Alien Encounter at Mercury Bay, 1769

From: Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before, by Tony Horwitz (Picador, 2002), pp. 104-105:

Most scholars believe that sailing canoes set off from the Society Isles, or the nearby Cook Islands, between A.D. 800 and 1200, carrying pioneers as well as plants and animals. They landed on the unpopulated North Island and gradually spread out, making New Zealand the last major landmass on earth to be settled. Then, nothing—until Cook arrived, the first intruder on the North Island since roughly the time of the Crusades.

To me, this was the most extraordinary and enviable facet of Cook’s travels: the moment of first contact between the “discoverer” and the “discovered.” No matter how far a man traveled today, he couldn’t hope to reach a land and society as untouched by the West as the North Island was in 1769. Cook, at least, anticipated first contact; finding new lands and peoples was part of his job description. For those he encountered, the moment of European arrival must have been so strange as to defy modern comprehension. The only experience that might resemble it today would be to find an alien spacecraft touching down in your backyard—except that Hollywood has prepared us even for that. Pacific islanders had no basis for so much as imagining a tall-masted ship, much less one from the other end of the globe carrying white men speaking an unfamiliar tongue.

According to stories told long after Cook’s arrival in New Zealand, some natives thought the ship’s billowing sails were the wings of a giant bird. Others saw three trees sprouting from the vessel’s base and guessed it was a floating island. A much fuller account survives from Mercury Bay, up the coast from Cook’s first landfall, where the Endeavour visited a month later. A boy about the same age as Young Nick, named Te Horeta, stood watching the ship’s approach from shore and lived long enough to share his memory with colonists, several of whom recorded his words. Te Horeta’s vivid and poetic detail, corroborated by the journals of Cook and his men, makes his story one of the most remarkable accounts in the annals of exploration.

“In the days long past,” Te Horeta recalled, he went with his clan to gather oysters and cockles beside a calm bay known by the name Gentle as a Young Girl. One day, an apparition appeared on the water, a vessel much larger than any canoe Te Horeta had ever seen. Watching from the beach, the clan’s elders wondered if the ship had come from the spirit world. Then pale creatures climbed from the vessel and paddled small craft toward shore, with their backs to the land. At this, the clan’s aged men nodded and said, “Yes, it is so: these people are goblins; their eyes are at the back of their heads.” Te Horeta fled into the forest with the other children, leaving the clan’s warriors on the beach.

At first, the goblins did no harm. They gathered oysters and other food. One collected shells, flowers, and tree blossoms, and knocked on stones, putting them in bags. Curious, the children crept out of the woods. “We stroked their garments,” Te Horeta recalled, “and we were pleased by the whiteness of their skin, and the blue eyes of some of them.” The goblins offered food from their ship: hard, dry lumps that looked like pumice stones, and fatty meat so salty that even the warriors winced. Was it whale’s flesh? A man’s? One goblin pointed his walking stick in the air. “Thunder was heard to crash and a flash of lightning was seen,” Te Horeta said. Then a bird fell to the ground. “But what had killed it?” Later, a warrior offered to trade with the newcomers, then snatched a goblin’s cloth and paddled away without surrendering his own dogskin cloak. A walking stick flashed and the warrior fell with a hole in his back. The clan buried him in the goblin’s garment; because the warrior had caused his own death, there was no utu, no revenge. The site of his killing became known by the name A Warm Bad Day.

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Filed under anglosphere, Britain, language, New Zealand, Pacific, Polynesia

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