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A roll of the dice, a spin of the coin, letters of the alphabet drawn at random from a hat. And there we have Gisborne. Gisborne, a small city but still a city for all that. My heart sank. Where to start? What singular theme could I find to encapsulate such a large place that so much had already been written about?
'So Bro, this is one of those remote places that no one ever visits. Man am I looking forward to this trip.'
'I know Sas. I know. But random is random. We have no choice.'
But then everything slotted into place as if it had been preordained. So obvious really. The very first stop on our journey had by chance directly coincided with the location of the first collision of English and Maori culture. Over 240 years ago, on the 6 October 1769, a young boy standing high in the masthead cried out 'Land!' That boy's name was Nicholas Young, the personal servant of the ship's surgeon William Brougham Monkhouse, and the headland that he saw retains the name 'Young Nick's Head' to this day. We know a great deal about Captain Cook but who was Young Nick? And what became of him? Did he survive the voyage and return to England to lead a full life with a wife, family and descendants? Or did he die young?
It seemed such a fruitful line of research but the truth is that virtually nothing is known about the later life and fate of Nicholas Young. The records show that he survived the voyage, no mean feat in that day and age, and later entered the naturalist Joseph Bank's service and accompanied him on his 1772 Icelandic voyage. But after that a complete blank. So no storyline there but what about a walk to the extremity of Young Nick's Head itself? It seemed so simple and appropriate. To reach the heights and look out to sea in the hope of sighting the imaginary mainsail of the Endeavour, as perhaps a Maori child had done all those years ago, unrecorded. But nothing is simple. Even the most important historical locations are under threat in the world in which we live today. In 2002 there was a public outcry when the land at Young Nick's Head was sold to private owners but fortunately the original 'pa' site and peak of the headland were placed in public ownership. Nevertheless access to the site is through private land and permission from the manager of Nick's Head Station is now required. Even the Department of Conservation seem reluctant for visitors to cross over land that they are currently in the process of conserving and protecting against deeply eroding cliff faces. It is all so sad that a place of such major historical significance to New Zealand is out of bounds to the average Kiwi, and of course, to ourselves.
The early Maori settlers had previously named Young Nick's Head as ‘Te Kuri a Paoa’ (the dog of Paoa). Paoa was the captain of the Horouta 'waka' (canoe) on its journey from Hawaiki to New Zealand. Legend has it that Paoa lost his dog in the Poverty Bay area and the dog is still there waiting for his master to return. They say that if you look towards the white cliffs at dawn you may be able to see the outline of Paoa’s dog in a crouching position.
In 1906 the Cook Monument was inaugurated with full ceremony in the presence of local and national dignitaries. A photograph of the event illustrates that the monument was well located since it was situated close to the shoreline with clear views across Poverty Bay towards Young Nick's Head. Its position on the northern shore of the Turanganui River marked the actual spot where Cook himself first set foot on New Zealand soil. Mysteriously the photographic record at the site reveals that the monument was originally inscribed with a list of names and other written details. Whether or not this was a list of the original Endeavour crew members could not be ascertained but by 2010 whatever it was that had been inscribed on the monument had been removed and had been carefully replaced by blank pieces of stone. An Orwellian act, the eradication of an inconvenient piece of history? And to heap further humiliation on the site a new wharf had been constructed in the intervening years between the monument and the sea completely obliterating any view and thus obliterating any meaning. The equivalent of banishing the monument to a parking lot. And up on Titirangi Hill Captain Cook fairs no better in the modern age. His proud form retains the remnants of white paint, one assumes due to the anger of recent protest, whilst the plaque that once existed at his feet has been removed and discarded. A more recent monument to Captain Cook in Gisborne sits at the end of Customhouse Street making him look like a cross between Tom Thumb and Captain Jack Sparrow.
Already the lettering is fading and by the 250th anniversary of the landing the wording will be illegible. It would seem to me that Gisborne, and more importantly New Zealand, has a real problem here to which there is clearly no easy answer. One solution would be to build a major exhibition hall at the Customhouse Street site to celebrate the arrival of both the original Hourata canoe and Captain Cook, a replica of the canoe with the full story of it's journey and the Maori people who first settled and developed the Poverty Bay area. Proudly celebrating the history of two peoples, one country. Completed by 2019?
'What do you think Sas?'
'Yeah, right. Dream on Bro.'
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