Perhaps Captain Cook is also due an apology

Who would have thought it?  In far-off London, the BBC Home Service gives brief and vague report of the British High Commissioner in New Zealand offering an apology for the killing of Maori groups following the arrival of James Cook in New Zealand.

If journalism is the first draft of history, this comes across as a badly-edited and confusing footnote.

But while we might forgive the BBC for trivialising it, we owe ourselves a fuller appreciation.

Cook’s ship Endeavour, carrying 94 men, slipped down Plymouth Sound on 26 August 1768, heading for the southern oceans.  It was the start of something remarkable. He reached New Zealand in the month of September, 250 years ago.  

Over the next ten years, in three voyages of discovery of high risk and prodigious burden, he achieved what surely ranks as one of the greatest expansions of the known world (superbly chronicled in J.C. Beaglehole’s edition of Cook’s journals).

Symbols matter.

The extraordinary and sustained courage of him and his seamen braving constant danger, from the Antarctic pack ice to the Great Barrier Reef, with little margin for error and no chance of help stands as a symbol for all men and women voyaging into the Southern Ocean.  His scrupulous and scientific written records are an enduring monument to the pre-literate Polynesians who preceeded him in discovery and matched him in courage. Little wonder that the names of two of his Royal Navy ships – HMS Endeavour and HMS Discovery – were revived for the US’s Space Shuttle programme. 

The other marker which emerges from the journals is Cook’s humanity.  For a man of initially-limited horizons and trammelled with great responsibility, Cook often showed keen understanding, a remarkably non-judgemental attitude and a willingness to see things from the other person’s point of view.  It made him a shrewd and scientific observer, and gave him a claim to fineness of character.

A country – or people – who regard the history of James Cook as suitable for a one line apology or simply as a symbol of post-contact conflicts certainly lacks a sense of proportion – and perhaps a little more than that.

Cook’s life work took more than ten years.  So there is still plenty of time for an apology on the 250th anniversary of his untimely killing in Kealakekua Bay in Hawaii on 14 February 1779.


2 thoughts on “Perhaps Captain Cook is also due an apology

  1. Cook himself regretted greatly the deaths at Poverty Bay. He recorded his regret in his journal, ” I am aware that most humane men who have not experienced things of this nature will censure my conduct”. Banks, who had directly taken part in the shooting, wrote: “Thus ended the most disagreeable day my life has yet seen, black will be the mark for it and heaven send that such may never return to embitter future reflection”. These were not wanton killings as some university radicals today try to suggest, but events that arose from misunderstanding and the instinct for self-preservation in the face of mortal threat. There is nothing to apologize for.


  2. And will Maori apologise to the Netherlands for the deaths of the four Dutch sailors when Abel Tasman anchored at Mohua Golden Bay in 1642?


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