was to lay their hands on the strangers’ mysterious weapons that seemed capable of killing people with a sound.

One Maori youth managed to snatch a British officer’s cutlass and began waving it around, refusing to give it back despite Tupaea’s pleas.

“Tupaea told us several times as soon as they came over to take care of ourselves, for they were not our friends,” noted Cook, “and this we very soon found for one of them snatched Mr Greens Hanger [cutlass] from him and would not give it up.”

Cook realised his own mana was being tested, and with 30 mostly armed Maori at close quarters the situation could get fatal for the Endeavour if he wasn’t decisive. “This encouraged the rest to be more insolent and seeing others coming over to join them I ordered the man who had taken the hanger to be fired at.”

By the time the guns were

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silent, the original offender was confirmed dead and three others suspected so, although they were carried off by the tribe so their ultimate fate was unknown.

Still hopeful he could win the tribe around, Cook and his men took to the water again that afternoon, drawing their longboat close to a waka containing half a dozen youths. Tupaea tried to ask them to come and see Endeavour, but at that the paddlers just paddled even harder in the opposite direction. Thinking he could scare them into stopping, Cook  ordered shots to be fired into the air. The reaction he got was unexpected – the waka suddenly headed for their longboat and it looked as if the paddlers intended to attack. This time Cook’s men opened fire on the canoe, killing three instantly and sending the others leaping into the surf.

“Three jumped overboard, these last we took up and brought on board, where they were clothed and treated with all imaginable kindness and, to the surprise of everybody, became at once as cheerful and as merry as if they had been with their own friends; they were all three young, the eldest not above 20 years of age and the youngest about 10 or 12.”56

Later that night, with just candlelight to illuminate the parchment of his journal page, Cook lamented his decision to open fire in the first place, and kicked himself for not anticipating it.

“I am aware that most humane men who have not experienced things of this nature will censure my conduct in firing upon the people in this boat, nor do I myself think that the reason I had for seizing upon her will at all justify me.

“Had I thought that they would have made the least resistance I would not have come near them but as they did I was not to stand still and suffer either myself or those that were with me to be knocked on the head.”

Cook was well aware of the fate that had befallen Tasman’s crew back in 1642.

After a night of good food on the British flagship, Cook’s three Maori guests were reluctant to leave, telling him through the interpreter that they feared their enemies would catch them if he took them back to the beach. Cook suspected it was the youths’ sense of adventure and curiosity getting the better of them, and was pleased to note the trio were greeted by their own tribe when they returned that next morning.

News spread rapidly of the strange riches carried on Endeavour, and on October 12 another waka full of Maori men pulled alongside. “The

56 Cook’s Journal, October 10, 1769, see


Me Tarzan, You James

people in this boat had heard of the treatment those had met with we had had on board before and therefore came on board without hesitation,” noted Cook. In demand was cloth, made by the natives of Tahiti and stored on the Endeavour, and in return the Maori first traded their paddles and then tried to sell their canoe. When they finally departed, they voluntarily left behind three more Maori to stay on the British ship, and nothing Cook and his men could to would entice their guests to go back to the mainland.

When dawn broke the following morning, more canoes pulled alongside and translator Tupaea remarked to Cook the overnight guests were yelling over the rails to their friends, “It’s OK to come on board, the white men don’t eat people!”

“From which,” Cook wryly and cautiously noted in his journal, “it should seem that these people have such a Custom among them.”57

As Endeavour cruised south through Poverty Bay exploring, the ship grounded on a shoal briefly, long enough for four waka to be launched from a nearby beach. Not wanting his ship swamped by possibly hostile

57 Cook’s journal, 12 October 1769, see

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strangers, Cook ordered warning shots to ring out.

“I ordered a musket shot to be fired close to one of them, but this they took no notice of. A four pounder was then fired a little wide of them. At this they began to shake their spears and paddles at us, but notwithstanding this they thought fit to retire.”58

Monday 16 October saw the British again draw blood. A Maori fishing party wanted to sell “stinking fish” to Cook, who wrote that regardless of the state of the fish he was happy to trade with the locals “on any terms”.

The tribe seemed most interested in red cloth, while Cook was fascinated by what appeared to be a “bear skin” cloak being worn by one of the Maori. It ended with the tribe getting the red cloth, but Cook came out of the trade ‘bear handed’ as the mysterious cloak remained on the canoe.

Things turned nasty, however, when the Maori – on the pretence of offering more fish – managed to snatch hold of Tupaea’s young Tahitian servant, Tiata. “They seized hold of him, pulled him into the boat and endeavoured to carry him off,” wrote Cook. “This obliged us to fire upon them which gave the boy an opportunity to jump over board and we brought the Ship too, lowered a boat into the water and took him up unhurt.

“Two or 3 paid for the daring attempt with the loss of their lives, and many more would have suffered had it not been for fear of killing the Boy.”59

The incident gave Cape Kidnappers its name.

Although Cook had now managed to kill more Maori than Abel Tasman’s ill-fated sojourn, there was no sense of wanton tragedy. Both sides were continuing to test the other; Maori, with a strong warrior code and

58 Cook’s journal, 13 October 1769, see
59 Cook’s journal, 16 October 1769, see

Me Tarzan, You James

sense of honour, wanted to know the mettle of the Endeavour and its crew and seemed to accept the previous skirmishes were policing actions rather than acts of outright hostility. To be frank, they couldn’t keep away from the British.

“During our stay in this Bay we had every day more or less traffic with the Natives, they bringing us fish and now and then a few sweet Potatoes, and several trifles which we deemed curiosities. For these we gave them cloth, beads, nails. The cloth we got at [Tahiti] they valued more than anything we could give them, and as everyone in the Ship were provided with some of this sort of cloth I [allowed] everybody to purchase whatever they pleased without limitation, for by this means I knew that the natives would not only sell, but get a good price for everything they brought.”60

By trying to ensure the Maori got value for their trade, Cook hoped they would be encouraged to trade a wider range of goods, including things the British were not yet aware of.

It has been speculated by modern historians that the mega-tsunami of the mid 1400s killed the craftsmen capable of building outrigger and full catamaran canoes. The Maori had emigrated to New Zealand from

the islands in double-hulled waka with sails, which are much more stable for ocean use, but by the time the Treaty of Waitangi was signed there was not a double-hulled canoe to be seen.

In a Dominion Post article, columnist Bob Brockie directly attributes this to the tsunami:61 “In those days most Maori lived on the coasts of Northland, Auckland, Coromandel and Bay of Plenty – the very coasts that bore the full force of the tsunami.

“To fill out the picture, he [archaeologist Bruce McFadgen] draws on many traditional Maori accounts of disastrous seas rising to the height of cliff tops, overwhelming their lands, drowning communities and sweeping away their fleets of canoes about 15 generations ago.

“Dr McFadgen suggests the great wave would have carried away all canoes and fishing gear, gardens and stored food, buried shellfish beds and poisoned the soil with salt.

“He thinks many coastal Maori would either have drowned or died of their injuries and, with the wholesale loss of food, many survivors would have succumbed to starvation.

60 Cook’s journal, 29 October 1769, see
61 “Tsunami wiped out historic knowledge”, Dominion Post 12 October 2009, see http://www.
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“The timing of the calamitous tsunami coincides with many changes that overtook Maori.

“Before the disaster Maori built two-hulled canoes, afterwards only single-hulled boats.

“The quality of stone adzes, fishing gear, ornaments and other artifacts declined after the tsunami, which Dr McFadgen attributes to the loss of many skilled craftsmen.”

Yet a search of Captain Cook’s journals, and those of ship’s artist Sydney Parkinson, reveals some of those canoe techniques were still in existence in 1769.

“Several of the canoes had outriggers; and one of them had a very curious piece of ornamental carving at the head of it,” noted Sydney Parkinson at Poverty Bay.62

Several weeks later, with Endeavour approaching Motuhora Island off Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty, Cook made this journal entry:

“At 7 was close under the first island from whence a large double Canoe full of people came off to us. This was the first double Canoe we had seen in this Country. They stayed about the Ship until it was dark then left us, but not before they had thrown a few stones: they told us the name of the Island which was Mowtohora.”63

Clearly, not all the Pacific-style canoes had gone, and the catamarans were no slouches as Cook noted the following day:

“The Double Canoe which we saw last night followed us again today under sail [emphasis added], and kept abreast of the Ship near an hour talking to Tupaea, but at last they began to pelt us with stones but upon firing one musket they dropped astern and left us.”64

Botanist Sir Joseph Banks writes of the same incident:

“A sailing canoe that had chased us ever since day break came up with us and proved the same double canoe as pelted us last night, which made us prepare for another volley of their ammunition, dangerous to nothing on board but our windows.

“The event proved as we expected for after having sailed with us an hour they threw their stones again; a musket was fired over them and they dropped astern not, I believe, at all frightened by the musket but content with having shown their courage by twice insulting us. We now begin to

62 Parkinson’s journal, 13 October 1769, see
63 Cook’s journal, 2 November 1769, see
64 Cook’s journal, 3 November 1769, see

Me Tarzan, You James

know these people and are much less afraid of any daring attempt from them than we were,” exclaimed Banks.65

Banks’ wry observations on the Maori propensity to talk tough showed again the following day.

“About dinner time three canoes came alongside of much the most simple construction of any we have seen, being no more than the trunks of trees hollowed out by fire without the least carving or even the addition of a washboard on their gunnels.

“The people in them were almost naked and blacker than any we had seen – only 21 in all – yet these few despicable gentry sang their song of defiance and promised us as heartily as the most respectable of their countrymen that they would kill us all.”

Seeing that the waka paddlers were tiring as they chased the Endeavour, one of the English crew threw out a tow rope “to save them the trouble of paddling, this they accepted and rewarded the man who gave it by thrusting at him with a pike which, however, took no effect.”

65 Banks’ journal, 2 November 1769, see

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It was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship between James Cook and the people of New Zealand. Some of his contemporaries, however, were not so lucky.