Captain Cook: Colonial Hero or Imperial Villain?

Ben Reid Captain Cook Woodcut Print | Quirky Fox

On October 6 2019, it will be 250 years since the crew of the Endeavour and its captain, James Cook, sighted New Zealand. This moment has repercussions to this day and we need to acknowledge not only Captain Cook's feats but the effect they have on society in this post-colonial era... 'in the wake of Captain Cook’.  

Was Cook a colonial hero or an imperial villain? 

What is his environmental and cultural legacy? 

What effect did the colonial sense of entitlement, "our way is best", grating against long-held, harmonious traditions of indigenous peoples and their land have? 

It is these questions that motivated artist Ben Reid in his latest series of works.

'Mis-Understandings' is an edition of woodcut prints portraying a young Captain Cook. Each has been manipulated to add, or subtract, from what  Captain Cook stands for or represents in the artist's eyes.

As a series, the work portrays both "the view from the ship and from the shore": how Cook was perceived by the English but also the natives of the countries he explored: this coming together of cultures, that began with Cook and has continued until this day. 

"I don’t really like the word impartial but it is a word that may describe these works. I don’t want them to sit in the middle or on the fence, but more to say something about the strongly held feelings and opinions of each side: a man that showed great leadership and compassion to his people but was responsible for lands being invaded by outsiders." 

Cook is a somewhat controversial figure: the first man to map the coastline of New Zealand and prove it was two islands, he also represents possession and dispossession to many people indigenous to the land he "discovered".  The first encounter between Europeans and Tangata Whenua was marred by misunderstanding and resulted in the deaths of a number of Māori, how this was portrayed in history for the next 250 years and how this will be viewed going forth is questioned by Reid:
"I am convinced that Cook was a great man: his feats of navigation and the innovative way he looked after, and managed, his crew are legendary. Although influenced by the forces and attitudes of his time he showed great humanity to both his crew and the indigenous people he encountered."
Certainly, Cook was one of the great explorers of the 18th century. On the other hand, his voyages presaged the destruction of indigenous cultures through colonisation.
"It’s surprisingly not Captain Cook, the man or his voyagers that have inspired this work but what I now believe Captain Cook to represent. I didn’t want to just deface the portrait of Cook. Adding things that enhance him or speak of him in a positive light are harder to think of!"
Balancing the works was done through both the names and the additions to the works: 
"Red feathers were highly prized and traded among Pacific people. Cook was both gifted them and gave them, this is shown in the work 'Mataku no te pupu III'"
The phrase also translates to 'we are afraid of guns', often spoken by Maori after seeing first hand and hearing about the effective nature with which the ‘spears’ of the white man killed.
'Misadventures' opens Wednesday 1 May instore and online and runs for four weeks. 


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