Cook Landing Site Historic Reserve

Cook Landing Site National Historic Reserve (1769)

A site out of sight

This history of this site shows that you can decontextualise heritage without moving it. This obelisk marks the setting of Europe’s encounter with Māori New Zealand. In 1642 Māori killed three men of Dutchman Abel Tasman’s expedition, but a more lasting impact was made in October 1769 after Nicholas Young from HMS Endeavour sighted land at Tūranganui-a-Kiwa, modern Poverty Bay. It was an unhappy meeting, especially for the several Māori killed by Lieutenant James Cook’s men.

We have Archdeacon Herbert Williams to thank for this overshadowed obelisk. Another Williams, W.L., had been researching Cook’s historic first footing just as the Gisborne Harbour Board, struggling to maintain the isolated district’s lifeline to the world, blasted, dredged and reclaimed away the historic sites. Later research would place Williams’s site within 50 m of the actual place. Pretty good going for the pre-GPS age.

The story of the monument reads like a bad comedy. The Cook Monument Committee collected pennies from the colony’s schoolchildren and the government gave £500 (equivalent to nearly $80,000 in 2013), but there was still a shortfall as the time approached for Cabinet Minister James Carroll to unveil the memorial. The committee sweet­-talked the balance from the local Patriotic Fund Committee (flush with funds left over from South African War work) and Carroll pulled the cord on 8 October 1906. But there was outrage when people discovered that three of the four sides saluted Poverty Bay troopers and just one Cook. The Evening Post cracked a painfully obvious joke about a ‘monumental folly’ and another committee passed the hat around for the Cook Memorial Rectification Fund.

The reserve became a national historic reserve in 1990, 14 years after gaining partial protection. Now, though, the site is barely within sight or scent of the sea (unless leaking log carriers are aground offshore). A small drop in the ground in front of the obelisk marks the old shoreline and a ‘Banks Garden’ exhibits specimens of the plants collected by Joseph Banks in 1769. Heritage New Zealand plaques tell the Cook story. The trust has battled to maintain a ‘cone of vision’ through to the sea, but the piles of logs, stacks of containers and cool stores require you to think fairly imaginatively if you want to recapture the essence of the events of 250 years ago.

Note: For real lovers of the bizarre, there was the ‘Crook Cook’, a statue on Kaiti Hill given to the city by Captain Cook Breweries of Auckland. Unfortunately, the statue, which was cast in Italy, bore little resemblance to the mariner. In 2019 it was moved to Tairawhiti Museum.

Further information

This site is item number 8 on the History of New Zealand in 100 Places list.

On the ground

The reserve is interpreted, as are several other monuments and sites in and around Gisborne.

Websites

Books

  • John Darkin, On Cook’s trail: a holiday history of Captain Cook in New Zealand, Reed Books, Auckland, 2007
  • Tony Horwitz, Into the blue (US title: Blue latitudes): boldly going where Captain Cook has gone before, Bloomsbury, London, 2002
  • John Robson, The Captain Cook encyclopedia, Random House, Auckland, 2004
  • Anne Salmond, Two worlds: first meetings between Maori and Europeans 1642-1772, Viking, Auckland, 1991

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