Our semi-regular First Contact series continues with a look at the needlessly violent encounter between Captain James Cook and the Maori of New Zealand. Cook himself is our source, as he was a fastidious diarist during his travels around the world. And he recorded the strange events of October 9th, 1769 in great detail.
Things went awry virtually right off the bat, when the coxswain of Cook’s landing boat shot a Maori to death before even a single word had been exchanged. Cook tried to salvage the relationship by having Tupia, his Tahitian interpreter, speak to a Maori contingent in his native language. “And it was an agreeable surprize (sic) to us to find that they perfectly understood him,” wrote Cook, perhaps not realizing that he’d stumbled upon key linguistic evidence of Polynesian migration patterns.
Tupia invited the Maori to come aboard Cook’s landing boat, and perhaps make nice despite having just seen their pal mowed down by gunfire. That’s when the true culture-clash acrimony commenced:
We made them every one presents, but this did not satisfy them; they wanted everything we had about us, particularly our Arms, and made several attempts to snatch them out of our hands. Tupia told us several times, as soon as they came over, to take care of ourselves for they were not our friends; and this we very soon found, for one of them snatched Mr. Green’s hanger from him and would not give it up; this encouraged the rest to be more insolent, and seeing others coming over to join them, I order’d the man who had taken the Hanger to be fir’d at, which was accordingly done, and wounded in such a manner that he died soon after. Upon the first fire, which was only 2 Musquets, the others retir’d to a Rock which lay nearly in the middle of the River; but on seeing the man fall they return’d, probably to carry him off or his Arms, the last of which they accomplished, and this we could not prevent unless we had run our Bayonets into them, for upon their returning from off the Rock, we had discharged off our Peices, which were loaded with small shott, and wounded 3 more; but these got over the River and were carried off by the others, who now thought proper to retire. Finding nothing was to be done with the People on this side, and the water in the river being salt, I embarked with an intent to row round the head of the Bay in search of fresh water, and if possible to surprise some of the Natives and to take them on board, and by good Treatment and Presents endeavour to gain their friendship with this view.
The whole journal is worth a read, especially the chapter in which Cook explores New Zealand’s interior. And his staff artist, Sydney Parkinson, did some truly bang-up illustrations of 18th-century Maoris and their impressive facial tattoos.
(Image via the Baldwin Online Children’s Literature Project)