Alice Te Punga Somerville, Two Hundred and Fifty Ways to Start an Essay about Captain Cook. BWB Texts, 2020. ISBN: 9781988587745, 250 pgs. $14.99.
by Samuel McLean
This book is a more developed version of an essay that appeared in the New Zealand Journal of History in 2019, and is a reflection on and reaction to the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in Aotearoa (today commonly known as New Zealand) in 1769. It is composed of 250 tongue-in-cheek ‘prompts’, that are not actually suggestions for how to start an essay. Rather, is it an artful, diligent and relentless questioning of the legacy of James Cook from many different perspectives. The ‘prompts’ fall under a number of different descriptions. Some stand alone in their cold practicality, like #7 On A Computer: “The Cursor is Blinking. All this fatal impact is causing writer’s block”.1 Some of them are utterly hilarious, in particular, #174 In Fit-bee, where a pākehā woman is fed up with the raised expectations of pronouncing Māori words properly, but is simultaneously unaware that Whitby is an English place-name. Despite moments of lightness and levity, however, this book is deadly serious and there are several themes that I would like to pull out of this complexity.
Te Punga Somerville’s research into cross-Pacific connections (exemplified by her first book Once Were Pacific: Māori Connections to Oceania) is central to the first theme: that this is not just about New Zealand and Australia. The references to how anniversaries are marked differently in New Zealand and Australia (with Cook’s arrival in 1779 and 1770 respectively) is just the foundation, and she goes far beyond. Several times within the book, the author iterates through places named for Cook, like Cook Sound (on Lake Simcoe), Aoraki (otherwise known as Mount Cook) and Guugu Yimithir country (Shire of Cook, in Queensland). I particularly like the points where she puts a question mark for places Cook named, or that were named for Cook that “are not overtly connected to a currently-present Indigenous peoples”, but the author leaves space for there to have been an indigenous community or name in the past.
Second, I love the way that Te Punga Somerville intermittently interjects with dates that emphasize the length of time since Cook arrived in Aotearoa. For example, #61 in 1840, the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi (The Treaty of Waitangi), #112 in 1881, when Colonial forces stormed Parihaka, #197 In 1967 (I), with the referendum that incorporated Aboriginal Australians into the Australian state, and #235 In 2004, which mentions the Seabed and Foreshore legislation which gave to the title of these areas to the Crown. This drives home again and again while things “improve”, there are both persistent damages and new ones being inflicted to Māori communities that are a result of Cook’s arrival.
Third, Te Punga Somerville provides no relief, no respite, or mitigation for the consequences of Cook’s arrival in Aotearoa or his actions. As she says in #210 At the National Library of Australia (IV) “If you don’t come out an exhibition about Cook both angry and sad then the exhibition has told you a lie”. Likewise, Settler Colonialism is not spared. From #174 (mentioned above) “… what a rich metaphor for the colonial project in New Zealand, when a Pākehā person knows so little about their own history that they are resentful of Māori even at that very moment at which colonial history is so overt.” This statement is particularly striking to the Canadian eye/ear as our Federal and Provincial governments are doing so poorly with reconciliation.
The fourth and final theme that I’d like to draw out is that colonialism, and the damages thereof were not constrained to the past, despite Te Tiriti o Waitangi.2 There is a particular clarity to the way that Te Punga Somerville identifies colonialism in action; white men in cooking programs that try to show they understand other peoples’ food culture but centre themselves in that understanding(#195); the creation and subsequent destruction of social housing programs in Sydney to make way for wealthy developments (#176); The British Phosphate Company (1920-1981, #206); and also the way that the state uses language to differentiate between indigenous communities and settler colonial communities such as #18 In Australia III, the differences between ‘we’ in ‘We Remember Genocide’, and the ‘our’ in ‘These vandals are trashing our national heritage…’. or the poor pronunciation of Te Reo Māori names(#175 In Why-cat-oh).
These are by no means the only themes, but they are the ones that struck the loudest chord with me.
For some, this will be a challenging book. They will object to what they see as an attack on James Cook’s reputation and legacy; I suggest that they have a great deal of reading to do. They should start with this book. It is accessible, it is well and clearly written. It is thorough. It’s highly relatable. Some readers will need to look up Te Reo Māori phrases, and I can almost guarantee that readers will be googling locations of places named after Cook. How many Mount Cooks are there? More than just Aoraki. Two Hundred and Fifty Ways to Start an Essay about Captain Cook is one of those brilliant things that can and should be used effectively in undergrad and graduate classes, reading groups, in government, in cultural organizations, anywhere were settler colonialism is a thing. This is the rare kind of book that makes me regret not having a teaching position where I could make my students read this.
Dr. Sam McLean is a graduate of the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. His PhD thesis examined the relationship between military institutional development and state development following regime change, specifically between the Royal Navy and the English/British state from the Restoration in 1660, to the replacement of the Articles of War in 1749. Sam organizes and writes for Global Maritime History and is a Councillor for the Canadian Nautical Research Society. He can be found on Twitter at @Canadian_Errant. Samuel’s Blog on this Site is “From the Gunroom” although he is currently blogging about the ADM 8 Database Project.