Friday, May 1, 2009

The Death of Captain Cook by Glyn Williams

The union of the colonies in the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 was a key moment in the shaping of the new nation, and the celebrations included a reconstruction of Cook's landing at Botany Bay. There a few Aborigines were scattered by mock musket-fire, while the actor playing Dr Solander shouted after them:

As shadows flee before the dawn of day,
So the dark tribes of Earth in terror flee
Before the white man's ever onward tread;
And all the night of ignorance and sin
Both vanish as the light of Truth's fair day
Dawns in the East and spreads o'er all the Earth.

It was the only reference to the original Aboriginal inhabitants of Botany Bay in twelve pages of poetic declamation.

The twentieth century saw the development of a cult in which Cook, the self-made man of humble beginnings, represented the pioneering virtues of the new nation. The cult began in the classroom, where school texts began their history of Australia with Cook's voyages. By the end there were Cook monuments, Cook playing fields, Cook fountains, Cook hotels and restaurants, Cook stamps, a James Cook University and even a small house built by Cook's father after his son left home which was shipped at great expense from Yorkshire to Australia.

There was something odd about this devotion to a British hero at a time when Australia was moving away in terms of material and sentimental ties from Britain. One of Gail Morgan's characters in her novel Patent Lies explains that, as far as Australia was concerned, 'historically Cook did little more than draw a decent map, but history does not always matter.' He was their Columbus; the fact that the Dutch had charted two-thirds of the Australian coastline more than a century earlier seemed not to count. Hence the excitement when every few years a book appears that challenges Cook's assumed priority with an earlier 'discoverer' from among the ever-growing group of Portuguese, Spanish, French and Chinese navigators. The Australian newspaper headlines that greeted the most recent of these books, Peter Trickett's Beyond Capricorn (2007) are self revelatory: 'another nail in Cook's coffin'; 'New doubts that Cook discovered Australia'; 'Captain Cook scuppered by book'.


  1. 'Compared with most of his predecessors in the age of European overseas expansion Cook was an unusual explorer, one devoted to the arts of peace, who furnished the Pacific islands with crops, implements and livestock, and (in the opinion of the President of the Royal Society) never 'wantonly or unnecessarily' opened fired on their inhabitants. The shipboard journals decribe Cook's skills in placating wary islanders in that perilous moment of landing from an open boat on an unknown coast; he was always first on shore, carrying no weapon, but with hands outstretched in a gesture of friendliness. He led, it seemed, a charmed life.

    The news that reached England in early 1780 that Cook had been killed on the beach in Hawai'i the previous February was therefore shocking and astonishing, and there was a tense period of waiting until the ships returned home with more details of Cook's final voyage.'

    Unfortunately, many of those details never emerged with convincing clarity. In the first place, large portions of the Captain's daily logs in the period immediately before his death unaccountably disappeared, along with sheaves of his loose papers and his careful constructed journal ends abruptly before the final catastropy. Many of the accounts of his shipmates were vague and contradictory. Official publications related to his Voyages were edited to project a "heroic stature" not true at all points to the facts as they have finally come down to us from a variety of sources both contemporary and in subsequent years.

    Sources that contradict the "official view" are themselves entirely reliable, not!

    Thus, the death of Captain Cook remains to this day a largely unfinished business.

    Never-the-less, we may always recall Herman Meville's notorious verse:

    Anglo-Saxons, lacking grace
    To win the love of any race,
    Hated by myriads dispossessed
    The Indians East an West

    Brave looters, grave canting
    Mammonite freebooters who,
    In the name of Christ and Trade,
    Deflowered the world's last sylvan glade.

    -'Oh you gentlemen of the bourgeoisie,at least have the courage of your crimes and grant that our reprisals are completely legitimate.'-

  2. There is evidence that Capt. Cook was not all he was cracked-up to be, especially on his third voyage, when he flogged members of his crew at three times the rate of his previous ones.

    When sailors sent him a polite complaint about his substitution of a "cane-sugar connoction" for their rum or beer ration, he accused them of mutiny, a hanging offense in those days.

    Although Cook worked wonders preventing scurvy-which used to cause a higher mortality rate than combat in the British navy- later investigators suggest that he went way overboard and thus greatly antagonized his sailors who had a strong preferance, primarily due to chronically bad teeth, for their usual fare of salted meat, beans, boiled peas and hardtack soaked in water or tea. Tough foods like celery (which Cook discovered in Australia) and some citrus fruits likely caused them alot of pain.

    Cook's shipboard rule was highly autocratic. He would book no complaints or criticism from his officers who thus learned quickly to keep their traps shut. His opinion of others tended towards the rigid and unforgiving.

    Although Cook often stepped onto the beaches of unknown lands alone and unarmed there was alway a boatload of armed marines standing offshore and primed cannons on the ship. He greatly trusted that the least display of firepower would scatter the natives, which seemed to have been one of the critical errors he made when landing at Kealakekua Bay in 'Owyhee'.

    Wherever he went natives had a strong propensity to pilfer as much stuff from the ship and landing parties as could conveniently be done but Cook's response in Hawaii seems to have been exceptionally uncompromising despite huge amounts of supplies freely provided him by the islanders.

    American missionaries who settled in Hawaii shortly after Cook's death suggested that Cook readily accepted the 'God-like' acclaimation of the islanders without fully appreciating what this entailed in the minds of the Hawaiians and, furthermore, tended to act in a remarkably un-god-like fashion.

    Never-the-less, Cook had some good points. He never joined with friendly natives in attacking their local enemies. He made an effort, however futile it turned out to be, to prevent VD from spreading from his sailors to the natives, never allowing those with recognizeable symptoms off the ship. He himself is said never to have taken a native mistress. One account has him accepting the gifts of a princess but this was discounted by officialdom because she turns out to have been eight years old at the time- by no means a disqualification in our day and age!

    Cook's Journals- as opposed to his daily logs-were a deliberate literary adventure designed for publication from the very beginning. Some credit should be given to the man for his understanding of what would sell and what wouldn't. But the same has to be recognized as tainting the official testimony of many of his shipmates after his death and their return to England. Those still looking to advance their careers would not wisely antagonize the Admiralty or the Royal historians.

    Above all, Cook constructed exceedling accurate maps which, except for certain charts of the north american coast, are useful to this day!

    It seems clear from the record that on his third voyage Cook was suffering from fatigue and old age. At the very least he was well past his prime. Seafaring in those days was most effectively the occupation of young men and one long voyage often exhausted their 'life energy' beyond any sustained recovery. So,in that regard, Cook was undoubtedly a very remarkable man, though not untypical of a Yorkshire thane.