When Toawaka Met Cook. Richard Gates and John Steele. 2019

When Toawaka Met Cook. Richard Gates and John Steele. 2019

Gates, Richard and John Steele.  
When Toawaka Met Cook: Stories of Te Whanganui o Hei - Mercury Bay
Mercury Bay 250 Trust.  
ISBN 978-0-473-47787-5. 
127 pages. 

The Coromandel Peninsula projects from the north-eastern coast of New Zealand’s North Island.  The peninsula’s east coast is likely to have been the original landing place of the first people to arrive in New Zealand, the last landmass on Earth to be settled by humans.  These seafaring immigrants from Eastern Polynesia sailed south from the tropics in double-hulled canoes, and were the ancestors of the New Zealand Maori people.


Today a popular holiday destination, the Coromandel Peninsula has a mountainous interior and a string of lovely bays and beaches along its eastern shoreline.  Two of these beaches played a significant role in the 1768-1771 voyage of HMB Endeavour.  Their role is thoroughly and engagingly documented in When Toawaka Met Cook, a book by two writers who are very familiar with the Coromandel coast’s Maori and European history.


James Cook’s Endeavour sailed into what he named “Mercury Bay” on 4 November, 1769.  The expedition had a pressing celestial appointment to meet: in five days’ time there would be a transit of the planet Mercury.  Although not as rare as a transit of Venus (observed on Tahiti by Cook four months earlier), a successful observation of the Mercury transit by Cook and his astronomer Charles Green would enable further refinements to be made to the accurate calculation of longitude.


Endeavour’s anchor was lowered at the eastern end of the bay, near the mouth of a clear, slow-flowing river.  The bay became the temporary home for the ship’s commander, company and civilian scientists for the next twelve days.  The ship was careened and scrubbed, and fresh supplies taken aboard for the next stage of the voyage.  Trade between the visitors and local Maori was brisk, particularly the exchange of European items, such as cloth, beads and nails, for fish and shellfish.


When Toawaka Met Cook records the events of the twelve days, the longest sojourn ashore for the Endeavour expedition until the ship reached what Cook named “Ship Cove” in the South Island’s Queen Charlotte Sound, early in the New Year, 1770.  The days in Mercury Bay were some of the most propitious of the entire voyage, and certainly justify a book documenting these events. 


The book provides ample coverage of the people for whom Mercury Bay had been home for about 450 years before Endeavour arrived.  They were a Maori tribe called the “Ngati Hei”, and to them Mercury Bay was “Te Whanganui o Hei” (the Great Bay of Hei), an esteemed ancestor.  The forebear who led the first expedition to make landfall on the coast was the legendary voyager, Kupe, who had sailed there from the spiritual homeland of the Polynesian people, Hawaiiki.  Kupe’s canoe landed at a place consequently named “Te Whitianga-a-Kupe”, near today’s town of Whitianga.  Thus for centuries Cook’s “Mercury Bay” had been the home of the Ngati Hei tribe.  Their chief in 1769 was Toawaka, a man who keenly facilitated the sojourn of Cook and his company.


The authors of When Toawaka Met Cook make clear the attractions of Te Whanganui o Hei for its indigenous people.  There were sheltered estuaries, fertile soils, fresh water, fish and shellfish and abundant birdlife in the forests of the hinterland.  Off the coast was a clutch of islands, the largest of which Maori called “Ahuahu”, and which Cook named the “Mercury Islands”.  These islands are today the sites of various archaeological digs that have revealed much about pre-European Maori life.  When Toawaka Met Cook explains that the bay’s very resources made it a prime target for invading rival tribes, and the Ngati Hei suffered from invasions and plundering, both before and after the Cook expedition’s visit.  An attack that occurred fifty years after Cook’s stay was led by the Northland Nga Puhi warlord, Hongi Hika, who perpetrated a terrible raid on the Ngati Hei people.


Since pre-European Maori did not have a written language, history and traditions were passed on orally from one generation to the next.  The book’s authors were therefore fortunate in having access to the pre-European history of Mercury Bay through Joe Davis, a knowledgeable Ngati Hei kaumatua (respected elder).  He provides a “mihi” (welcome) in Maori at the front of the book.  Obviously steeped in the history of his people, Davis was able not only to describe to the authors significant historical events, but also explain their cultural importance to his people.  This provides the book with an admirably bi-cultural perspective throughout.  For example, Davis writes of the sudden, startling appearance of Endeavour to the Ngati Hei on 4 November, 1769, “all this activity – the huge ship with its extensive white sails, the strangely dressed men on board, the smoking muskets and cannon – would have appeared as something of an omen.  It would have been a signal, he says, that perhaps something of great significance or change was about to happen”.


It certainly did.  As with other coastal settlements the Cook expedition called at, nothing was ever the same again.  The Old World had arrived, dramatically, in the New World.


Davis’s comments complement well-known European sources on the Mercury Bay sojourn, notably the JC Beaglehole-edited journals of James Cook and Joseph Banks, and other authoritative references, including AC and NC Begg, Anne Salmond and Michael King.


One isolated and regrettable incident that occurred during Endeavour’s stay was the death of a young Maori man from the neighbouring Ngati Whanaunga tribe on 9 November.  With Cook and Green ashore preparing for the Mercury transit, the American Lieutenant John Gore was left in charge of the ship.  While bartering for a dog skin cloak, the Maori man made off with a proffered piece of European cloth without surrendering the cloak.  The trigger-happy Gore promptly shot him dead with his musket.  When Cook was informed of this news he was furious, aware that it might put trade with other local Maori in jeopardy.  Fortunately it did not, but the book’s authors state that the victim’s tribe did threaten “utu” (revenge) for the unwarranted killing.  Fortunately, this action was averted.  What the killing demonstrated to Maori was the power of the Pakeha (European) weapons, and this must have been keenly noted by them.  Later, in the 1820s, wholesale acquisition of European muskets led to inter-tribal wars that caused the deaths of about 20,000 Maori, a shocking slaughter. 


The 12-day stay of Endeavour in Mercury Bay also produced two largely unknown “firsts” for Maori and Pakeha, the authors reveal.  First, aboard Endeavour was a food item unknown to Maori: the humble potato.  Until then the staple root crop of Maori was the kumara, or sweet potato, which had been brought with the first arrivals from Eastern Polynesia.  Along with the usual European trade items, Cook presented Toawaka with seed potatoes.  This subsequently proved to be an invaluable food item, “within two or three years the potato proved to be life-altering – not only for Ngati Hei, but also for Maori tribes all over New Zealand.  Essentially, it provided a food source which was more nutritious, more easily preserved and more portable than the kumara”. 


The second “first” that occurred for the Endeavour company was a “powhiri” (formal Maori welcome) that occurred on the shores of another Mercury Bay inlet, Wharekaho, today commonly known as Simpson’s Beach.  Cook and others of his company, including Banks, Herman Spöring and Tupaia (the priest-navigator originally from Raiatea) were rowed across the bay to its north-western shore in the ship’s pinnace and yawl.  When the Endeavour party disembarked they were greeted by about 100 inhabitants from the local pa.  Led by Toawaka, the manuhiri (visitors) were accorded a formal powhiri, with full traditional protocol, and with Tupaia probably translating.  Endeavour’s principals had not received a formal Maori welcome at either of their previous landings, at Turanganui, where there was a fatal fracas, or at Uawa (Tolaga Bay), where their stopover was cordial.


While visiting Wharekaho, Cook’s party also admired a fortification high on an arched rock at the eastern end of the bay.  The arch was drawn faithfully by Spöring and described by Banks as “the most beautifully romantick thing I ever saw”.  Sadly, the arch later crumbled and fell into the sea. After Endeavour weighed anchor in Mercury Bay on 15 November, she doubled the Coromandel Peninsula, and explored its tidal west coast, including the navigable Waihou River, named the “Thames” by Cook.  The book gives full coverage to his probing of New Zealand’s interior by river, the only such exploration made during Cook’s first circum­navigation of the country and one that led to the discovery and recording of its rich timber resources.


When Toawaka Met Cook is a welcome addition to the books that document Cook’s first encounters with New Zealand Maori.  Professionally produced and lucidly written, it contains colour photo inserts and a glossary of Maori place-names and vocabulary.  However the lack of a map of Mercury Bay, denoting the features of importance to the story is a surprising omission.


Most importantly, When Toawaka Met Cook shows that the confrontation that occurred a month earlier in Gisborne’s “Poverty Bay” was an aberration.  It was greatly outweighed by Endeavour’s amicable, productive stopover in Mercury Bay and other places around coastal New Zealand.  As with the visits to Uawa-Tolaga Bay and Queen Charlotte Sound, Cook’s Coromandel sojourn was mutually beneficial to Europeans and Maori. 

Graeme Lay

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 12, volume 42, number 3 (2019).

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