Captain James Cook’s exploration of Aotearoa, or New Zealand, might be most significant for what wasn’t found: the fabled Great Southern Continent. Cartographers in the 18th century believed that land in the Northern Hemisphere should be “balanced” with land south of the equator. Captain Cook made what’s called a “negative discovery,” or the uncovering of what’s not there. Sailing around New Zealand’s southern extremity, Cook “called the officers upon deck and asked them if they were now satisfied that this land was an island [and not a continent], to which they answered in the affirmative.” The myth of “Terra Australis,” or the South Land, was debunked.
Cook also speculated as to the origins of the Māori people he’d met in New Zealand, and his “thinking was far ahead of his time,” wrote Tony Horwitz in Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before. “As to where [the Polynesians’] homeland lay, Cook couldn’t say, but he ruled out the possibility of Pacific islanders having come from the south, and doubted they’d arrived from the vast empty ocean to the east, either. Despite the claims of Thor Heyerdahl, contemporary scholars are almost unanimous in believing that the first Polynesians migrated in canoe voyages from Southeast Asia.”
While he was researching for Blue Latitudes, Horwitz’s negative discovery was that much of the world no longer held Cook in esteem. “More than two centuries later, the insult to Māori was Cook himself,” Horwitz wrote. “One Māori activist said . . . ‘We wonder at those who would honor the scurvy, the pox, the filth, and the racism that Cook’s arrival brought to this beautiful land.'” Was Horwitz, who was a keen journalist, disappointed by this empty, anti-discovery?
My negative discovery of Aotearoa was that the country itself was, in many ways, simply not there. New Zealand had gone into hibernation, or rather, mandatory self-isolation. Everyone was invited to stay within a small radius — a mandate antithetical to ‘explorers’. Ask me how New Zealand was, and I will likely give you a breakdown of how far grocery stores were from the marina, their selection of cold, single beers, and which establishments had the strictest rules and most ornery staff.
“As you know, adventure comes in many guises, some pleasant, some not, and some more exciting than others, but all equal to the audience when it comes time to tell the tale,” Figure 8 Voyager Randall Reeves told me in an email, “Twice now Mo and I have passed E of New Zealand and within view of Chatham Islands, but beyond that, all my experiences are [from watching] panoramas from Lord of the Rings. And as humdrum as it may seem to you, NZ under any circumstances seems exotic to me. My excitement now comes in the form of watching the tomato plants grow.”
Quarantined and desperate for exercise and ‘exploration’, I took long walk after long walk, starting with a busy bridge stretching over a big bay. On the way back from a grocery store run, near a tangle of freeway on and off ramps and stop lights, I made an unexpected ‘discovery’.
There was a circle of what I’ll call “totems,” but the Māori term is pouwhenua (pronounced roughly as poe-fin-new-ah). Like totems, pouwhenua are carved poles that tell a story; this freeway display was, according to signage, “dedicated to the memory of the kaihautu (navigators) of the voyaging waka [canoes] of the great migration, which left the homeland, Hawaii’iki, and arrived at Aotearoa during the 14th century.”
There are, I’m told, many Māori cultural sites throughout New Zealand. On my last day in the country, we saw a beautiful facility — shuttered, of course — in the coastal town of Whakatane.
The Whakatane site was stirring and quite beautiful (from a distance), but I considered my off-the-freeway, off-the-beaten path ‘discovery’ profound, specifically because it was random — and because it honored sailors. This was one of the unexpected silver linings of pandemic tourism. Without the lockdown, I would have never taken this path less traveled. I went on to make the pouwhenua a regular stop on my grocery store/beer runs.
“Like most Americans, I grew up knowing almost nothing of Captain Cook,” wrote Horwitz. The same was true for me. The California equivalent to Cook might be Sir Francis Drake, whose name — like Cook’s in New Zealand — adorns streets, buildings, beaches and products. Drake is revered for ‘discovering’ California, and less revered (even excused) for being a slave trader and pirate. Still, California has inherited his legacy.
I’ve always found the sea stories of the Polynesians far more captivating than the Europeans’, even if indigenous history is a tad blurry around the edges. The Polynesians have no Niña, Pinta and Santa María, nor are there written logs of their voyages, nor oil paintings of their great captains. What Cook accomplished is truly wondrous, and we modern sailors marvel at how anyone could explore the planet with no motor, no technology and no charts.
But Cook’s feat came hundreds of years after the great Polynesian migration. “Many of the lands Cook claimed for Britain became wretched colonial outposts,” Horwitz wrote. “Disposession, like disease, must be counted as one of Cook’s legacies. From today’s perspective, the notion of ‘discovery’ also rings hollow; apart from a few empty islands, every place Cook landed had already been inhabited for centuries. In Polynesia, the true discoverers were pioneers who set off from Asia sailing canoes several millennia before Cook, eventually settling the vast triangle of ocean bounded by Easter Island, New Zealand, and Hawaii.”
I mock my own notions of ‘exploration’ and ‘discovery’. At best, I boldly stumble where many, many people have gone before. In this sense, I don’t consider myself different from Cook and his crew, who also had beers in hand, and stumbled onto something that had already been found, named, and revered long before their arrival. This isn’t to say that Cook wasn’t a great sailor, navigator and cartographer. But his is only part of a larger narrative, and the world is finally starting to hear, respect, and celebrate other people’s stories.