Responses from across the Pacific

Responses from across the Pacific

People from across the Pacific give their responses to collection items from James Cook’s voyages and reflect on the legacy of his travels.

Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, Hawaii, Vancouver Island (Nootka Sound) are just some of the places that felt the dramatic impact of the legacy of James Cook’s voyages. While the voyages are heralded as a feat of navigation, scientific documentation and exploration, they also represent a tipping point of change for the people of these lands: the introduction of European colonialism – often violent and disruptive, and the beginning of the establishment of systems that radically altered the way people of these lands had lived for thousands of years.

This complicated history demands that the collection items featured in this online exhibition are interpreted by the people of these countries and their descendants, for whom they carry deep cultural significance. At times these narratives are competing or contradictory and we acknowledge that for any moment in history there are a number of perceived truths and multiplicity of perspectives. 

We therefore sought to augment our curatorial expertise by inviting a range of academics, artists, journalists and community historians to present their views and responses to these items.

In this film, historians, artists, anthropologists and members of the indigenous communities in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, consider contemporary perspectives on Cook’s voyages and examine their legacy.

The responses we received were wide-ranging, providing fascinating insights preserved through sacred oral traditions that Europeans could never have accessed in Cook’s time. Contributors to these discussions were found by our Community Engagement Coordinator and with the help of Pacific Arts Producer Jo Walsh. She reflects on the work:

The process of consultation, discussions and cultural interaction in the presence of artists, academics and, more importantly community, are starting to move the way in which we tell histories and understand the real effects of colonisation. If we are really committed to reassigning the course of history, we must allow this to happen in the hands of those who are able to facilitate these connections naturally, through whanaungatanga[1] and whakapapa[2].

I was given the privilege of reaching out into the vast Pacific to assist in collecting history-altering responses and narratives to taonga[3], objects and images that appear as part of this exhibition. Armed with the mana[4] of the British Library and the contents of the exhibition, we have been able to navigate oceans, islands, tropical storms, hurricanes and climate change to present a selection of stories that come from Very Important Polynesians (VIPs) from around the world.

When asked to assist on these types of projects, the first reaction I have is best expressed by something I heard Gina Athena Ulysee say at a British Museum symposium[5]: I dwell way beyond your logic’.[6] Inside the somewhat simplistic request to populate the British Library website with relevant dialogue, we are already encountering complexities and cultural concepts, including ‘kaitiakitanga[7]’, which are only really understood by the people who have this in their DNA.

And yet, through experiencing the objects, images and content of this exhibition, we are able to connect a direct link to the original whakapapa of the taonga, meaning that we are able to create relationships immediately between a work, its ancestral line, and a current living tribe, hapu (sub-tribe) or individual.  This is something that is intrinsic to cultures of the Pacific.

As part of the project we hope we have opened an on-going relationship with the Pacific, inviting many more storytellers, history changers and movie-makers to use this information for the future of the Pacific.

Dr Shayne T Williams, a Language and Culture Consultant at NSW Aboriginal and Education Consultative Group, is a member of the Aboriginal community of La Perouse, Botany Bay, Sydney and is both Dharawal and Dhungutti. He wrote an article entitled An indigenous Australian perspective on Cook's arrival reflecting on Cook’s charts of Botany Bay and a number of depictions of Aboriginal ancestors in Sydney Parkinson’s sketchbook and Cook’s journal. In correspondence with us he commented on our ambition to:

provide audiences with far more than the perspective of the voyager. Our Indigenous Australian perspective has been actively sought and promoted. By being open to and acknowledging our perspective you have successfully opened up more meaningful ways of understanding us and our cultures. We are no longer seen as the ‘remnant’ of a bygone ‘native’ race, we are now being valued and celebrated for our unique knowledge of the ecological and spiritual foundations of our world.

Meanwhile, in Renaming Aotearoa New Zealand, Bridget Reweti, a Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi artist and curator based in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand, looks at how James Cook and his crew renamed the landscapes they encountered on their first voyage. She also discusses contemporary efforts to map the landscape with traditional names.

Alberta Hornsby is the Director of the North Queensland Regional Aboriginal Corporation Language Centre and Vice Chair of the Cooktown Re-enactment Association. Loretta Sullivan is the Chair-person of the Association, and together they have worked for the last 10 years telling the story of Cook’s landing at the Endeavour River in Australia through a re-enactment. In correspondence Alberta stated:

As you can imagine Captain Cook does not have a very good reputation amongst Aboriginal Australia, however, we both feel that his journals are indeed a lasting legacy, as they tell more than what we learned in school. For example, the journals documented the first observations of the Endeavour River Aboriginal people, who were from the Guugu Yimithirr-speaking people, whom we identify with today.

In describing the kangaroo sketch made by Sydney Parkinson, an item held by the Natural History Museum, Alberta noted:

The kangaroo was first sighted, shot, eaten, drawn, described by the naturalists and named during the six meetings between Cook’s crew and the Guugu Yimithirr at the Endeavour River. ‘Gangurru’ is the Guugu Yimithirr word for ‘kangaroo’. It is interesting to note that everyone in the world uses the word Gangurru which means they all speak at least one word of the Guugu Yimithirr language.

One of the indigenous communities that James Cook encountered when he first landed in Australia was the Guugu Yimithirr people, and they gave us a word we all use today. Can you guess what it is?

First European drawing of a kangaroo

First European drawing of a kangaroo

Sketch of a kangaroo by Sydney Parkinson

View images from this item  (1)

Noelani Arista is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa. She contributed an article entitled Encountering history: ‘Discovery’ and ‘Resolution’ revisited in which she examines the artworks Offering before Cook and View of Kealakekua Bay.

Lastly, Matariki Williams (Tūhoe, Ngāti Hauiti, Taranaki, Ngāti Whakaue) is the Curator Mātauranga Māori at the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa. When invited to reflect on some of the items in this exhibition in the context of Cook’s voyages, she wrote the poem below, a provoking and pertinent response to the beautiful Māori hoe (paddles).

Collection of drawings and engravings illustrating the voyages of Captain James Cook

Maori paddles

This drawing shows the designs on a set of paddles collected by Joseph Banks in New Zealand. Sydney Parkinson wrote that ‘their paddles were curiously stained with a red colour, disposed into various strange figures; and the whole together was no contemptible workmanship’.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms Public Domain

We wanted to close by expressing how honoured the Library is in receiving the rich variety of responses graciously sent to us for this project by academics, artists and people of the Pacific. While we acknowledge that these are a mere flavour of the many reactions people have to Cook and the legacy of his voyages, we felt that the below poem was the most pertinent final word to leave readers with.

Hoea, hoea rā[8]

250 years ago, there was an event off the shore of Whareongaonga. A ship was anchored. Ko wai te waka e tau atu nei?[9]

There was an exchange between the people of the land, and the people of the ship[10].

The people of the ship left, and took hoe waka[11]. Behind them, they left a flood of blue beads.[12]

The hoe waka were many in number, and they did as they were made to: traversed seas to arrive ashore once more.

To the end of the ao[13] they went, Maui’s fish and the people of the land present in their carved and painted materiality.

A person of the ship, Sydney Parkinson, captured their likeness in sketch. But their paint faded, and the hoe[14] were dispersed into temperature-controlled museum storerooms across Europe.

Centuries later, their likeness was again portrayed, this time by a person of the land. Of Ngāi Tāmanuhiri and Rongowhakaata, Steve Gibbs rendered Parkinson’s ochred hoe in a flood of blue[15].

The names of the hoe waka, and the people who made them, remain unrecorded. In institutions far from their people, and their hands to keep them warm[16].

The years that have passed since this first meeting, bore sight to the carving up of Maui’s fish; the spine of her land torn apart[17].

The people of the land, and the people of the ship, encountered each other once again, in yet another institution.

In space given over to Rongowhakaata iwi, they have told the story of the encounter as they saw it, as they see it. In the institution their hands warmed their taonga and gave them light again[18].


[1]  (noun) relationship, kinship, sense of family connection – a relationship through shared experiences and working together which provides people with a sense of belonging (

[2] (noun) genealogy, genealogical table, lineage, descent – reciting whakapapa was, and is, an important skill and reflects the importance of genealogies in Māori society in terms of leadership, land and fishing rights, kinship and status. It is central to all Māori institutions (

[3] (noun) treasure, anything prized – applied to anything considered to be of value including socially or culturally valuable objects, resources, phenomenon, ideas and techniques (

[4] prestige, authority, control, power, influence, status, spiritual power, charisma - mana is a supernatural force in a person, place or object (

[5] ‘Exhibiting the Experience of Empire’ a symposium convened by the British Museum to explore how experiences of European Imperialism, with a focus on British Empire, can be researched and exhibited through objects.

[6] Words from Gina Athena Ulysse (anthropologist and artist); (

[7] guardianship, stewardship, trusteeship, trustee (

[8] A song written by renowned composer Paraire Tomoana (who belongs to the iwi of Ngāti Te Whatu-i-āpiti, Ngāti Kahungunu) to fundraise for Māori soldiers fighting in World War One. The title of this song can be translated as ‘Sail, sail on!’

[9] Buck Nin (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa), celebrated artist, created a painting titled Ko wai te waka e kau mai nei (What is this canoe that swims my way) which is in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa) collection. The sense of foreboding and uncertainty in the painting is reflective of my interpretation of the arrival of Europeans to Aotearoa New Zealand. I have adjusted the title to ask ‘What is the boat that is settled out there?’

[10] Māori are known, and often self-identify as tāngata whenua, literally meaning the people of the land. This understanding has influenced the way in which settlers, and their descendants, are known in relation to tāngata whenua by the term tāngata Tiriti – people in Aotearoa New Zealand by right of the Treaty of Waitangi. As this event pre-dates the 1840 signing of the Treaty, I am referring to Cook and his crew as ‘people of the ship’.

[11] Translates as ‘canoe paddle’.

[12] An iwi exhibition at Te Papa Tongarewa (Museum of New Zealand), Ko Rongowhakaata: Ruku i te Ao, Ruku i te Pō, displays one of these blue beads, with the object label saying that the single bead was ‘a sign of the flood to come’.

[13] Translates as ‘world’, or ‘Earth’.

[14] Translates as the noun ‘paddle’, and with modification, also its verb equivalent.

[15] Te Papa collected ten works from Steve Gibbs (who belongs to the iwi of Ngāi Tāmanuhiri, Rongowhakaata) that were made in response to the hoe waka in overseas institutions. The titles of these works were derived from the institutions that these hoe currently reside in.

[16] ‘Keeping taonga warm’ is a term attributed to Mina McKenzie who, in 1978, was the first Māori person to be appointed as a director of a New Zealand museum. She is referring to the affirmation that Māori need to be working directly with their taonga, a practice that was not, until recently, the norm. ‘Taonga’ is the Māori term for a prized and treasured object, and is widely used to describe the Māori objects that reside in museum collections. To ‘warm’ our taonga refers to a closeness between these objects and their source communities. Our taonga have been in temperature-controlled, sterile, museum storerooms away from our people, so McKenzie’s term speaks to the advocation for Māori to work directly with our taonga.

[17] Beloved poet, Hone Tuwhare (who belongs to the iwi of Ngāpuhi and the hapū of Ngāti Korokoro, Ngāti Tautahi, Te Uri-o-Hau, Te Popoto, Ngāti Hine and Ngāti Kurī), took part in the 1975 Māori Land March which sought the end of the alienation of Māori land. Papatuanuku was written either during the march or was inspired by it.

[18] The English name for the Ko Rongowhakaata exhibition is Ko Rongowhakaata: The Story of Light and Shadow in reference to both the way that light refracts through their hilly landscapes, as well as their strong tradition of carving which itself casts shadows.
  • Jo Walsh
  • Jo Walsh (Māori / Pākehā) is a London-based artist and arts producer, founding member of the SaVAge K’lub and connector of VIPs – very important Polynesians. Jo works with major institutions as a conduit to repatriation of histories, with a focus on increasing the activation of Pacific voices. She is the current Chairperson for the New Zealand Studies Network, UK & Ireland; Trustee to Maranga Ake Expressive Arts, Hokianga, Aotearoa; and a learning member of Ngati Ranana, London Māori Club.
  • Matariki Williams
  • Matariki Williams (Tūhoe, Ngāti Hauiti, Taranaki, Ngāti Whakaue) is a Curator Mātauranga Māori at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. She is also Editor – Kaupapa Māori at the critical arts forum The Pantograph Punch, was the co-founder/co-editor of the GLAM-focused site Tusk – Emergent Culture, and guest-edits Radio New Zealand’s The Wireless. Matariki is a Kāhui Kaitiaki representative on the Museums Aotearoa Board and also serves on the board of the National Digital Forum.
  • Emma Tutton
  • Emma Tutton is Access & Inclusion Programmes Manager, she works within the Learning Team, at the British Library. Formerly she was Family and Community Programme Manager at the British Library.