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Captain Cook’s Loss of Face in Christchurch

Cloventt
Mark Stocker
Written by Mark Stocker

The statue of James Cook in Christchurch, New Zealand, has been vandalised recently. Here, a Christchurch resident and History Reclaimed author, Dr. Mark Stocker, explains the history of the statue and what should now be done.

Nowhere is immune from the vandals and topplers of public statues, or alas from the left-leaning middle class which honestly should know better, and condones or even supports them. I feel this keenly because last week such an attack happened on my doorstep, Christchurch, New Zealand. Probably no city in this country feels its history and heritage more proudly than this originally Anglican settlement, boasting more public statues per capita than anywhere else. Accordingly, the earthquakes of 2010–2012 were felt particularly cruelly. Needless damage, such as that meted out twice over on Christchurch’s Captain James Cook statue last week, has a similar if admittedly less life-and-death effect. It is all the more ironical that this same statue had survived the earthquakes largely unscathed.

It is distressing to enlarge too much on what was done to him – I say ‘him’ as this capable and effective statue is very much Cook, a sentient being in marble – but suffice to say his eyes were gouged out, his nose was ground off and a red cross daubed on him. To the great credit of Christchurch City Council, facial repairs have already been made, though the cross is still very visible. This article will not engage in the vexed question of Cook’s impact on New Zealand history, other than to say that his voyages – and tragic death – preceded any significant European settlement by decades. Therefore, holding him to any personal, adverse responsibility here is both silly and misplaced. The same goes for a North Island tribal chief executive’s characterisation of Cook as ‘a barbarian’ when the whole ethos behind Cook’s voyages was specifically not imperial conquest but that noble Enlightenment goal (trashed by postcolonial academics in recent years), ‘dare to know’. All this and more has been said in the columns of History Reclaimed, when Robert Tombs explained why ‘Scapegoating Cook is a facile response to problems that we are far from having solved. We can’t hide 21st century failings by blaming Cook’.

If we turn to 1930s Christchurch, when William Trethewey’s statue was unveiled, our ancestors put us to shame. At the unveiling ceremony in 1932, the Governor-General, Lord Bledisloe, specifically alluded to the civilising force of New Zealand’s founding constitutional document, the Treaty of Waitangi, which contrary to recent shrill protestations has never been forgotten. Then it was the turn of the Labour MP and Mayor of Christchurch, Dan Sullivan, who referred in his speech to Cook’s humble beginnings as the son of a labourer, and having first been a common seaman. Sullivan also spoke of the special interest that Cook had for the working class, then keen to soak up historical knowledge. Finally the benefactor, Matthew Barnett, who had made his fortune as a bookmaker, revealed not just the common touch but a social conscience, referring to the tough economic conditions, with many people suffering in the Great Depression. He explained that he made the gift of the statue three years ago when times had been much better. To that end, he presented a cheque of 100 guineas for the Mayor’s relief fund.

Governor-General, Mayor and benefactor were thus united in their support of beautifying and didactic public art, which today we deface, whilst condoning the defacers. Which moment in time now looks nobler, 1932 or 2024? What makes the vandalism all the more senseless is its implicit attack on the ‘bicultural’ experience of its location, Victoria Square, where a neighbour of Cook is Fayne Robinson’s impressive carving Manu Motuhake, two upright Māori waka (canoes), installed in 2019. Were these vandalised (perish the thought!), there would be justifiable outrage, probably coming loudest from those hostile or apathetic to Cook.

So, what is to be done? I advocated a possible solution in a letter – sadly unpublished – which I sent to Christchurch’s newspaper, The Press, as soon as I had heard of Cook’s plight. Its reasoning should be familiar to History Reclaimed readers but cannot be stated often enough in a context like this:

It is the vandals, not Captain Cook, who are blind. Their defacement of his statue is an emotionally immature and ill-educated act of copycat vandalism, probably influenced by the recent uprooting of his Melbourne statue. Smashing Cook’s face helps no one’s understanding of history and does nothing to allay the suffering of indigenous peoples as a consequence of the arrival of Europeans. His complex and controversial legacy in Aotearoa [New Zealand] is best addressed by having an explanatory caption beside the statue, complemented by smartphone accessible QR codes, providing a range of interpretations. Indigenous responses would be central to this. We should not forget that Cook is an art historically notable work by Christchurch’s own William Trethewey (1892–1956), who sculpted statuary honouring Kupe and fellow voyagers gracing Wellington’s waterfront, as well as a memorial statue of Sir Maui Pomare at Waitara, hardly the landmarks of racist colonialism. Cook must be repaired, retained and explained, otherwise our heritage is trash.

About the author

Mark Stocker

Mark Stocker

Mark Stocker, FSA, is former Curator, Historical International Art, at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. He has taught at the universities of Canterbury and Otago. His publications include numerous contributions to The Burlington Magazine and When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971 (2021).

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