Navigating the Horizon – a comparison

In document Between people and things: understanding violence and theft in early New Zealand transactions (Page 94-98)

When James Cook went exploring at the end of his first week at Dusky Bay, New Zealand, in 1773, he noticed that he was being watched by an elderly Māori man waving a green branch. Cook went ashore alone from the ship’s boat and walked forward to greet the man and hongi with him. John Marra described what happened next:

The old man made signs as if he wanted to know from what country the strangers came & what their intent: the Captn pointed to the heavens and gave him to understand that they had sailed more than double the space of all that wide expanse which he saw above him: that they had travelled with the sun, & that they came from that region where the sun lay hid o’nights… (3/4/1773).

On the previous voyage in 1769 Cook had not visited Dusky Bay, but he had travelled extensively in the Pacific and New Zealand with the Ra’iatean arioi

navigator-priest Tupaia, and would have known that Polynesians navigate by the stars and understood distance in terms of them also. He knew also that Tupaia made

offerings to his atua, who in this case happened to be Tangaroa, god of the sea25. By 1773, it is likely that Cook and the old chief were thus on some common ground in that both European and Polynesian navigators watched the stars. In this reading, the heavens were therefore a possible equivocation in the terms of Eduardo Vivieros de Castro’s interpretation (2004: 20). The existence of the heavens provides true knowledge that can be ‘seen’, about one’s place on the surface of the earth, and also about where one came from. Sea and sky meet at the horizon or pae – a moving boundary that has to be crossed to visit new lands and beings. Each party to the conversation, Cook and the chief, both saw them. But did they each understand them fully in the same way, or in both ways? It is suggested that the heavens could be regarded as an equivocation because though Māori and Europeans ‘saw’ them, they

‘knew’ them differently because they were informed by different knowledge systems that overlapped only to some extent.

James Cook’s initial appointment by the British Royal Navy in 1768 was to command the Endeavour instead of Alexander Dalrymple, whom the Royal Society had proposed for “making observations of the passage of the planet Venus over the disk of the sun”. Sir Edward Hawke had insisted that a “King’s officer should bear the royal commission”26 and that “Mr Cook was fully qualified… being a master… and distinguished as an able mathematician” (Admiralty letters, in McNab, 1908: 46-7) who had already published his observations of a solar eclipse (Salmond, 1991: 98). He had also served in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), where France and England vied for control of Canadian territories, and had carried out some North American

hydrographical surveys and mapping. It was against this background that he set sail for Tahiti and eventually New Zealand, with astronomer Charles Green, a former assistant to the Astronomer Royal. Other appointees of the Royal Society included naturalists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander. These men were all influenced by their affiliation with the Royal Society and its philosophies to encourage empirical

investigation and the practical application of science. As the discursive environment of the Georgian Enlightenment period also encouraged free-thinking and secular views on scientific matters it also seems unlikely that either Cook or his navigational and astronomical assistants paid much attention to any spiritual aspects of the stars and planets they were observing. They would not have viewed the horizon or any other phenomenological aspect of the earth’s geography, astronomy or meteorology in any metaphorical way connected with boundary crossing of a spiritual kind. In this matter they differed from Māori for whom the pae was a ‘real’ place in two senses of the word: a physical space of identity and of alterity,where humans met but where rituals connected with the atua were also carried out.

For Māori, those carrying out the rituals were tōhunga – individuals like the aforementioned arioi priest, Tupaia; trained persons of high rank, status and ancestry who had the specific ability to cross boundaries and mediate between the realms of tapu and noa. As has already been stated, they did this by rituals that involved the setting up of rods intended as spiritual conduits in specific places. In this context, how might Astronomers and Ship’s Captains have been regarded if they were watched at their work? Each was differently and more elaborately dressed than the ‘men’, and they had servants. They occupied separate living quarters. In the case of the

astronomers ashore, this was a separate tent, often on a promontory or in a cleared space, away from the general accommodation to avoid light pollution or disturbance and with a clear view of the stars and the horizon. Astronomers, captains and officers had tube-shaped instruments that were taken out at specific times in order to observe the horizon and the angular positions of stars and planets. These instruments were kept in particular containers. They applied the instruments to their eyes, in contact with their heads (the most tapu part of the body and close to another spiritual conduit – their hair), and they used other rod-like objects to make marks on white paper from time to time during the ‘rituals’. As will be shown in Chapter six, they were actually seen making records of a solar eclipse and a meteor, both of which had been observed by local Māori at Queen Charlotte Sound, and most likely interpreted as auspicious for themselves. It is suggested here that astronomers and ships captains may have been seen as carrying out rituals of a spiritual kind, in places akin to tūāhu (shrines), and their instruments as performing the role of the rods that tōhunga use. Extending this concept to the Pacific more generally, it is worth considering Greg Dening’s comments about Tupaia, priest of the Tahitian god ‘Oro, who accompanied Cook on the first voyage:

… ‘Oro’s temples were places of crossings. They stood on points of land looking to an opening in the reef… the ari’inui would be wrapped in the feathered symbols of ‘Oro, be given his titles and established in his authority by the seaward side. On the landward side was a place of communion and sacred paraphernalia… (2004: 171).

In the cases investigated in the following chapters, this analogy becomes more apparent in earlier visits of navigators such as Cook because they had astronomers aboard as supernumeraries. However in the two cases involving sealing personnel, there still remains a distinct difference between Ship Captains, and their men. Captains were superior in their dress and demeanour and also possessed ‘ritual paraphernalia’ such as telescopes, sextants and so on. Because the time frame of the sealers’ arrivals was later, however, it is likely that any disjunctions between

interpretations of the astronomical components of their mutually different “figured worlds” would be due to other factors than misconceptions about their ritual positions in European society. These other factors will be explored in the chapters that follow.


In this chapter the differing knowledge systems of Maori and Europeans at the time of the early encounters have been described and compared. Some possible ontological differences which could have contributed to misunderstandings about the behaviour of others, have been considered, and some ideas about who should be permitted the ethical rights to investigate and interpret early inter-cultural transactions has been explored. A variety of perspectives on these issues have been used to suggest a solution to this socio-political dilemma.


In document Between people and things: understanding violence and theft in early New Zealand transactions (Page 94-98)