The Reckoning: Cook & Ethical Remembering

TUIA250 is the government-funded programme to mark 250 years since Captain James Cook first visited Aotearoa. Tina Ngata asks how parents and teachers can help children engage in ‘ethical remembering’ of this event.

Photograph by Charlie Brewer

The 2019 Cook commemorations are New Zealand’s response to the 250th anniversary of the inception of colonisation on this land. Through TUIA250, the New Zealand government has delivered millions of dollars in funding to programmes around the country, for a range of approaches to the anniversary, including events, memorials and a nationwide curriculum program.

The responses to the anniversary range from celebrating Cook himself, to celebrating Māori and Pacific heritage, and even in some cases discussing racism and colonialism. Still, many people feel that TUIA250 is not equipped to drive this conversation which strikes to the heart of racism and colonialism in Aotearoa, and have challenged the government on the ethics of the TUIA250 fund itself.

While many of the discussions are focused on local impacts of what happened, the deeper, broader themes of racism, imperialism, colonisation and militarism have been left largely untouched so far, and it’s vital for these issues to be addressed.

‘Ethical remembering’ calls upon us to approach commemorations from the perspectives of those who have been worst affected by them, and to cast a broad gaze across the issue in order to understand its full historical and social context.

‘Ethical remembering’ calls upon us to approach commemorations from the perspectives of those who have been worst affected by them… 

For parents and teachers who may wish to engage in this discussion with children and youth, here are some guidelines for you to consider, largely built from my reflections of discussing this with youth and rangatahi over the past few years as this anniversary approached.


It’s important to know the full truth yourself. Decolonise your understanding of New Zealand history and Cook. Provide age appropriate information on the truth of what happened.

The voyages of Cook were not bloodless, and nor was Cook a renaissance man on a science mission. Cook was a naval officer on a naval vessel with orders from the British military to claim land and establish colonial outposts for the Crown. It was an exercise of Imperial expansion and this, like all expansions of Empire, was led by a military vanguard.

In achieving these ends, Cook carried out multiple murders, abductions, infected whole communities, carried out brutal tortures and shot at and wounded countless Indigenous peoples.

Importantly, this is not at all out of step with Imperial expansion in general, and in fact the premise behind Cook’s orders rest within a larger story that it’s also imperative for us all to school ourselves in – the story of the Doctrine of Discovery. A series of papal laws were issued in the 15th and 16th centuries which endorsed imperial expansion and enslavement or eradication of non-Christian, non-white natives of the lands that were ‘discovered’. These laws not only legally endorsed invasion, land-theft and slavery, but also fostered a societally ingrained psyche of Imperial entitlement to all who were not white and Christian, and all that non-white, non-Christian people owned.

In this way the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, as well as the colonially named ‘Age of Discovery’ was initiated, and this era saw Columbus, Cabot, Cortez and Cook all venturing out on behalf of their monarchs. See the end of this article for resources for further understanding this history.


This is really important for decolonisation education in general. Euphemistic language has long been a tool to mask and minimise colonial crime while demonising Indigenous resistance.

Words like ‘encounters’ and ‘arrival’ function to neutralise the fact that an armed military vessel arriving without invitation to claim lands, killing people while doing so, is actually an invasion.

Words like ‘encounters’ and ‘arrival’ function to neutralise the fact that an armed military vessel arriving without invitation to claim lands, killing people while doing so, is actually an invasion.

Many proponents of TUIA250 still struggle to recognise Cook or his superiors as invading white supremacists, but any project that is based upon a supreme entitlement to the lands and lives of non-white people is clearly white supremacist.


This is not an opportunity to erase what Cook did by focusing on Indigenous history. Ignoring the impacts of imperialism will not make it go away and will merely leave a vacuum for Imperial apologists to fill.

We get to speak about our culture all the time and we should, but this is the year to counter the colonial fiction of what happened 250 years ago with the Indigenous truth of what happened 250 years ago. Imperialism is a wide reaching machine that continues to deliver harm across the globe and it’s vital that our future generations be equipped to identify it and take on the challenge of addressing it.


This is an important time to also acknowledge the connections to other nations that have experienced Imperial expansion. Cook’s invasion has a level of relevance at a national level, but at an international level this was just one of many nations between the 15th and 18th centuries that were severely impacted by Imperial expansion.

Understanding how the Doctrine of Discovery initiated the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, as well as the expansion of Empires across the African continent, North and South America. Be mindful that this is harrowing history, so undertake this discussion in an age-appropriate way with careful observation of how the information is ‘landing’.


Imperialism and colonisation rely upon their fictions in order to uphold their power structure. These fictions include: ‘Colonialism was a historical event’; ‘Colonisation is a localised event’; ‘Colonisation was invited and beneficial’; and ‘Colonisation is unavoidable’.

Contemporise imperialism – Provide clear examples of how imperialism has endured over time, from the ‘claiming’ of Aotearoa by Cook, through to the entitled behaviour of the New Zealand Company, to the declaration of Terra Nullius (that no one ‘civilised’ lived there) over Te Waipounamu by William Hobson in 1840, through to the ongoing breaches of Te Tiriti o Waitangi by the Crown with apparent impunity.

A simple truth to centre in this discussion is that Māori were at one time a free, independent, self-governing people on our own lands and this has not been the case since 1840.

A simple truth to centre in this discussion is that Māori were at one time a free, independent, self-governing people on our own lands and this has not been the case since 1840. 

For older children, it is also a good opportunity to analyse the moral standpoints of the 1846 and 1852 New Zealand Consitution Acts, as the establishment for the New Zealand government. Compare it to the constitutional models proposed by the Matike Mai Aotearoa report.

Connect imperialism – Colonial approaches tend to individualise the platforms, but Imperialism is a global phenomenon. Connect the events of Tūranganui-a-Kiwa to that of Heretaunga, of Hauraki, of Te Tai Tokerau and of Tōtaranui, in order to understand the impacts of the multiple invasion sites. Connect these stories to the same experiences at the hands of Cook and his crew in Australia, Tonga, Niue, Tahiti, and Hawaiʻi over his three voyages. Seek out Indigenous perspectives in these spaces.

Connect these stories to the other nations who have been subjected to settler colonialism in order to understand the ‘colonial template’ and how it has resulted in similar outcomes of health, mortality, incarceration and landloss.

Connect Imperialism across time and contexts to understand how corporate entitlement mimics (and is derived from) Imperial entitlement, and manifests as climate change, as plastic pollution, as human trafficking, and refugee crises.

Criminalise imperialism – Colonial education also tends to euphemise crimes that are carried out in the name of Imperial expansion. ‘Loss of life’ at the hands of imperial invaders is no less a murder than if any other person arrived uninvited to take people’s lives. Claiming lands for yourself that clearly belong to other people is theft. Knowingly infecting communities with diseases to which they have no immunity is genocide. (Cook had earlier served directly under the father of germ warfare, Field Marshal Jeffrey Amherst, who famously travelled up the St Laurence river to Fort Niagara, handing out smallpox infected blankets in order to weaken, and thin out, Mohawk communities.)


Discuss clear actions that children and young people can take to resist imperialism and dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery. Teach them about the strong leadership already being shown in this space. Haudenosaunee and other First Nations peoples and youth in particular have shown significant leadership in calling upon the Vatican to rescind the papal bulls.

Impress upon tamariki and rangatahi the importance of promoting the Indigenous perspective. Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery and Imperialism holds great benefits for us all, Indigenous and Non-Indigenous alike, so consider discussing the promise of a post-Doctrine of Discovery future.

Discuss what actions could be taken by the Vatican, by governments, by communities and at an individual level.


Provide all sides of the argument. Many Māori are participating in the TUIA250 celebrations and it’s important to understand their reasoning behind doing so.

Groups like Hobson’s Pledge and white supremacist groups also support the commemorations and the return of the Endeavour replica, and it’s important to look at the correlations and contrasts between these positions, and compare them to those who oppose.


It’s very easy for people to learn of this history and fall into the trap of resenting non-Indigenous peoples, or indeed Christianity. Listen and watch for clues as to how children and young people are responding to the information before them.

Shawnee/Lenape scholar Steve Newcombe makes an important and helpful distinction between Christianity as a faith and Christendom as the amalgamation of church and state, an alliance between monarchies and the church which resulted in the ‘divine right’ of monarchs to do as they wish.

This is also an opportunity to discuss how many non-Indigenous people have been forced away from their homelands through Imperialism. Accountability rests with all of us to speak to the harms of Imperialism.

Accountability rests with all of us to speak to the harms of Imperialism. 


Colonialism, as a construct, rests upon all these fictions to justify its own importance, centrality, and beneficence. It’s not only important to deconstruct those fictions but also understand how those fictions are transmitted.

Statues, currency, education, media, entertainment, place names, memorials and events like TUIA250 all underscore the fictions that uphold colonialism. This is an important opportunity to discuss how we might envision a more ethical remembering of who we are and what is important in order to set a pathway for who we want to be in the future.

Pose similar scenarios for comparison:

  • Would it be appropriate to ‘balance’ the evils of the Holocaust with workshops on Hitler’s other, more redeeming characteristics?
  • When confronted with the horrors carried out by the conquistadors, is it at all appropriate to celebrate what an excellent navigator Hernan Cortes was?
  • What version of history has dominated our worlds up til now? What counts as ‘important’ history and what is the right way to remember painful histories?

Would it be appropriate to ‘balance’ the evils of the Holocaust with workshops on Hitler’s other, more redeeming characteristics? 


Here are some helpful, supportive resources to inform your pathway.

Websites and blog posts

Doctrine of Discovery Factsheet from the Mennonite Church (also includes helpful resource list)

James Cook and the Doctrine of Discovery: 5 Things to Know, by Tina Ngata. You can also use the search bar to bring up the numerous other blog entries regarding Cook, the Doctrine of Discovery and Imperialism.

James Cook and our monuments to colonisation by Moana Jackson

The connection between white supremacy and colonisation by Moana Jackson

Cook’s Crime Spree Map – Mapping the crimes of Captain James Cook and his Crew

Video clips (please screen first for age appropriateness):

Chief Oren Lyons (15 min)

Steve Newcomb at Parliament of the World’s Religions 2009 conference on the Christian Doctrine of Discovery Panel (7 min)

Debra Harry (22min) Background to the Doctrine of Discovery at NAISA 2019 during panel ‘Might Makes Right’


Steven T Newcomb, Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008)

Robyn Kahukiwa, True Story (self-published 2019)

Robyn Kahukiwa, Captain Cook Invader (self-published 2019: contact author for copy)

Tina Ngata, Kia Mau: Resisting Colonial Fictions (2019 Tamaki Makaurau)


He Tirohanga Ki Tai: Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery.

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Editors’ note: The Reckoning is a regular column where children’s literature experts air their thoughts, views and grievances. They’re not necessarily the views of the editors or our readers. We would love to hear your response to any of The Reckonings – join in the discussion over on Facebook. 

Tina Ngata
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A Ngati Porou wahine and mother of two, Tina's work involves advocacy for environmental, Indigenous and human rights. This includes local, national and international initiatives that highlight the role of settler colonialism in issues such as climate change and waste pollution, and promote Indigenous conservation as best practice for a globally sustainable future.