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  • Sat, 2, Jul, 2016 - 5:00:AM

Why the Captain Cook Highway is a terrible idea

Back in the day, discovering countries was something of a big deal. Britain especially was really into it. At a certain time, you could basically give a British dude a boat and he’d find some distant land to claim ownership of, previous owners be damned. Rule Britannia!

Since the demise of the empire, some white people have taken to looking back wistfully. The desire to memorialise a system built on the exploitation of indigenous people is strong among a certain group, even in 2016. Figures like Captain James Cook have been immortalised as God-like figures, the great “discovers” and “explorers” of the Southern Seas.

There’s just one little thing that [pākehā] history has forgotten. New Zealand was “discovered” long before Captain James Cook decided to drop in. Māori explorer Kupe discovered Aotearoa, New Zealand during the 10th century, beating old Captain Cook by about 800 years.

The fact seems to have been lost on National MP Paul Foster-Bell, who was this week revealed to be campaigning to rename State Highway 1 – proposing to call it the “Captain Cook Highway”.  


Perhaps Mr Foster-Bell and his wealthy National Party donor friend Sir Christopher Harris are concerned that Captain James Cook, who, for the record, did NOT discover New Zealand, has been forgotten in the land of the long white cloud. Maybe they have never crossed the Cook Strait, seen Mt Cook, been to Cooks beach, or the Cook Channel in the Dusky Sound.

Maybe they’ve never set foot in the James Cook Observatory. Or any of the many, many other places in New Zealand that are named after our dear old friend Captain C. Not to mention the various Cook namesakes in Australia, Canada, the Pacific Islands, Chile, Alaska, Hawaii and even on the moon.

Call me silly, but it seems to me that naming our State Highway after such an over-exposed, centuries-dead non-discoverer of New Zealand is about the most unoriginal idea one could possibly come up with.

That it seems like a wonderful idea a certain group of New Zealanders is hardly surprising, however, given the way in which Māori history is undervalued in contemporary Aotearoa. If there is any explorer who deserves to have such a vital piece of national infrastructure named after him, surely it is Kupe. I can just imagine the letters to the editor, however, if someone suggested that we should immortalise a Māori explorer.

In some ways, the ‘Captain Cook Highway’ can be seen as a microcosm for race relations in 2016 New Zealand: It’s a long and winding road, but we’re never quite there yet.


  • James Cook /
  • Maori /
  • New Zealand /
  • Aotearoa /
  • White Privilege /

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