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Terra Australis Incognita: the first Pacific voyage 1768-1771

Captain James Cook (Part III)

by Dr Michelle Ann Smith

In May 1768, having secured a naval commission, forty-year old Lieutenant Cook was finally given the command of his own ship. Officially, Cook was sent to the South Pacific to observe the Transit of Venus. An accurate calculation of ‘the distance of the sun from the earth and Venus’, would allow scientists to determine ‘the size of the universe’.1 Secret orders instructed Cook to search out ‘Terra Australis Incognita’, the Great Unknown Southern Continent,2 and explore New Zealand, where he was to survey the coastline, take samples of flora and minerals, and note the soils, beasts, birds and fishes. Friendship with local inhabitants was to be cultivated and trade done fairly. There was to be no ‘wanton use of firearms’ or shedding of blood, even when threatened. Customs were to be observed, and possession of land was to be done only with the locals’ permission.3

First sighted in 1513 by Vasey Nunez de Balboa, the South Pacific was not unknown to eighteenth-century European sailors, although it was more of an ‘imagined space’ than reality as it has never been fully explored.4 Cook and his crew were joined by a sea-faring goat who had recently circumnavigated the globe, and a group of scientists and artists led by botanist, Joseph Banks.5 The crowded barque left England in late August, sailing across the Atlantic and rounding Cape Horn. Here Cook, and astronomer Charles Green, determined their longitude ‘by cross-checking their solar and lunar observations’.6 A stop in southern Tierra del Fuego allowed artist Alexander Buchan to make a series of drawings, Banks to collect specimens of unknown plants, and Cook to survey the coastline.7

As the Endeavour headed into the Pacific Ocean it reached a position of 60o 4’ south where Terra Australis Incognita was thought to be located. Nothing was found and Cook, already sceptical about its existence, saw no evidence of ‘currents usually associated with large land masses’.8 Cook reached Tahiti on 13th April 1769 and went ashore. Some of the crew had been on the island 2 years before, and their friendships with the Tahitians assisted with trading goods, and relationship-building with leading locals. Constructing an observatory on the edge of the bay, Cook and Green observed the Transit of Venus on 3rd June 1769. Frustratingly, their measurements were inaccurate.9

The Europeans left Tahiti with a greater knowledge of the island and its people, although misunderstandings had arisen and relationships deteriorated. This would become the pattern of the Endeavour’s journey across the Pacific. The Tahitians were left with materials and objects, and European diseases, hitherto unknown.10 Heading south-west, Cook had gained 2 extra passengers: a priest called Tupaia, and his servant. Tupaia proved to be an invaluable interpreter, mediator, and navigator and much of Cook’s success on this voyage can be attributed to him. Tupaia helped Cook produce a chart of the central Pacific Islands and took Cook to his home, Ra ‘iatea, which the latter claimed for Britain.11 Not the vast expanse of land expected back home, but it reminds us that such acquisitions were part of Cook’s agenda. On 6th October Nicholas Young, a twelve-year old cabin boy, sighted land after nearly 4000 miles at sea. This headland, on Aotearoa-New Zealand’s east coast, was named Young Nicks Head. Over the next 6 months Cook explored the country’s coastline, stopping in Queen Charlotte Sound, where he ‘hoisted the Union Jack’ on Motuara Island.12 He established that Aotearoa was made up of two islands, not one as believed. More importantly, he confirmed Nieuw Zeeland was not part of the Unknown Southern Continent, much to Banks’ disgruntlement.13

Aotearoa had been home to Māori for over 400 years by the time of Cook’s visit. His arrival heralded significant changes for iwi, not all of them positive, or immediate. Initial interactions with Māori at Turanganui-a-kiwa (Poverty Bay) were violent. Any peace brokered by Tupaia was fleeting. Trade quickly turned to aggression on both sides. The Europeans took to firing their weapons, against which Māori had no real defence, and a number of iwi were killed including two tribal leaders.14 Cook had gone against the Royal Society’s advice:

[The local inhabitants] may naturally and justly attempt to repel intruders, whom they may apprehend are come to disturb them in the quiet possession of their country . . . should they in a hostile manner oppose a landing, and kill some men in the attempt, even this would hardly justify firing among them...15

Cook appears to struggle with justifying the use of arms against those who were defending their home against the sudden appearance of strangers. He wrote:

...had I thought that they would have made the least resistance I would not have come near them, but as they did, I was not to stand still and suffer either myself or those that were with me to be knocked on the head.16

Nicholas Thomas argues this passage replaced ‘a more elaborate statement in Cook’s rough draft’, demonstrating this was ‘not just a matter of kill or be killed, but more that withdrawal was not an option’. Faced with ‘ambiguity and disorder [Cook] preferred a swift resolution, even a violent one, to an uncertain or unpredictable situation’. To him, it made perfect sense.17

Having been offered the symbol of peace before leaving Poverty Bay, Cook then travelled up and down the North Island’s east coast, where canoes ventured out to meet the Endeavour. News had travelled quickly about this ship from afar. Many Māori were afraid of the strangers, but a few bravely boarded the British ship. The people of Anaura welcomed Cook’s party ashore, and at Uawa (Tolaga Bay) the artists sketched the scenery before them while Banks took delight in the specimens he found.18 Hostile exchanges still occurred, often provoked ‘by misunderstandings about reciprocity’, and the failure ‘to follow the appropriate rituals’, which caused resentment and confusion.19 When things did not go the way the Europeans expected, they readily resorted to firepower or flogging as a way to maintain their authority. Cook’s disappointment in his men’s behaviour regularly appears in his journals, but often conflicts with his own wavering attitude to particular situations.20

Two races, two belief systems and two ways of being, vastly different from each other, were bound to clash. Before Europeans appeared, Māori ‘lived in a world peopled only by their ancestors and themselves’; a world which valued whakapapa and ‘the prestige of warfare’.21 They had not encountered these strange, white beings whom they deemed ‘supernatural’. Māori logic saw Europeans as somehow tied to their ancestors.22 Influenced by Tasman’s voyage, Europeans viewed Māori as ‘murderers’, ‘savages and barbarians’.23 Ideas about each other were formulated ‘out of the same volatile mix of puzzlement, preconception and violence’.24 Cook’s admiration of the ‘brave, war-like people’ who were ‘void of treachery’ is evident in his writings. He reasoned that violent encounters arose from misunderstanding ‘local protocols for meeting strangers’.25 And yet Cook, and his men, misconstrued the challenge directed at their ship, and reacted with gunfire. No matter what Cook wrote, the hierarchical structure that underpinned European life still saw Māori as inferior. As Salmond argues, this is ‘a significant qualification’ as guns guaranteed the superiority of those on the Endeavour.26

The Endeavour’s journey home was not without incident. Cook nearly lost his ship on the Great Barrier Reef, and more than two dozen men died after stopping at Batavia (Jakarta). Cook, and his remaining passengers and crew, finally set foot on British soil after nearly 3 years at sea.27 Cook went home to his family after presenting his papers to the Admiralty and Royal Society. He believed his findings conveyed ‘a Tolerable knowledge of the places they are intended to illustrate, & the discoveries we had made, tho’ not great, will Apologize for the length of the Voyage’.28 Cook’s navigational chart of New Zealand, put together with the help of Tupaia and Green, was published in 1772. Replacing Abel Tasman’s ‘enigmatic squiggle’ on the incomplete world map, it was remarkably accurate, although it had mistaken Banks Peninsula as an island and Stewart Island as a peninsula.29 Cook’s endeavours earned him a promotion to Commander, and a request to find a suitable vessel for a second voyage.30

  1. Anne Salmond, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas, London, 2003, pp. 24, 25, 28 (quote p. 25); William Frame with Laura Walker, James Cook: The Voyages, Auckland, 2018, p. 29. 

  2. The ancient Greeks and Romans had hypothesized that such a land existed, and this mythical and mysterious place had continued to intrigue philosophers, map-makers and explorers since then. Britain’s empire-builders became obsessed with finding the land believed to be full of riches. sl.nsw.gov.au/stories/captain-cooks-voyages-discovery 

  3. Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, pp. 31, 32, 57; Nigel Rigby & Peter van der Merwe, Captain Cook in the Pacific, London, 2002, p. 32; Anne Salmond, Between Worlds: Early Exchanges Between Maori and Europeans 1773-1815, Auckland, 1997, p. 31; Frame with Walker, p. 29. Salmond outlines the Earl of Morton’s ‘Hints’ for the expedition. The Earl proscribed to Enlightenment ideology, and had produced a document for Cook and his companions advising them on how to conduct themselves on their voyage and how to treat inhabitants of those lands visited. 

  4. Frame with Walker, p. 29. Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, p. 25; John Wilson, ‘European discovery of New Zealand – Cook’s three voyages’, teara.govt.nz/en/European-discovery-of-new-zealand/page 5, updated 1 May 2016. A number of other expeditions to the Pacific region occurred between 1770 and 1795, including two more voyages by Cook. 

  5. The goat became quite famous! Banks persuaded the Royal Society and the Admiralty to let him and his travelling party join the excursion, citing the importance any findings would be to the field of botanical and natural sciences, and paying his own way. His group included Swedish botanist Daniel Solander, artists Alexander Buchan and Sydney Parkinson, and his secretary Herman Sporing, and four servants. Only Banks and Solander would survive the journey. Cook was not entirely happy about having this group of travelling companions onboard. Rigby & van der Merwe, pp. 30, 31, 38; Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, pp. 31, 167; Nicholas Thomas, Discoveries: the Voyages of Captain Cook, London, 2003, pp. 25, 30-32; Frame with Walker, p. 25. 

  6. There were 94 men onboard, made up of 85 crew, and 9 passengers. Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, pp. 28, 61-62.  

  7. Two servants from Banks’ party froze to death in the snow and Solander suffered hypothermia. Buchan collapsed after an epileptic seizure but recovered. Unfortunately, he died from another seizure shortly after arriving in Tahiti. Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, pp. 61, 68; Thomas, pp. 53-58; Frame with Walker, p. 33. 

  8. Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, p. 62. See also p. 31. 

  9. The Endeavour travelled nearly 6,000 miles from Cape Horn to Tahiti. Salmond deals with the relationships between the Tahitians and Europeans at length. Trial of the Cannibal Dog, pp. 64, 79, 34-107; Frame and Walker, p. 40; Thomas, pp. 62, 64, 70. Salmond gives a good outline of the situation in Tahiti in the mid-1700s. 

  10. Thomas, pp. xxiv, 64, 67, 68, 71, 77-78; Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, pp. 63-64, 69, 82, 93, 95. 

  11. Tuapaia’s sketch did not survive, but Banks had written down the list of islands. Cook’s chart is not entirely accurate as he ‘evidently misunderstood some of Tupaia’s directions’. Cook also took possession of the nearby islands of Borabora, Tahaa and Huahine. Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, pp. 95, 97-112, 131-134 (quote at p. 111); William Frame, ‘The first voyage of James Cook’, bl.uk/the-voyages-of-captain-james-cook/articles/the-first-voyage-of-james-cook Tuapaia also produced drawings of Tahitian scenes. See: Frame with Walker, pp. 45-54 for details and images. 

  12. Cook gave European names to many places and landmarks around New Zealand including Poverty Bay, Hawke Bay, Queen Charlotte Sound, Mt Egmont. Apart from contact with Māori in the Sounds region, there was little interaction with local inhabitants around the rest of the South Island. Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, pp. 112, 113, 146-151; H. Mitchell and M. J. Mitchell, History of Māori of Nelson and Marlborough, Wellington, 2004, p. 187. Also see: Thomas, pp. 99, 103, 104, 110; Frame with Walker, pp. 60, 62-63. 

  13. Wilson, ‘European discovery of New Zealand’; Walker and Frame, pp. 62-63. All around New Zealand Banks looked for signs that this land was connected to the Southern Continent. On leaving Whakatane, he saw fortified settlements overlooking the cliffs and was convinced this was the coastline of Terra Australis. He thought the buildings were ‘the headquarters of the prince of this great continent’. Topaa, confirmed Cook’s suspicions that New Zealand was not part of any other land. Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, pp. 129, 146, 148-149, 151. 

  14. Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, pp. 117, 118; Thomas, pp. 86-90; Frame with Walker, p. 58. The Māori language and customs were similar to that of Tahiti, and Tupaia was used as an interpreter and intermediary. 

  15. Earl of Morton in Beaglehole, ed., 1955, p. 514, cited in Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, p. 118. It is interesting that firing guns on the indigenous people was still considered a last resort by the Royal Society. 

  16. Cook in Beaglehole, ed., 1955, p. 171 cited in Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, p. 118, and in Thomas, p. 92. 

  17. Thomas, p. 92. The edited version of this passage that appeared in Cook’s final report to the Royal Society ‘acknowledged his fault, but did not acknowledge its motivation’ (p. 93). 

  18. Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, pp. 119-125, 131, 134; Thomas, p. 97. 

  19. Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, pp. 129, 130, 134-135. Also see: pp. 122-123, 128. In Whitianga, Lieutenant Gore shot a Māori who failed to give his cloak as promised in exchange for some cloth. Cook was furious. He believed the ‘punishment a little too severe for the Crime’. He felt that all the men onboard the Endeavour had enough familiarity with the ways of the people of Aotearoa ‘to know how to chastise trifling faults like this without taking away their lives’. Cook in Beaglehole, ed 1955, p. 196 cited in Salmon, p. 130. 

  20. Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, p. 131, 133; Thomas, pp. 73, 100. Interestingly, Cook used his gun against the Tahitians and Māori, more often as a means to startle (by firing in the air) or wound, rather than kill. See Salmond for incident at Meretoto in the Sound, pp. 140-141. Cook’s Enlightenment beliefs appear to conflict with his ideas around superiority and inferiority. And, Thomas, p. 73 regarding the incident of a stolen rake and retribution by threatening to burn the Tahitian’s canoes. 

  21. Salmond, Between Worlds, p. 18; Thomas, p. xxxv. 

  22. Salmond, Between Worlds, pp. 18, 23, 32. Thomas underscores the complexities in writing about ‘cultural meetings’. See: p. xxxiv-xxxv. 

  23. Salmond, Between Worlds, p. 22; Thomas, p. xxiii. 

  24. Salmond, Between Worlds, pp. 22, 23; Thomas, pp. xx, xxi. 

  25. Salmond, Between Worlds, p. 27, Thomas, p. 107. 

  26. Salmond, Between Worlds, pp. 27, 33. 

  27. During the time at Batavia 7 men died from the fever including, Tupaia and his servant, and the ship’s surgeon, William Monkhouse. Those who died on the homeward leg of the journey included Charles Green, the astronomer and the artist Sydney Parkinson. By the end of the voyage, Cook had lost half the men who had left England with him. The Endeavour anchored in the Thames on 16th July 1771. Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, pp. 141-145, 151, 162-164; Thomas, pp. 133-136; Frame with Walker, p. 102. 

  28. Rigby & van der Merwe, p. 39; Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, pp. 161, 165. Cook’s charts were still being used in the 1950s. Sir David Attenborough sailed the Great Barrier Reef using Cook’s map. Frame, ‘The first voyage of James Cook’. 

  29. Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, p. 25. Wilson, ‘European discovery of New Zealand’; Frame with Walker, pp. 65, 80. To be fair, Cook had observed Banks Peninsula at quite a distance from shore, due to bad weather. He thought there was a passage of water between two bays he mapped on Stewart Island, but had left the chart incomplete. 

  30. Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, pp. 166, 170; Thomas, p. 142; Frame with Walker, pp. 80, 105. 

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elocal Digital Edition – August 2019 (#221)

elocal Digital Edition
August 2019 (#221)

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