A major celebration of the Captain Cook Society in New Zealand, for the 250th anniversary of Cook’s first landing in this country, was a three-day conference held at the Royal NZ Naval base at Devonport, a harbourside suburb on the North Shore of Auckland. This conference was held in association with the NZ Antarctic Society and the Friends of the Naval Museum.
The NZ government had requested that celebrations of Cook’s first visit to NZ be highlighted in the context of the earlier Pacific people’s voyaging and navigation in the vast Pacific region, including Polynesian people arriving and settling here many centuries before the arrival of Cook.
It was an excellent and enjoyable conference, led by Commodore Brett Fotheringham, a naval commander who is a member of both the Captain Cook Society and the NZ Antarctic Society.
We were formally welcomed by the people of the National Naval Marae on the site of the Naval Base. In Māori culture the marae is a communal and sacred meeting ground providing everything from communal living facilities to places to sit and reflect. For example, after a death the body is brought to that person’s marae, and anyone wishing to pay respects to the dead person will come there to do so.
A marae complex consists of a large beautifully carved meeting house, the carvings and paintings all representing Māori connection with their history and ancestry. It is a sacred building. The entrance to the meeting house is a covered verandah heavily decorated and carved with significant figures. The open forecourt in front of the meeting house is the gathering area where “strangers” are challenged, and then welcomed, if they demonstrate that they come in peace. The tribe that the marae is for must give you permission to come on to the marae, particularly to enter the meeting house, by way of a welcome. Once welcomed you belong to that marae, and can take part in any of its activities
The National Naval Marae is the ancestral home of all people in the RNZN, whether they are Māori or not.
We were first challenged outside by a young warrior to determine if we came in peace. After a display of his challenge to us he dropped a leafy twig on the ground. If our intention was peaceful, our designated leader was to pick it up from the ground maintaining eye contact with the warrior. At that point, as we had demonstrated peaceful intent, we could be led into the building.
The person chosen to be our leader was a man who had only been in NZ a few days. He was one of the speakers, Prof Geoffrey Sill, a professor of history from Rutgers University, New Jersey, US.
Inside the building we were further welcomed and made at home with speeches and reciprocated songs before being hongied (the pressing of noses), an intimate gesture relating to the sharing of each person’s breath. Most people spent about two hours wandering around the meeting house as there was so much to see.
That evening there was a cocktail party held in the Naval Museum, a very interesting venue but with little about Cook.
The following two days were filled with interesting talks, including presentations by two authors about their books.
Brett Fotheringham’s talk was on the Search for the Southern Continent to 1771. Geoffrey Sill spoke on the implications of the 1749 Naval Act with reference to Naval orders and discipline, particularly between then and 1800. Jeremy Spencer talked about latitude sailing, and the compilation of coastal views and charts by Cook whilst sailing in Endeavour. David Wardle spoke about planetary transits and eclipses, analysing the celestial navigation by James Cook and Charles Green. Mike Lee talked about French expeditions to the Pacific. Larry Robins spoke of his personal involvement as commander of the NZ naval ship Monowai in the resurvey of the waters of Dusky Sound, illustrating the talk with many survey charts and personal photographs.
We were especially grateful to Tessa Duder for speaking at the conference as she had been discharged from hospital only a few hours earlier. She talked about her new book, First Map: How Captain Cook charted Aotearoa New Zealand,1 giving an excellent account of how Cook drew his famous map. Tessa is a well-known author of mainly children’s books relating to the sea. She described this book as a family book to be read and talked about by families. After her presentation she went home and, as she continued to feel unwell, returned to the hospital and was re-admitted. The next afternoon she was allowed out, and reappeared at the conference.
Alison Sutherland spoke about her new book, Cook’s Ark: The Animals that Sailed with James Cook,2 a fascinating account of the animals carried aboard Cook’s ships, those he encountered on his voyaging, and those he left at places to be of benefit for others. She readily acknowledged that the original idea to write the book came from NZ CCS member John Allan.
On Sunday morning there was a service of worship at the naval base, in the beautiful Chapel of St Christopher. It was followed by a tour of the naval base, including a visit to a memorial wall with the names of seamen of all ranks killed at sea in all naval battles that have involved New Zealand, and who have no known graves. It was very moving.
It was an excellent and well-presented conference. Two particular messages that I took home were first, an appreciation of the extent of early Polynesian navigation and voyaging covering, as it did, one quarter of the Earth’s surface, and secondly, the carefulness of Cook’s charting.
We were well watered and fed throughout the conference. For this we largely have to thank Brett Fotheringham’s wife and daughter. Our thanks must also go to the Naval personnel who allowed us to use the site, and to all the organisers and speakers. All the delegates had to satisfy security that they had a legal right to visit the base and once past that point we seemed to have a free reign at the base. Berthed at the base was a ship I had never seen before. The sailor I asked about her told me she had only recently arrived at the base and, although she looked old, she was equipped with the latest technology. He said that if I looked closely, I would be able to see several parts of the ship had white tarpaulins around certain features; under them was high security equipment that we were not allowed to know about!
Tony Wansbrough with assistance from her husband Norman
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 36, volume 43, number 2 (2020).
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