In advance of the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand on Oct. 6, 1769, the British high commissioner Laura Clarke has expressed ‘regret’ over the deaths of nine Maori persons encountering Cook and his crews. While some indigenous groups have applauded the move, there are planned protests against the scheduled docking of a flotilla–including a replica of Cook’s ship HMS Endeavour–at Gisborne on New Zealand’s North Island, reports The Guardian. Besides repeated vandalism of a statue of Cook in Gisborne with spray-painted slogans of ‘This is our land’ and ‘Thief Pakeha [white person]’, indigenous critics have described Cook as ‘a murderer, he was an invader [and] he was a vanguard for British imperial expansion’ and accused him of being a ‘barbarian’ who brought murder, rape, and kidnapping to New Zealand. As this entry by David Mackay in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography explains, the landings in New Zealand were an important part of Cook’s Pacific voyages but have left an ambiguous and often troubling legacy.
Cook was born in Yorkshire in 1728, and in his teenage years apprenticed to a ship owner and coal shipper. The kinds of vessels in the coal trade would be used by Cook in his own voyages, though to his detractors, the journeys of exploration and imperial expansion of these ships would be of ‘coal comfort’. By 1755, he enrolled as an able seaman in the Royal Navy, and patrolled the English Channel in the 60-gun ship Eagle. He was likely known for his eagle eye while he was ‘naval gazing’. Two years later, he was the Master of the Pembroke, which participated in the Seven Years War between Britain and France in North America. Cook’s ship was present at the 1758 siege of Louisbourg and the later capture of Quebec. During his time in North America, Cook surveyed the coast of Nova Scotia and along the St. Lawrence River, acquiring expertise in trigonometric surveying and charting. His continued work as surveyor in Newfoundland in 1763 brought him to the attention of the Admiralty and Royal Society in London. In what would become Canada, Cook learned to serve, eh?
In 1768, Cook was commissioned to command an expedition in the seas south of the equator to observe the passage of Venus across the sun, which would determine the distances between the sun and earth as well as the earth to Venus. If successful, this would be a stellar achievement. On board Cook’s ship Endeavour were several natural scientists, most notably Joseph Banks. In Cook’s three voyages to the Pacific, New Zealand constituted an important place for his crew to gather refreshments and refit the ship. After observing the Venus transit (especially its busy subway trains and buses) from Tahiti in 1769, the Endeavour em-barqued on a search for the famed southern continent Terra Australis Incognita–thought to cover a vast swath of the southern seas (far beyond the actual area of Australia and Antarctica combined).
On October 6, the ship sighted New Zealand. The first landing two days later, which included Banks, was a confused encounter which led to the killing of a Maori warrior followed by the wounding and deaths of others the next day. Cook’s crew also collected samples of New Zealand flora and circumnavigated the islands, and gradually enjoyed more peaceable, relaxed encounters with local tribes. Clearly, with the combination of discovery and tragedy, there was much to report back home about this ‘newsy land’. The next year, the Endeavour sailed to Australia, narrowly avoiding catastrophe on the Great Barrier Reef: the dangers of shipwreck were such as to drive sailors insane with Reefer madness. Cook then sailed to Batavia, the centre of the Netherlands’ maritime empire in the East Indies, and returned to England in 1771.
In his subsequent voyages, Cook would continue to search for Terra Australis Incognita. In 1773-74, his ship Resolution sailed to the Antarctic seas, and was stopped by pack-ice at latitude 71 degrees S, the furthest south ever reached by a European: having reached this far, Cook successfully disproved the existence of a vast southern continent–which had been supposed by such geographers as Alexander Dalrymple. For Dalrymple, then, this was an ‘anticlimarctic’ outcome.
Cook’s last visit to New Zealand took place in 1777, on his third Pacific voyage. He returned to the Hawaiian islands in 1778-79 in order to refresh and refit, but in 1779 was killed at the hands of hostile islanders (as pictured above). This fatal incident followed the ambiguous pattern of Cook’s relations with the indigenous peoples he encountered during his voyages. Particularly in his encounters with the Maori, Cook would seek to avoid bloodshed, and yet nine Maori died as a result of his first two voyages. His strategy was to display British superiority with a show of arms, but then demonstrate fidelity and honesty with the indigenous peoples–including punishing crew members who stole from the Maori. He admired the nobility and creativity he saw in the Maori tribes, but decried their ‘warlike’ nature and was horrified by certain cannibal practices he apparently encountered. But he even bemoaned the immoral influences of Europeans on the Maori, yet lacked care in his dealing with Pacific islanders, especially in his final dealings with the Hawaiians in 1779. For admirers, Cook’s demise was a tragedy; but for those like the planned protestors, he deserved to have his goose Cooked and to be struck down by a Hawaiian punch.
Early Modern Times will return in Nov. 2-3, as I’ll be away for the Thanksgiving long weekend, and attending and presenting at the Canadian Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies meeting in Quebec as well as the 7th annual meeting of the Atlantic Medieval and Early Modern Group (AMEMG) at King’s. The AMEMG conference includes an Oct. 25 roundtable discussion on digital scholarship in medieval and early modern studies, followed by a keynote lecture by Dr. Roberta Barker (occasional EMSP instructor) on ‘The Apprenticeship of Richard Robinson: The Making of an Early Modern Boy Actress’, which are both free and open to the public.
Director, Early Modern Captain Cookie-Cutter Studies Program