James Cook is a key figure in the history of New Zealand. On his first voyage he mapped the outline of the country’s coast so thoroughly and accurately that all the remaining voyages of discovery, including his own second and third voyages, had merely to fill in the detail and correct minor errors.
New Zealand’s flora and fauna
Cook discovered New Zealand in more than a geographical sense. Having spent a total of 328 days on the coast, he and those with him left a vivid and comprehensive visual and written record of the country’s natural history. Few lands newly discovered by Europeans have been so comprehensively documented.
The gentleman naturalist Joseph Banks travelled with Cook on the Endeavour during its 1768–71 voyage. Wealthy enough to indulge his interests, Banks paid for another botanist, Daniel Solander, and three draughtsmen or artists to join the expedition. Banks’s and Solander’s collections of plants and their descriptions laid the foundations for modern New Zealand botany. Although Banks declined to accompany Cook on his second voyage, he maintained his interest in New Zealand until his death in 1820.
Māori and European contact
Cook’s first voyage provided Europe with its first substantial knowledge of the Māori people. The observations of Cook himself, and of others on the Endeavour, are still valuable sources of information about Māori life at the time of first European contact. His first landing place at Gisborne has been celebrated by one historian as the point where, ‘for the first time, the two great streams of race and culture in New Zealand, Polynesian and European, came into confluence’. 1
Cook had been instructed to cultivate a friendship and alliance with the inhabitants of any new land he discovered. He is credited with showing forbearance, restraint and a depth of understanding (he had a more moderate view of cannibalism, for example, than most of his crew) that put initial relations between Māori and Europeans on a sound footing, despite episodes of bloodshed on the first and second voyages.
A line can be drawn from Cook’s first voyage to the Treaty of Waitangi. In his instructions to Cook, the Earl of Morton, president of the Royal Society, stated that any 'natives' he encountered were to be regarded as ‘the natural, and … legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit’, and that their voluntary consent would be needed before any of their lands were occupied by Europeans.
Cook is held in higher regard in New Zealand than in Hawaii, where there is a stronger sense that he was responsible for the fatal impact of imperialism on Pacific peoples. In Hawaii, the memory of how many Hawaiians were killed by Cook’s men after his death has coloured perceptions of Cook himself.
The Māori perspective
If Europeans viewed Cook’s discoveries as momentous, for many Māori it must have seemed only a brief interlude in the normal course of life. Once their initial astonishment had passed, Māori dealt with the newcomers much as they dealt with Māori of other tribal groups.
Māori understanding of Cook’s arrival was inevitably partial, although there was certainly some exchange of information between Māori and Cook’s men. On board the Endeavour was a chief and priest, Tupaia, whom Banks had added to his retinue during the ship’s stay in Tahiti. Because of the similarities of the Tahitian and Māori languages, Tupaia was able to translate spoken exchanges between European and Māori. But even with Tupaia’s mediation, misunderstandings arose. Many were over the nature of trade and exchange between the two groups. Problems also arose when some crew from the Endeavour inadvertently broke sacred restrictions Māori had placed on some areas.
The Endeavour would afterwards be remembered by Māori as 'Tupaia's ship', after the Tahitian priest who had joined the voyage during Cook's stay in Tahiti. In New Zealand, Tupaia was able to serve as a translator of Māori, a language similar to his own, and he was to become the first important cultural intermediary between Māori and foreign visitors.
Tupaia died at Batavia on 20 December 1770.
Cook and his companions also discovered Polynesia, although the name did not become current until the 19th century. The three voyages touched all three corners of the Polynesian triangle – Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand – and Cook and his associates recognised that ‘the same nation’ was spread over a vast extent of ocean. The scientist Johann Reinhold Forster, who travelled on the second voyage, identified what became known as the Austronesian language group.
New Zealand and Britain
Cook’s discoveries forged New Zealand’s later links with Britain. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries a number of French explorers were active in the Pacific. Cook’s instructions from the British Admiralty authorised him to annex ‘convenient situations’ on any ‘great continent’ he might discover. At Mercury Bay on 15 November 1769, and at Queen Charlotte Sound on 30 January 1770, he made proclamations which helped ensure that Britain, and not another European power such as France, became New Zealand’s mother country.