South Pacific nations are reassessing their colonial heritages as the 150th anniversary of British explorer James Cook’s epic voyages in the region approaches. Even the island country that now bears his name, Cook Islands, is seeking to rewrite its history.
Cook claimed most of the South Pacific’s scattered islands for Great Britain during his three trips between 1768 and 1779, triggering a territorial grab that also brought in France, Spain, the Netherlands and Germany.
The United States colonized northern islands, though some briefly came under Japanese control.
British ships led by Cook had their first South Pacific contact on October 9, 1769, when the crew of the Endeavour landed on New Zealand’s North Island in an area with the unfortunate name of Poverty Bay.
Musket shots were fired as they landed and a Maori tribal chief was killed in the melee.
The tone was thus set for a courtship with the South Pacific Islands that continues to incite strong passions, even in countries that had limited links with the British.
One of these is Cook Islands, which has recently said it may change the name by which it has been known for nearly 200 years.
“I’m quite happy to look at a traditional name for our country which more reflects the true Polynesian nature of our island nation,” Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown said recently after a committee met to discuss the issue.
This is a little odd, as Cook Islands was never colonized by Great Britain: like Tonga and Fiji, it asked for protectorate status to keep France and Germany at bay. What’s more, the nation was never named after Cook, though he did visit one atoll, Manuae, in 1773, which he called Hervey Island.
All 15 islands eventually became known as Hervey, but they were wrongly identified as Cook Islands on Russian navigational charts in the 1820s and that name stuck. By then, Great Britain had passed administration to New Zealand, which still looks after the island country’s defense and foreign affairs.
Cook Islands is the only South Pacific island that wasn’t occupied by outside colonizers. So why all the anguish now over an imperial legacy that was only perfunctory?
One reason is that while the islands didn’t suffer greatly from colonialism, their Polynesian culture did. European settlers brought a host of social ills that continue to have an impact, including forced migrations, suppression of native languages in favor of English and French, an aggressive takeover by Christianity and 50 years of nuclear testing by the UK, US and France.
Traditional systems of government and justice co-exist in an awkward embrace with democratic institutions introduced by the colonial powers. Natural resource exploitation in countries like Nauru and Solomon Islands uprooted rural populations and left behind environmental catastrophes.
Tribal lands were broken up in New Zealand, Hawaii and French Polynesia in the 1800s, leaving artificial borders between ethnic groups. It is little wonder revisionism was a hot topic as the last colonists left in the 1970s.
In Australia, the Aboriginal population is trying to rewrite history books, tear down statues and reclaim tribal homelands. Cook’s busts in Sydney have been desecrated so many times they are now encircled by wire fences.
Australia Day, which commemorates the 1788 arrival of British vessels in Sydney, is known by most Aborigines as Invasion Day or Survival Day.
“It’s not a date that is particularly pleasing for Aborigines,” said Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell. “The British were armed to the teeth and from the moment they stepped foot on our country, the slaughter and dispossession of Aborigines began.” He calls it “Aboriginal Sovereignty Day.”
There were at least 270 sanctioned massacres of Aborigines by police, soldiers or settlers between 1788 and the late 1920s, and an unknown number of other killings. Records are only kept for six or more deaths.
Pitcairn (the UK), New Caledonia (France), Guam (US), American Samoa (US) and Easter Island (Chile) all still remain under colonial rule. Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, Ka Pae’aina (the US), West Papua (Indonesia) and Te Ao Maohi (French Polynesia) are still fighting for their independence.
Efforts to turn back the clock have had mixed success. Most countries still have Queen Elizabeth as head of state, and colonial links are still ubiquitous.
“There is no escaping the fact that Captain Cook is a polarizing national symbol, representing possession and dispossession,” Tracy Ireland, an associate professor at the University of Canberra, noted in an essay as preparations begin in Australia for a commemoration of his voyages.
“Another anniversary of Cook’s landing may give us much to reflect upon, but it also highlights the need for investment in new symbols that grapple with colonial legacies and shared futures,” she wrote.
The New Hebrides had a name change to Vanuatu and introduced a new flag after gaining self-rule from British and French rule in 1980, following a bizarre uprising that was fought mostly with bows, arrows and spears.
Fiji announced plans in 2015 for a new flag without the British union emblem, declaring that the existing design contained “colonial symbols.” But the idea was dropped one year later for reasons of cost.
Australians voted against becoming a republic without a British head of state in 1999 and New Zealanders rejected plans for a new flag in 2016. In both instances, there were deep divisions on what should replace the Union Jack-emblazoned flag.
Even the Cook Islands has found that while the population of 12,000 may not look fondly on the colonial period, it is difficult to find a consensus for change in a land of many languages and traditions.
A 1994 proposal to change the name to Avaiki Nui was rejected, and a similar outcome seems likely this time as well.