Joe Martin 

The Endeavour ......And its Commander:  courtesy Joe Martin © 


As I write this piece, I am conscious that 250 years ago the original Endeavour was aground on the Great Barrier Reef.  Whilst some in our community may wish that it had stayed there, fortunately after much hard work and ingenuity by its crew, it was hauled off the reef, repaired and, after another year’s voyaging during which it lost approximately one third of its crew due to disease, it returned to Britain.


If the Endeavour had not returned, our nation and many other nations and territories which it visited would have been denied the records of its remarkable  three year voyage around the world and all that it encountered, including the first meetings between Maori and European on and off this coast in the month of October 1769.


HMB Endeavour was history’s first commissioned voyage of scientific discovery.  Its circumnavigation of the world was noteworthy in the annuals of maritime history.  It was a highly documented voyage with at least 20 journals and logs, many of them daily, recording the events that took place.


The crew of the Endeavour charted many lands in the Pacific unknown to the rest of the world, they observed the Transit of Venus, they effectively disproved the existence of Terra Incognita Australis, they advanced the cure of scurvy and they encountered many peoples and societies new to them together with their local flora and fauna, which they recorded, as well as their language.


The ship was captained by the foremost maritime explorer of his day or of any days.  Not only was James Cook a fine navigator, cartographer, mathematician, astronomer, master sailor and leader of men, he was also a very thoughtful man and one who did not rush to judgement when events unfolded, many unexpectantly.


This ship, its captain, scientists and crew together with Tupaia, its Ra’iatean star navigator and interpreter, visited these shores in October 1769.  We cannot gild the lily here.  The first meetings on and off the shore were unfortunately tragic in that at least four of the tangata whenua were killed and others may have died from their wounds, nine having been shot in all.  These tragic encounters were regretted by Cook, Banks and others at the time.


And yet the visit here was punctuated by more cordial moments including the first formal meeting between a European and a Maori on Te Toka-a-Taiau in the middle of the Turanganui River ;the stay of three Rongowhakaata youths (initially against their will) on the Endeavour overnight and their reluctance to leave when they were being put ashore; and then the meeting south of the bay when the warrior who had hongied with Cook on the rock two days earlier and three companions paddled their waka out to the Endeavour, climbed on board and asked for the ship to return, this being reported by both Banks and Gore in their journals.


The Endeavour’s visits later in the month to Anaura and Uawa were cordial throughout, assisted greatly by the interpretation and influence of Tupaia.


The six month circumnavigation of these islands by the Endeavour literally put New Zealand on the world map by reason of Cook’s very accurate chart.


This ship brought knowledge of the other side of the world and its people to this land and took knowledge of this land and its people back to that world.  This is why the Endeavour is of such importance to our country and this region.


History does not need to be pleasant to be commemorated.  Much of history is not pleasant but it is important.  October 1769 is an signal change date in the history of this land, a land which was never going to be the same after this vessel left.  The Endeavour was not a colonising ship as such.  Those ships came later.  Cook’s orders from both the Admiralty and the Royal Society were very much to the contrary.  Whilst he failed, particularly here in this bay, to comply with some of those instructions and made errors, it is difficult for us alive today to fairly judge him and his men in those circumstances from this distance.


Voyaging in those days was a dangerous occupation, as Tasman had found out 127 years before and du Fresne was to discover 3 years later when he and some of his crew lost their lives.  Maori were formidable warriors who could punish ruthlessly what they considered transgressions by the visitors.  The tragic encounters which took place here were a result of cultural misunderstanding and ignorance (on both sides) rather than an intention to do harm to the local inhabitants.


Cook and his crews visited New Zealand on five occasions during three great voyages to the Pacific over the course of a decade.  During his many encounters with tangata whenua, with the aid of interpreters such as Tupaia, he began to understand and learned to admire the people of this land.  When on 18 March 1775 near the end of his second voyage to the Pacific he learned that ten of his men on the consort ship Adventure had been killed and eaten some 15 months before, he did not rush to judgement but recorded in his journal the following words:-

 “I shall make no reflections on this melancholy affair until I hear more about it.  I must however observe in favour of the New Zealanders that I have always found them of a brave, noble, open and benevolent disposition, but they are a people who will never put up with an insult if they have an opportunity to resent it.”

Despite what some people may say about him, those words are not the words of a pirate and murderer but the words of a wise and fair-minded man.


In viewing history we should avoid presentising or reading history backwards.  By this is meant we should not attempt to imbue or layer today’s standards or mores on people who lived in a different time 250 years ago.  We should judge a person or persons by the standards of their day.  Were they behind their time, of their time or ahead of their time?   In my view James Cook was certainly not behind his time. He was a man of his time.  However, on occasions, his journals disclose that his thinking was ahead of his times.


He wrote the following in his journal on 23rd August 1770 just after the Endeavour left the north east point of Australia:

“From what I have said of the natives of New Holland they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier that we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them.  They live in a tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the inequality of condition: the earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not magnificent houses, household stuff etc, they live in a warm and fine climate and enjoy very wholesome air, so that they have very little need of clothing and this they seem to be fully sensible of, for many to whome we gave cloth etc to, left it carelessly upon the sea beach and in the woods as a thing they had no manner of use for.  In short they seem’d to set no value upon any thing we gave them, nor would they ever part with any thing of their own for any one article we could offer them; this in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of life and they have no superfluities.”


Cook’s achievements were not assisted by his birth.  He was born of the labouring class but by his own learning, skills, sheer determination and daring he reached the heights of his profession.  He was in the vanguard of a meritocracy that was starting to break down the barriers to advancement in British society during the Age of Enlightenment.  He had been exposed to Quaker philosophy and by the standards of his day he strove in the main to avoid violence and the wanton use of firearms by his crew.  His journal entries disclose an enquiring mind not feted by inherited privilege.  He was mindful of the detrimental effect that European contact would have on indigenous peoples and expressed concern about it.  He tried hard to limit the unfortunate effects of those first contacts but, on many occasions, he was thwarted by both events and his crew. 


50 centsWhen I look at a depiction of the Endeavour, whether it be a full sized sailing replica or the back of a 50 cent coin, I think of all of what it and its crew achieved, but I am also mindful of the tragic and unfortunate events which occurred.  When weighed in the balance, the voyage of the Endeavour did advance the understanding we have of each other.  I know of nobody who has viewed the models on the poles in the main street as an expression of cultural superiority.  They were and are representations of human achievement as much as any waka or vaka which sailed this vast ocean thousands of years before the arrival of maritime explorers from Europe.


This city and district of ours is a large enough canvas on which to paint and celebrate all of our achievements without having to defer to the sensibilities of others.


Te Ha logo As a trustee of Te Ha Trust I understood that we could not commemorate the arrival of the Endeavour 250 years ago without recognising that people were already living here at the time and that they were the descendants of the original discoverers of this land.  We needed to learn about and celebrate the exploits of their forebears who had sailed the Pacific over the millenia as much as the later European explorers.


If there was an argument that until recently only European history through a European lens had been told and the culture and achievements of tangata whenua had being ignored, then we as a trust strove to ensure that this was corrected and that the culture and knowledge of the people of this land was recognised and their stories told.


However, I do not think we do ourselves justice if we suppress or ignore important parts of our history.  History is history.  It is immutable unless new facts arise to change the current accepted version of events.  The only deference we can pay to history is to tell it accurately and truthfully and if there is more than one version of an event then let it be told.  We must continue to recognise those events which changed this land.


I have read a lot about the voyages of James Cook to the Pacific and for more than 20 years I have conducted many historic tours both on land and out in the bay to explain the events which took place here in October 1769.  I have found it particularly useful to deliver those talks in conjunction with Maori speakers who contribute a different historical and cultural perspective.  What has struck me throughout these talks over the years is the lack of knowledge and understanding by both Maori and Pakeha of the events that transpired on and off this coast in that one month of October 1769.  When I hear strident and contrary views expressed about the Endeavour, its commander and its crew, I am confident that the strengths of those views might well be ameliorated if only people would take the time to read the many historical accounts, not just from a Eurocentric perspective, of what took place.  Often I hear things said that jar with what I know to be the accepted facts.  I believe that greater understanding would be brought to the table if only people would take the time and expend the effort to learn.


We do not have to apologise for history but we need to know it and to understand it and to tell it truthfully and accurately, warts and all.


Joe Martin

Joe Martin is a Gisborne-born lawyer and history enthusiast with a particular interest in the voyages of James Cook and the first meetings in Aotearoa between the two peoples who went on to establish the nation of New Zealand.

 Endeavour Circle 600

Guess who built the Endeavour?

Living right here in Gisborne city are descendants of the Fishburn ship building family of Whitby.

One little known fact, is that Gisborne local, Peter Whitley on the maternal side of his family-tree is a direct descendant of that family owned business in Whitby - Fishburn Shipbuilders back in 1769.

In fact when James Cook returned from the voyage on the HMB Endeavour, being so impressed with the HMB Endeavour, he sought out the Fishburn family to refit two more ships for him, they were the Resolution and Adventure. 

© The painting above is shared with us from the Whitley family.