This weekend, events will take place in New Zealand marking the 250th anniversary of the arrival there of Captain Cook, which, because of misunderstanding across a cultural abyss, became a disaster. Maori were killed by Cook’s men during a spiral of cultural non-comprehension and male aggression.
All this, of course, is highly regrettable. It is regrettable that arrogant male colonialists ventured out – in Cook’s case with secret orders regarding the appropriation of land – and killed members of the local population. Even though those men decided that the Polynesian races were “superior” to African races (in part because of their straight hair), they still considered themselves dominant over all: an attitude of gross narcissism, compounded by their overweeningly proud male stance.
When, then, should apologies for such behaviour cease? The British of 2019 are an aeon and a world away from those of Cook’s day. Should we feel guilty for the deeds of those people? Should we also feel guilty for English actions in France during the Middle Ages? Should the English feel guilty for what they did to the Welsh in earlier years? And what about the French themselves, or the Danes? Should they feel guilty for what happened in 1066?
Where do we draw the line?
Personally, although I despise all patriarchal deeds – misogyny, colonialism, genocide, war – including what all British colonialists did, I don’t see the merits of me, via the government, apologising for the deeds of men utterly divorced from myself. If these incidents had occurred in 1969, then yes: formal apology and massive reparations. But 1769? Wouldn’t it make more sense to understand the reasons for the events of that historical era?
The other issue with making apologies for historical events is that it halts the moving-on progress. As a mostly Welsh person who loves Wales, I feel no need for an apology from the English about what was done to the Welsh. So… have regret for such deeds: yes. But most important is understanding. We have to understand the nature of the perpetrators of such deeds so that we can stop those deeds happening again. We need to see men for what they mostly are – little boys – to halt patriarchy. We need to understand the roots in narcissism of racism, misogyny and other forms of prejudice in order to halt them in the present day. Apologising for the misdeeds of people who lived an age and a world away in fact obstructs ethical progress, because it presumes a connection which does not and cannot exist, even on the national, formal scale.
Though I am male and British just like Captain Cook, he is utterly divorced from me. My task is to see through the attitudes of people like him who live in the present day, and to call them out. And such I shall continue to do.