Early Encounters


James Cook visited New Zealand on three occasions between 1770 and 1778, and visited Tōtaranui on five occasions.


Of the 328 days he spent in New Zealand, 170 of them were spent at Meretoto in Tōtaranui. Thus  much of the information he and his crew recorded and experienced on the customs and traditions of New Zealand Māori came from interactions with the residents of Tōtaranui.


Cook himself was an experienced master mariner, and whilst an officer of the Royal Navy, was not an inflexible disciplinarian in the manner of most naval officers of his era.  Acting under quite specific instructions from the British Admiralty, he was to travel to Tahiti to observe and record the transit of Venus, then proceed into the south west Pacific to confirm the existence of Terra Australis or the fabled great southern continent. He was reminded to treat the Native peoples as the bona fide owners of the land, encourage trade with them, but not allow himself or his vessel to become overpowered. Finally in the event any lands he discovered were uninhabited, he was to claim them in the name of his majesty:


During the first expedition a vast array of information was collected. To assist with the scientific aspects of the expedition he was joined by Sir Joseph Banks and Dr Daniel Solander, both eminent scientists and members of the Royal Society. Banks and Solander methodically named the specimens they collected after themselves or their benefactors in the government or Royal Society. A record of the daily routine aboard the Endeavour would be recorded in the ship’s log supplemented by the personal diaries of Cook, Banks, Solander and other literate men. Added to this record would be the sketches of the artists Sydney Parkinson, William Hodges, and John Webber . 


In January 1770  the Endeavour was towed into Tōtaranui by two of its boats initially unnoticed until they passed a heavily palisaded islet fortress bristling with heavily armed and jeering inhabitants. This was then followed by the ritual flotilla of canoes filled with men grimacing at the dinghies and throwing stones at the ship. Tupaia again proved  invaluable as he was able to communicate with the people of Tōtaranui. Despite the concerns of others, an old man climbed on to the Endeavour to greet the new arrivals. Topaa, the head man of the community, would have the distinction of being the only Māori from Tōtaranui to have his name recorded by Cook during the first expedition.


Cook observed that the 300 to 400 Māori of Tōtaranui lived in temporary shelters or palisaded citadels such as that observed on Hippah island. They seemed to have a very good knowledge of the immediate vicinity, and while Tupaia and Banks gleaned information on the beliefs and customs of the locals, others took Cook exploring. According to Cook, they were in a constant state of readiness, expecting  the arrival of their enemies from Terawhiti on the opposite side of the strait that separated both islands. Midway through their stay at Tōtaranui Cook observed the arrival of a more affluent looking group who travelled in more ornately carved double hulled waka. They alarmed the residents who had flocked either to their palisaded citadels or to Ships Cove urging Cook to attack the new arrivals from Terawhiti. 


By the time Cook returned to Tōtaranui in 1773 things had changed significantly. Topaa and his community had vanished from the region;    they had been superseded by an entirely new community of separate groups, some of whom had only recently arrived from the North Island. As per his original instructions, Cook set about recording the names of the principal men and continuing with his exploration. Two of these names, Te Rangihouhia and Kahura, are recognisable by their descendants within the South Island iwi of Rangitane, Ngāti Kuia and Ngāti Apa. 


The trade items and artefacts collected during the Cook expeditions  show that a distinct “Tōtaranui” style of carving and weaving had evolved. However, the trade items also included styles from the South Island, and the east and west coast of the North Island.  This provides further evidence of the existence of physical links based on kin associations between communities in these regions. 


A commemoration medal had been struck to be distributed as a trade item. It is not known how many were distributed, but the majority of those found (5) have been in the South Island. Of the two from Marlborough, one was found in Pelorus Sound and the other at Wairau Bar. The tangata whenua iwi who are associated with both of these places today are Rangitane and Ngāti Kuia.

The nature of the encounters was based on the differing backgrounds of the two races; one intent on retaining the balance of power over events in their region and the other collecting examples of the living things in this new land. Whereas at Tahiti the Endeavour was greeted with a flotilla of waka containing women singing, smiling and wanting to come aboard, their arrival in New Zealand was greeted with flotilla of angry jeering warriors closing in to throw rocks. 


The conflict that occurred escalated and as the Endeavour continued around the North Island the casualties amongst Māori grew. The few attempts at landing resulted in ambushes, Cook would have to retreat in a cloud of musket fire and move to the next spot as he was determined that his expedition would not suffer the same fate as that of Tasman, - driven off by the natives. 


Cook’s first arrival at Tōtaranui in 1770 started in similar vein, with challenges from the residents who seemed to also challenge the right of these newcomers to enter their domain. However, the actions of a single man intent on boarding the ship against the wishes of the others on his canoe changed the interaction between the two peoples. While it was the first time the Tōtaranui people had met Cook they seemed to know of the existence of iron nails and pestered the crew for these items. 


Although Māori in Tōtaranui seemed to be in a constant state of war with those from outside of the region, the environment was stable enough for the refurbishment of the Endeavour to proceed, and visits to Ship Cove to trade got underway. Cook soon discovered to his horror that in an effort to keep a ready supply of trade goods available,  Tōtaranui Māori had raided and plundered the people of Admiralty Bay. It was during this episode that the crew of the Endeavour were  offered cooked portions and heads some of their former captives.


The return of Cook in 1773 in many ways was like a new beginning between his people and the people of Tōtaranui. The social and political landscape of the region had undergone a radical change. Topaa and his people were gone.  A new group led by Te Rangihouhia, Te Ringapuhi and a man known as Kahura occupied the various hamlets scattered around Tōtaranui and Arapaoa. Obviously some of the understandings that had been reached with the previous occupants had to be renegotiated and new gifts were exchanged with the respective headmen. Cook was now in command of two vessels, the Resolution and Adventure, the latter under the command of Tobias Furneaux. The number of officers and seamen in both of these vessels had increased significantly to that of the first voyage, all of whom were keen to trade with Māori and interact with Māori women.


The arrival of Cook heralded a new economy which the Tōtaranui Māori were quick to engage with and control the access to others. The voracious appetite of the ship’s crew for curios soon exhausted the stocks of Tōtaranui Māori. They started raiding neighbouring villages for trade items, and the ghoulish trade of tattooed heads and other body parts began. There had always been Māori women who had been prepared to have liaisons with the ship’s crew, and the advent of the wars for plunder now introduced the dynamic of slavery, particularly groups of women who would become the new trade commodity in Tōtaranui.  


Despite best intentions, Cooks visits to Tōtaranui would have consequences on the lives of the Māori they interacted with for over a century and in some cases even to the present day. The written accounts of their exploits would be published and carefully analysed by English politicians and industrialists both intent on expanding their personal prestige, influence and wealth. The journals would also be translated into other European languages to enable their own empire builders to wonder about the potential of the Pacific. 


While Cook had proved there was no great southern continent, his discovery of the Antarctic continent with its abundance of whales and seals attracted a far more brutish voyager to New Zealand. Their ambition to satisfy the manufacture of women’s gloves, corsetry, perfume and lamp oil would force these species to the brink of extinction enhanced the South Island’s potential as a base for their activities.  His charts identified potential harbours that would be ideal for future voyages of exploration and settlement. He also identified places such as the Firth of Thames which might be suitable for future settlement and farming activities. This advice would be readily accepted by other explorers especially the French and the Russians, which eventually prompted the British to claim the country by right of discovery.


It was abundantly clear that the residents were a fierce warlike people always ready to attack strangers. This had the effect of warning potential colonists that the land was not unoccupied and that the residents would resist any attempts to divest them of what they considered to be theirs. Unfortunately his diaries also showed that lasting colonisation of the land could best be affected by an overt military presence in the same manner that his compliment of marines had kept the locals at bay. Within a century this would become the manner in which the lands forests and seas of the bona fide owners would be wrestled from their control.


The collection of goods that Māori had traded along with the drawings of the unique flora and fauna provided a lasting record of the natural world of Tōtaranui. What the paintings do not portray is the effect of  venereal disease and illnesses that were introduced in 1770 by the crew of the Endeavour.  Whole communities would perish, those who survived rendered sterile and brutally scarred only to suffer from a new round of illnesses such as measles, chicken pox and influenza, all introduced by subsequent voyagers to the country. 


Any assessment of the fortunes of Tōtaranui Māori arising from their interaction with Cook and his crew is probably best viewed in the context of his original instructions from the British Admiralty. Ample evidence exists in the journals and by Cook’s own hand that he and his crew were not the first discoverers of the lands, and that attempts to confiscate the lands by the right of discovery would not have been sanctioned by Cook were he still alive today. 


The denigration of Māori customs and beliefs, allowing conduct that debases others (Māori woman in particular), undermining tribal leadership and resorting to violence as a means of asserting power and control, were all behaviours that Cook did not support. His own personal diary shows remorse over the loss of Māori lives to ensure the safety of his crew, and the events surrounding his conduct with Kahura show he was not willing to indulge in vengeful behaviour when the cause did not warrant such a course of action. Unfortunately many of  Cook’s fellow officers and countrymen did not hold the same principles and values, and the imposition of their beliefs and behaviour towards Māori has had dire consequences for their welfare and wellbeing. 


Cecil R. Bradley


In 2019, New Zealand will mark 250 years since the first meetings between Māori and Pākehā during James Cook and the Endeavour’s 1769 voyage to Aotearoa New Zealand. Tuia – Encounters 250 will acknowledge this pivotal moment in our nation’s history as well as the extraordinary feats of Pacific voyagers who reached and settled in Aotearoa many years earlier.

  • Totaranui 250 Facebook
  • Twitter -Totaranui 250 Trust
  • Grey YouTube Icon
  • neighbourly1
  • Instagram - Totaranui 250 Trust