Tuia 250 flotilla expected to bring attention to touchy historical subject

The debate over commemorations marking 250 years since Captain James Cook circumnavigated New Zealand is heating up.

As part of commemorations, the Tuia 250 flotilla will see Pacific and European vessels sail around New Zealand, starting from Gisborne in October.

Retracing his voyage, the flotilla includes an Endeavour replica, heritage ships, waka and a va'a moana from Tahiti.

But not everyone's onboard.

"People are saying this is part of our history when they don't actually know the history," says Anahera Herbert-Graves, chief executive of Te Runanga-a-Iwi o Ngāti Kahu.

"We were all raised on pretty pictures; that Cook was some kind of Renaissance man - he was not. He was a naval officer on a naval vessel with orders to claim land wherever he went for his monarch. He was an imperial expansionist."

In the Far North, Ngāti Kahu are not exactly fans of Captain Cook.

"If you read the diaries of both Cook and others of the crew you will see that they killed people wherever they went, they abducted people wherever they went, they were a floating syphilis ship," says Herbert-Graves.

"No, he's not a hero to us - he's a perpetrator of atrocities."

Ngāti Kahu have banned the Endeavour from docking in Mangōnui.

"It is a colonial fiction. We weren't discovered - we were never lost."

Organisers of the flotilla says they can understand Ngāti Kahu's reaction, but insist the event is about more than just Captain Cook.

"Contrary to what some people think, it's talking about a thousand years of navigational knowledge and history and the discovery of Aotearoa and then the last 250 years of when Captain Cook and other people started turning up - so it's a lot longer than 250 years that we're dealing with," says Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, co-Chair of the Tuia 250 national coordinating committee.

"If other iwi don't want us to turn up we'll wait to hear them tell us that. But at the moment we've had quite good engagement by quite a number of different iwi and they're waiting for this chance to tell the stories of what happened when Cook turned up there.

"So it's not just to talk about whether people are happy to have a replica of the Endeavour turning up, are they ready to have canoes that represent the great voyaging and discovery explorations of their ancestors turning up at these places as well?" 

Barclay-Kerr says no matter how we feel about Cook's role in New Zealand's history, we can't change the fact that he arrived here.

"At the end of the day, no matter what we do, Captain Cook turned up to New Zealand. There's no way around it. If we think about this fact of this history of Cook arriving can't be changed, well the next thing we need to do is understand what has happened and for the rest of New Zealand to understand what the impact of that was on Maori society."

He says after the event it is possible that people's perception of Cook might change - "they might not view him with the rose-coloured spectacles that many people have when they start talking about him".