Today, in Hawai’i in 1779, the imperialist known as James Cook was put to death. Across our moana, numerous communities celebrate this day, known in Hawai’i as Hauʻoli Lā Hoʻomake iā Kapena Kuke, (Happy Death of Captain Cook day). Of course much to the disdain of colonial descendants, who consider these celebrations macabre and, according to them, distasteful.
Before we go much further into this discussion, there are a few facts that bear remembering:
Cook was a serial killer of Indigenous peoples. He murdered natives right throughout the Pacific: in Tahiti, in Tonga, in Aotearoa, in Australia, in Hawai’i. He would have continued to kill us had he been given further opportunity. How do we know this? Well accounts of the day before he was killed detail his orders and comments to his crew.
Naval Lieutenant James King recounted Cook’s orders “that the behaviour of the Indians would at last oblige him to use force, for that they must not, he said, imagine they have gaind an advantage over us’.
Translation: Better a dead native than one who thinks above their station.
Think that was out of character for Cook? Nope – his journals are dotted with this sentiment – that regular shows of deadly force are necessary to remind natives of European supremacy. Ten years earlier, he had used this same justification for firing into a fishing vessel full of unarmed women, men and youth… killing all but the three young men whom he abducted. That evening he reflected in his journal:
“I am aware that the most humane men who have not experienced things of this nature will cencure my conduct in fireing upon the people in this boat, nor do I my self think that the reason I had for seizing upon her will att all justify me, but when we was once a long side of them we must either have stud to be knockd on the head or else retire and let them gone off in triumph and this last they would of course have attributed to their own bravery and our timourousness”
TRANSLATION Better a dead native than a native who thinks himself superior to us.
Throughout his three journeys were multiple instances where he took native lives for the mere reason of demonstrating white supremacy. He clearly felt that his duty to expand the British Empire included entitlement to take native lives. Cook did not invent that entitlement – it was in his orders, it was a part of his training (his naval mentor in his first overseas posting was Jeffery Amherst who was famed for purposeful infection of Mohawk communities through smallpox-laden blankets and was a self-confessed fan of the “Conquistador method” – hunting down and killing natives with dogs). In fact the very catalyst for Cook’s demise was the arrival of the news that his men on the other side of the bay had fired upon the locals, killing another Ali’i (just the latest in a string of deaths at the hands of Cook’s crew, and at Cook’s orders) – at the same time as Cook was attempting to abduct Ali’i Kalaniopu’u. The taking of native lives was expressly legitimised for imperial expansionists, dating all the way back to the 15th century where it was legally codified in the Doctrine of Discovery.
This, of course, is just the direct murders – they are in addition to the many more Indigenous lives lost through infection (both through handing out influenza-infected kerchiefs and through sexually transmitted diseases), through land theft or through injuries sustained through torture.
Which brings us to the second point: Now that we have established taking Indigenous lives was not a mishap but a form of modus operandi… now that we know it was an official and indoctrinated entitlement of his profession – we can reasonably deduce that he would have continued to take native lives in the pursuit of Imperial expansion – because our moana ancestors would most certainly have continued to resist his continued violations.
Simply put – Had Cook not been killed, he would have gone on to kill more of my ancestors.
And so today, we celebrate our ancestor’s resilience, we celebrate our survival, for in spite of all the efforts of the colonial imperial war machine WE ARE STILL HERE.
Indeed, in celebrating Imperial death – we celebrate LIFE.
We celebrate the halting of someone who had clear designs on Indigenous property and Indigenous bodies.
We celebrate all Indigenous women – we celebrate wahine Moana, like Kānekapōlei, wife of Kalaniopu’u, who had the foresight to warn her husband, and call her sons out of the vessel where they would have again been held captive like so many others abducted by Cook in his journeys. Because of Kānekapōlei, Kalaniopu’u survived, her sons survived. We celebrate the sacredness of Indigenous women and children who were all impacted, and are still impacted, by military imperialism and the sexual violence that comes with it – and colonial entitlement to our bodily territories, land territories and water territories.
We celebrate INDIGENOUS RESISTANCE in all its forms.
We celebrate the overturning of white supremacy. Because in spite of Cook’s arrogance about his own superiority – he was ultimately met with Indigenous justice. This is an important reflection for us all today, fighting for our lands, our waters, our lives and that of our descendants at the hands of economic imperialists, who carry the same arrogant entitlement to the lands, waters and lives of others.
Today is a day for us to remember that Imperialism cannot be excused, cannot be legitimised, and cannot exist in the same space as human rights. Whether it be economic or military (or a combination of the two) – In order to honour life, Imperialism must die.