When Capt. James Cook was murdered by the natives of Hawaii on 14 February 1779, the Hawaiians didn’t just club and stab him to death and leave his body in the surf where the attack occurred. They dragged his corpse ashore, and, rumor has it, butchered and ate the great explorer.
“Wonder how he tasted,” quipped one of our fellow volunteers at the Maritime Museum of Townsville, when the subject came up. This is typical Aussie humor, no holds barred. In fact, the Hawaiians dealt with Cook’s body in the same manner they accorded their own high chiefs at death. They dismembered and deboned him, preserving the bones and returning a portion of the flesh to his ship. After more skirmishes and a retaliatory attack by the British that killed a number of Hawaiians and torched their village, the Hawaiians returned the bones as well. The crew held a funeral service aboard Resolution and then tipped the coffin containing Cook’s remains into the sea.
On the serious side, our Australian friends wanted to know if Americans are at all familiar with Capt. Cook. Eric can’t recall being taught anything specific in school, but in my case, Cook’s explorations were briefly covered in a history textbook used in the public schools decades ago in Detroit. I don’t remember at what grade level—somewhere between sixth and ninth?—but I recall the illustration of him being overwhelmed near the beach. To an impressionable young mind, it was tragic. To have achieved so much and then have it all go wrong!
Since reaching New Zealand in October 2018, we have had continuous exposure to the deeds and legacy of James Cook. He visited New Zealand on all three of his world voyages and Australia on the first, and in both places his footprint is large. As with the exploits of Christopher Columbus in the New World, it is now fashionable to vilify James Cook. I don’t. That’s too easy, as if history is a straight line, black and white, true or false.
Moreover, as a sailor following in his path, I am prejudiced. Every mile of coastline he and his crew charted, every reef, rock, tidal current and weather pattern they described and documented, has been a step toward the incredible body of knowledge Eric and I can access with a single tap on our laptops today. We’ve gone a small way to repaying that debt recently by helping to research and create a new display case at the museum featuring navigation instruments of the type Capt. Cook would have carried on his first circumnavigation aboard Endeavour in 1768-1771.
Another thing to like about James Cook: He belonged to the Age of Enlightenment, when people pursued knowledge as if their lives depended upon it. Indeed, they did. Medicine and science produced cures and new inventions. Art, literature and philosophy expanded creative and intellectual boundaries. Alongside it, there was racism, sexism, slavery and child labor. We’re still working on all that and will be for years to come.
But the germination had begun, and among its civilian passengers, Endeavour carried scientists, naturalists and artists to capture every aspect of the new lands they visited. The first goal of their voyage was to observe the transit of Venus across the sun. These astronomical observations, taken in Tahiti, would reveal the distance between Earth and the sun and help establish the size of the solar system. Voyages of exploration by other countries were likewise tasked with documenting their findings, and these ships returned to their home ports bursting with data. By land or sea, explorers were the first Information Superhighway.
Now weigh this against the damage such explorers—and the settlers who followed them—inflicted on the indigenous people, the sickness, enslavement and death, the destruction of their culture and the environment. In 1492, Columbus may not have realized that the diseases his fleet brought to the New World would decimate the natives, but by 1770 Cook and his contemporaries surely knew what devastation contact would bring. Did they give it a second thought, or was life overall so precarious in those days that a few more didn’t matter? When Endeavour herself reached Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies, all but 10 of the 94 people on board were stricken with malaria and dysentery and 30 died.
Or were the Europeans simply so arrogant, so convinced they were meant to rule the earth, that they were blind to all else? Certainly, brown and black lives mattered far less than white ones. On his return to Spain in 1493, Columbus wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella describing the Taino people of the Caribbean as timid and loving and promising the monarchs to bring back “slaves as many as they shall order to be shipped” on his next voyage. Though Cook and the British didn’t come to New Zealand and Australia looking for slaves, it surely crossed their minds that the Aboriginal people presented a cheap to no-cost labor force.
Even when the Europeans’ intentions were good, the outcomes were often bad. One of the most fascinating books I’ve read, The Story of the Blacks: The Aborigines of Australia, written by Charles White and published in 1904, details instances in which the British government in London mandated that the Aboriginal people were to be treated in a just manner, only to have the laws repeatedly ignored and broken down the chain of command. Even progressive colonial governors found it difficult to enforce such rules in an untamed land.
At the same time, White takes pains to be accurate in recording both sides of the story, citing Aboriginal wisdom but not idealizing their culture. Where Capt. Cook wrote that the Aboriginals, despite living in seemingly wretched conditions, were “the happiest people I have ever witnessed,” White records and deplores the way Aboriginal men treated the women as beasts of burden. He cites the efforts of some Europeans, including missionaries, to ameliorate that, then discusses how the missionaries set about dismantling Aboriginal society altogether.
In short, it’s complicated, and as symbols of European greed, brutality and imperialism, Columbus and Cook are convenient to blame. Cook, however, wasn’t the first European to visit Australia. Beginning in 1606, the Dutch made 29 voyages to Australia in the 17th century alone. They charted the south, west and north coasts of the continent, and Cook benefited by having copies of these charts on board. In 1668, a remarkable Englishman by the name of William Dampier, by turns a privateer, pirate, and Royal Navy commander, explored western Australia and produced the first detailed drawings of native plants and animals. Some call him Australia’s first natural historian.
Inevitably, if it hadn’t been Cook and Columbus, other European ships would soon have come along. Invasion and conquest are the stuff of history; empires rise and fall. That doesn’t make it right, but it’s also never the work of just one individual. It takes a mindset backed by the resources of a powerful and aggressive nation. In the 20th century, it’s what took us Earthlings to the moon.
Thus, James Cook, to me, embodies both the best and the worst of European civilization at that time. During our road trip to Sydney last year, Eric and I came upon a stainless steel sculpture of him in the Art Gallery of New South Wales that seeks to portray that conflict. It depicts Cook in a thoughtful and perhaps remorseful pose, as if he could look back on his deeds and revisit the consequences. Since Cook’s abrupt death deprived us of any memoirs, we can’t say whether such concerns ever troubled him.
But we can and should continue to examine and question the achievements and legacy of James Cook and others like him. It’s called the pursuit of knowledge, and of that, I believe Capt. Cook would approve.