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School of Geography

PhD Voice: Against Discovery Unmapping Knowledges and Poetic Listening

By Kate Lewis Hood, Second year PhD student in Geography and English
Taken from the independent PhD blog: Making Space

31 January 2020

In this blog post, I bring together contemporary poetry and an eighteenth-century map from Oceania in an attempt to ask questions about the ways that knowledges are made in, against, and beyond colonisation. Academic disciplines such as Geography and English Literature are highly implicated in colonial histories. In this context, I focus briefly on this particular constellation to highlight the interrelation of material and epistemic violence, or the suppression of Othered knowledges and ways of knowing, in colonial processes, but also the persistence of ways of knowing that unsettle the colonial frame.


In a poetic essay on place, language, and birdsong in Aotearoa New Zealand, the Māori poet Talia Marshall (Ngāti Kuia/Rangitāne ō Wairau/Ngāti Rārua/Ngāti Takihiku) writes that ‘at Poverty Bay, long before the navigator Captain Cook dropped anchor here, the crew of the Endeavour would have heard the birds’. Marshall notes that there are multiple references to the sound of birds in European accounts of the country, but she also goes beyond these accounts to suggest a material and metaphorical relationship between the birds and the people of Aotearoa:

Māori had already become part of the din by the time Cook showed up to ‘discover’ us. Our reo [language] sounds like birds or the sea; originally just a spoken language where the timbre of the word conveys sense as much as the literal meaning.

In Marshall’s account, the story of the place she is from doesn’t start with the ‘Proper Marks and Inscriptions’ of ‘first discoverers and possessors’ named in the British Admiralty’s secret instructions to Captain James Cook on his first voyage to the South Pacific in 1768. Rather, it begins with a set of relations between people, animals, and place, which resonates in the sound and language produced between them.

Cook’s voyage was commissioned by the Royal Society with the official purpose of sailing to Tahiti to measure the transit of Venus, as part of ongoing efforts to determine longitude (a crucial measurement for European mapping and navigation). However, once this part of the mission was completed, Cook was to open the ‘Sealed Packet’ from the Admiralty with the ‘Additional Instructions’ to seek out Terra Australis, a hypothetical southern continent or ‘Land of great extent’. If successful, Cook and his crew were instructed to survey the country, collect samples of plants and minerals, and ‘observe the Genius, Temper, Disposition and Number of the Natives, if there be any and endeavour by all proper means to cultivate a Friendship and Alliance with them’, and with their ‘Consent’ to ‘take Possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain’. In this context, Cook’s two missions on HMS Endeavour are not separate but closely related; the scientific observations would enable the British both to traverse the globe to acquire land, resources, and knowledge, and to represent it through abstract and universalising notions of time and space, both important aspects of processes of colonization.

Challenging this narrative of discovery, which is currently being ‘commemorated’ on its 250th anniversary in Aotearoa New Zealand after similar commemorations in the UK, Australia, and Tahiti, Marshall calls attention to a story already in motion before and around Cook, taking place between people, the birds, and the sea. She translates part of a chant or whaikōrero (speech) made at the welcome ceremony of a marae (communal/sacred meeting place) in Te Araroa, beginning ‘Ka whakarongo ake au ki te tangi a te manu, a te mātui’ / ‘listen to the cry of the birds’ and continuing, ‘they are everywhere, they are in us and above us and they are stitching our humanness into the world.’ To tell this story and others, Marshall herself writes primarily in English. British colonial administrations made the English language and English literature and poetry crucial aspects of colonisation, reinforced through the colonial education system of Native Schools in which children were frequently punished for speaking Māori. However, as Marshall writes, ‘even with the historical loss of our original tongue that means most contemporary Māori don’t speak the reo, there are many English words which have become Māori here in the phrasing and delivery of them.’ In this context, we might think of acts of translation as indices of unequal power dynamics but also complications of colonial logics.

Here I’ll turn to another act of translation, one that took place on the Endeavour itself. The Endeavour made it through the South Pacific with the aid of the navigational knowledge and skills of Tupaia, an ‘Arioi priest and navigator who joined the voyage when it passed by his home island of Ra‘iātea in the Society Islands. As well as piloting the Endeavour through these islands and out into the ocean beyond, Tupaia also made a map, in dialogue with European crew members. Depicting thousands of kilometres and reflecting generations of navigation, the map challenged Euro-Western notions of space and navigational approaches. In conversation with a range of Tahitian, Oceanian, and Western scholars and navigators, the postcolonial scholars Lars Eckstein and Anja Schwarz offer an extended reading of Tupaia’s map. While explicitly noting the limits of their knowledge as non-indigenous scholars, they write that ‘Oceanic navigation did not abstract the world from the navigator and did not fix it from an abstract exterior focal point of orientation’ in the manner of European cartography and navigation. Further, they add that routes ‘were remembered not visually, that is in the form of compasses or maps, but through narrative: Tupaia would have known a vast set of narratives or chants replete with information about the seasonal viability of travel, providing exact bearings on traditional voyaging routes’ (2019: 31). Resisting romanticising alterity or otherness (a practice that risks reinscribing colonial representations of indigeneity), Eckstein and Schwarz draw on the work of David Turnbull to suggest that Tupaia’s map is not an ‘authentic’ representation of an alternative knowledge system but rather offers ‘an act of translation that simultaneously articulates both European and Oceanic worldmaking systems’ (2019: 3). While it is not possible to generalise across the complex and varied uses of oral narrative and chant in Tahitian and Māori societies, thinking in terms of translation – what it enables, what it withholds, and the frictions it makes present – works to disrupt notions of geographical knowledge as a set of data or resources to be collected and abstractly represented apart from the ‘din’ of existing relationships and responsibilities. Rather than romanticising alterity or otherness (a practice that risks reinscribing colonial representations of indigeneity), Eckstein and Schwarz draw on the work of David Turnbull to suggest that Tupaia’s map is not an ‘authentic’ representation of an alternative knowledge system but rather offers ‘an act of translation that simultaneously articulates both European and Oceanic worldmaking systems’ (2019: 3). Through the work of contemporary Oceanic thinkers and navigators, they suggest, this map might be ‘re-translat[ed]’ into lived practices and ‘Oceanic worldings’ (2019: 93).

Tupaia’s map wasn’t his only act of translation. In October 1769, the Endeavour arrived at a place beyond the bounds of the map Tupaia made, Tūranganui-a-Kiwa (which Cook named Poverty Bay). Here, Māori people did not ‘consent’ to the ‘Friendship and Alliance’ or European ‘Possession’ that Cook’s secret instructions advocated, and over the coming days nine Māori were shot, an instance and indication of the dispossession and violence that would ensue over the coming years. However, as the crew travelled further around Aotearoa, it was Tupaia who engaged in negotiation and dialogue with Māori, drawing on the connections between their languages and cultures to exchange greetings and knowledge. It was with Māori (in particular the Māori chief Topaa) as well as the Europeans that Tupaia produced the third and final draft version of the map, which is now held in the British Library (Eckstein and Schwarz 2019: 18). To reiterate, these conversations and translations took place in conditions of unequal power, with much left untranslated, untranslatable, and unknowable, particularly to Euro-Western scholars. Sitting with this unknowability seems a partial but necessary practice in the context of persistent extractive and accumulative approaches to knowledge that join up Cook’s sponsored endeavours in the eighteenth century with those still rewarded in the twenty-first century academy.

What would it mean to linger in the unknowabilities, ambiguities, and tensions of uneven translation? In a poem entitled ‘Tupaia’ in his book Voice Carried My Family, the Māori poet Robert Sullivan (Ngāpuhi and Kāi Tahu) writes:

Who am I to extol Tupaia? Star navigator. Great chief.
Cartographer of a chunk of the Pacific Cook claimed his own? (2005: 27)

The self-questioning that opens this poem calls attention to differential perspectives and positionalities shaping the generation of knowledge. It also destabilises the givenness of a narrative of encounter. The poem goes on to discuss Sullivan’s ancestors, who are Māori, possibly Tahitian, settler New Zealander, and Irish. Addressing Tupaia, he writes: ‘My ancestors / meet your ancestors. We press noses and share breath: ha!’ The ‘ha’ is repeated five times over the course of the next line, creating a kind of ‘din’, a repeated utterance of breath ‘where the timbre of the word conveys sense as much as the literal meaning’ as Marshall writes in her description of te reo. Later in the poem, Sullivan writes ‘[y]our story and your eyes are yours’, suggesting again this idea of the non-appropriability of knowledge, the ways it might be made relationally, from multiple perspectives. The poem emphasises dialogue, allows for connection and intimacy, but encodes reflexivity and humility as the conditions of possibility for such dialogue.

Such reflexivity and humility are necessary for any scholarship that aims to contribute to collective efforts towards decolonising. Academia and the university as material and discursive forces remain implicated in the colonising gestures and motives that founded disciplines such as Geography. As Alison Blunt and Jane Wills write in Dissident Geographies, ‘geography has been shown as central to the exercise of colonial power and the production of colonial knowledge as people and places throughout the world were brought under external control and were represented in often stereotypical and derogatory ways over space’ (2000: 168). Geography’s attention to space and place offers analytic tools but also bears significant responsibilities in contexts where, as Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012) remind us, ‘decolonization is not a metaphor’. In the British Higher Education context, although universities might not be physically situated on Indigenous lands as they are in settler colonial states/former British colonies such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and Aotearoa New Zealand, they may have been propped up by wealth generated from the colonies and the profits of slavery, as recent reports such as that produced by the History of Slavery Steering Committee at the University of Glasgow have begun to confirm (Mullen and Newman 2018). This is not to mention the implication of university expansion in gentrification processes that disproportionately affect working class black and brown communities (Bose 2014; UAL Students 2018). Traces of colonialism are not temporally and spatially distant, but close and mundane, for some profoundly felt and for others almost unnoticed in the textures of everyday life (such as the blue plaque marking James Cook’s residence in Shadwell, just south of Queen Mary, which I run past most mornings).

In addition to space and place, paying attention to language and in particular language used as a colonial apparatus also carries responsibilities to analyse and critique the discursive operations of (attempted) domination. We can see these operations at work in continued efforts to control the narratives of ‘encounter’, such as the British High Commissioner to New Zealand’s ‘expression of regret’ (but not apology) for Māori killings in a private meeting with iwi (local tribes) in Tūranga-nui-a-Kiwa/Gisborne last month. While some welcomed the meeting, others such as Ngati Porou activist and scholar Tina Ngata (2019) have argued along with Māori elder Wirangi Pera that the statement of regret ‘fall[s] short of taking full responsibility for the broader and more enduring impacts of Cook’s voyages.’ Decolonising work from this place (which includes the UK academy, positions of whiteness, metropolitan wealth generated from elsewhere, amongst other, interconnected social and geographical locations) must take stock of these important critiques. It must also engage in the slower, more difficult processes of learning to hear already-existing articulations and addresses that refuse the logics of colonial domination at even their most minor reproductive scales. This might not be about ‘discovering’ legible demonstrations of ‘agency’ or ‘resistance’, but instead learning to hear what has been rendered background noise, and transforming spaces and selves to meet it. ‘Still’, Marshall writes. ‘Listen to that sound. It’s the humming that is and isn’t the birds.’


Read more posts by our PhD students on their independent website: Making Space