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Bloody days here 250 years ago

Opinion Piece

Having seen small boats leave the weird craft in the bay and land on the east bank of the Turanganui River, Te Maro of Ngati Oneone and three other men came down from Titirangi to challenge the strangers. Four boys left guarding a yawl tried to row it out to sea. The coxswain of the pinnace, who had charge of the boats, saw Te Maro lift his spear as if to throw it and fired two warning shots. When he did not drop his weapon, the coxswain shot him through the heart.

The next day, 250 years ago today, saw further bloodshed.

At around 9am an armed party from the Endeavour landed near the same side of the river and about 50 Maori gathered across it to challenge them. Tahitian navigator and priest Tupaia called out to them, and discovered they could communicate. A Maori man was eventually emboldened to swim to a rock in the river, where he and the Endeavour’s Captain, Lt James Cook, shared a hongi.

Two Maori men, then about 20 more, crossed the river and in attempts to trade goods — the Maori seeking to exchange arms — a short sword was grabbed from one of the Endeavour crew; the man responsible, Te Rakau of Rongowhakaata, made off excitedly. He was shot in the back with small shot then, as that had little effect, a musket ball which killed him. In the melee three more tangata whenua were shot, at least two of them in their legs with small shot.

The landing party then rowed their three boats around the bay in search of fresh water. If possible, Cook also wanted to get some of “the natives” on board “and by good treatment and presents endeavour to gain their friendship”.

At the southern end of the bay two canoes came into view, returning to shore. The pinnace approached one with seven boys and men aboard. Once in range, the crew of this fishing canoe threw stones, sticks and paddles at the strangers. Cook later wrote, “this obliged us to fire upon them and unfortunately either two or three were kill’d, and one wounded, and three jumped over board”.

Cook had breached his instructions from the Royal Society and while he clearly deplored these killings, argued that he and his men had acted in self-defence.