Monday 15 August 2011

Will the real James Cook...

…please stand up? Gisborne is where, in 1769, James Cook first landed in New Zealand (not the first European to come here, or even to set foot if you believe that thing about the Portuguese, but the first to plant a flag, and that’s what counts - so the moon is American, of course. Unless it’s not!) So naturally there is a monument at the spot: an ugly obelisk that when erected at least had a backdrop of shore and sea, but now is the focal point of an area of concrete, warehouses and passing logging trucks.

But up on the hill, with a fabulous view over Poverty Bay (so called because stroppy Maori prevented Cook from getting the water and provisions he wanted - and not, as all the tourist literature obligatorily insists, because the area is infertile: quite the opposite) is a bronze statue of a man in 18th century uniform with the tricorn hat and britches, who’s stood in place since the Bi-Centenary. Except - and this was pointed out some time after the, er, erection - he’s not James Cook. Quite who he is, no-one knows; and as the statue was a gift from a brewery, all bets are open. The attached plaque is cheerfully upfront about the confusion, which is rather charming, and preferable to a Gaddafi-style toppling of the statue.
Down by the river is the real thing, put up at the Millennium (a big deal here, as thanks to the Date Line and its position further east than anywhere in NZ, Gisborne is the first city in the world to welcome in the new day). And further along the river bank is another statue, of young Nick, the surgeon’s assistant on the Endeavour, who was the first to spot land and thereby earned himself a gallon of rum — after which he would have needed some medical intervention himself, I’m guessing. Cook named the promontory south of the bay after him: Young Nick’s Head. Which, when I was learning NZ history at school, was amusing enough; but somehow I wasn’t listening when/if we were told that the boy’s real name was actually Nicholas Young. Oh, how they must have laughed at the joke, Cook and Joseph Banks and co, tucked into their cramped cabins rubbing their forehead bruises from the low cross-beams.

But the real news today is that sprinkle of snow on the far hills beyond the imposter's feet: rare enough here, the dusting that fell in Auckland was, if the pro-snow people have their way over the hail-deniers, the first snow to fall there since 1939.

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