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The Legacy of Captain Cook's Pacific Voyages

Captain James Cook (Part VI)

by Michelle Ann Smith

After his death, James Cook’s memory was revered and his mana grew, while ‘his reputation spread across the Pacific’.1 However, it was in only those places, such as Hawaii and Tahiti, where ‘Cook had forged a ceremonial friendship with a paramount chief that he later became a focus of ancestral veneration’.2 For Maori, it was his Tahitian companions who were remembered in oral traditions, while Tongan memories focussed on the plot to kill him.

Throughout Aotearoa there are statues and monuments, schools, hotels, suburbs, and landmarks that bear Cook’s name, or were named by him. Over time, the reverence has diminished, statues vandalised, places renamed, and Cook’s ‘posthumous reputation [has] shifted with the vagaries of imperial history’.3 Such is the legacy of the boy from a small rural village in Yorkshire.

That same boy later encountered roasted dog, kangaroos, seductive Tahitians, painted Aboriginal warriors, cannibalism, and fierce Maori on his Pacific voyages. Sometimes confronting, the experiences opened the Europeans’ eyes to new worlds, new people, and new ways of life. For Pacific people, the arrival of strangers to their shores opened their eyes to a world beyond their islands; a world that contained people who did not share their worldview, rituals, or ancestors. The gulf between European culture and that of the Pacific was vast. Enlightenment beliefs, where the ‘detached and dispassionate’ man relied on scientific reasoning, were at odds with Polynesian beliefs where the cosmos and self were intertwined. With neither side aware of how to deal with the strangers they met, it is unsurprising that exchanges were open to misunderstandings, confusion, and hostility.4 As this article goes to print, the commemoration of Cook’s first visit to Aotearoa has begun. While some people see his visits as the start of our nation’s shared history, others believe it is a sharp reminder of colonisation, and the hurt and trauma that this carries with it. Such are the complexities of Cook’s voyages to our shores.

Complexities aside, we cannot ignore the fact that James Cook was an extraordinary man. Nor can we ignore the importance of his journeys in cartography, astronomy, ethnography, oceanography, philology, and the history of the nations visited. Not only did he disprove the existence of the mysterious southern continent, he observed the Transit of Venus, attempted to find the north-west passage, was the first European commander to reach Hawaii, introduced new methods to fight scurvy, and ‘correctly postulated a link among all the Pacific peoples’.5 Importantly, Cook ‘surveyed and mapped large parts of the world for the first time’, and by the end of the third voyage ‘the Grand bounds of the four Quarters of the Globe’ had been ‘discovered’.6 Cook’s surveys brought the rough outline of the world map nearer completion. For Aotearoa, his visits ashore have given us valuable observations about Maori at the time of their first contact with Europeans. At the same time, specimens collected by Joseph Banks, Daniel Solander, and Johann Forster, ‘many of which were unknown in Europe’, completely transformed the realms of science and botany.7 Georg Forster, who travelled on the second voyage, shrewdly observed, ‘What Cook has added to the mass of our knowledge is such that it will strike deep roots and long have the most decisive influence on the activities of men’.8

Indeed, Cook’s vastly improved charts allowed sailors and explorers to travel the length and breadth of the Pacific more easily and the number of ships making their way there from Europe greatly increased. Merchants sent ships to northwest America to take advantage of the fur trade Cook had detailed in his journals, whalers headed south to seek their prey, and prisoners were sent to Australia and Tasmania to newly created penal colonies. By the mid-nineteenth century large groups of settlers were emigrating to Australia and Aotearoa, with the promises of land and a better way of life ringing in their ears. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, colonies had been established by Britain, France, Russia, and America across the Pacific. Repeated visits by Europeans had brought new excitement and wealth, and ‘exotic technologies, such as metal tools, and western diseases’. It also ‘disrupted the dynamics of Pacific domestic politics and life’, causing conflict and distress where none had been before.9 For those who lived on the islands and coasts of the Pacific Ocean, each encounter changed their way of life, their culture, and language forever.

Historically, the European white man believed he was the at the pinnacle of civilisation; an ideology of hierarchy that placed women and indigenous people far beneath him. European scientists ‘neatly sorted local life into topical headings’, placing indigenous people within a framework of civilisation and labelling them ‘savages’ and ‘barbarians’. In Aotearoa, names of native plants, animals, and places were changed into English. Cook planted a vegetable garden and left behind goats and pigs to encourage a ‘breeding stock of British farm animals’, thus demonstrating an imagined ‘imperial control’ long before it became reality.10 Notions of this ideology are evident in Cook’s journals when discussing the Tahitian, Mai. On returning him to the Society Islands after his sojourn to Britain, Cook wondered if Mai would be able to ‘introduce English arts or customs among his fellow islanders . . . because despite repeated visits by the British ships, they showed no signs of imitating any British habits’.11

In the natural hierarchy, Cook’s sailors would have sat below their commander but higher than the indigenous people they came in contact with. They got angry when they saw Cook treating Maori with respect or regarding Tahitian chiefs as equals. With regards indigenous women, the sailors viewed them as fair game, as lusty beings who would always be willing to yield sexually. Like their indigenous sisters, eighteenth-century British women were seen as second-class citizens with few or no political, social or sexual rights. However, many fell under the protection of those males they were connected to (fathers, husbands, brothers). Pacific women were not always afforded the same protection. Some men, including Maori, bartered their women’s sexual favours to obtain goods from the Europeans, and saw nothing wrong in their actions. Cook’s men saw the nakedness of the women of Adventure Bay (Tasmania) as an invitation to touch their genitals without seeking permission, never contemplating that it was inappropriate or unwelcome. On this occasion, the women were sent away out of view by one of their elders. Sometimes the women rebuffed the advances by the Europeans, sometimes they actively encouraged them. The sex trade in the Pacific was complex, both culturally and historically, and invariably open to misunderstanding by the Europeans.12

Firearms were unfamiliar weapons in the Pacific, despite having been used for centuries in Europe. It was commonplace for the eighteenth-century European man to use firepower to reinforce his perceived superiority. There were a number of incidents where Cook and his men used their guns to demonstrate their authority. On occasion this led to the death of locals, despite Cook’s attempts to prevent this from happening. Cook has been labelled a murderer for his actions against Maori during their first encounter. Professor Olssen argues this is a ‘loaded word’ particularly when the context of the incident is examined more closely and the complexities of the situation are understood. In simple terms, hostility and danger led to retaliation, something ‘that either side was likely to do at that time and in those circumstances’.13

We cannot ignore the fact Cook’s voyages heralded the coming of ‘colonialism and cultural dispossession’ or that he, and Joseph Banks saw Aotearoa and Australia as potential places for Britain to establish colonies.14 We cannot ignore the fact contact between the Europeans and the Pacific people was not always positive or without violence. Yet, can we lay all the blame at the feet of one man? Cook was working to a set of instructions, he was not alone, and did not always have control of his men’s behaviour, despite his best efforts. The actions of Cook, the men who travelled with him, and even the indigenous people of the Pacific, might sit uncomfortably with us today, but we must place them within the social, cultural, and political context of the time. Cook was working within his own worldview, just as Maori and other Pacific islanders were working within theirs.

There are no clear-cut answers to the questions and challenges that Cook’s voyages present us today. What occurred 250 years ago lies within ‘a complex and deeply contested’ arena of historical and cultural enquiry.15 Cook ‘wrestled with the vast historical contradictions created by the encounter between Europeans and the Pacific Islanders . . . He also had well-informed doubts about “narratives of the white harbinger of civilisation”’.16 For the people of the Pacific, the ‘ancient world was shifting on its foundations’. Life was changing forever, although ‘there was little sense that the ancient world was ending’.17 No-one could have imagined what the future would bring. Today, the quest to understand is still present, but we need to use the past to better inform the future about our shared history; a shared history that began with Cook and his Pacific voyages, that reconciles itself with, and draws ‘strength from the relationships and meetings of the past as we head into the future’.18 This could become Cook’s legacy.

  1. Anne Salmond, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas, London, 2003, p. 427. 

  2. Salmond, Cannibal Dog, p. 426. 

  3. Salmond, Cannibal Dog, pp. 426-427, 429. Also see: nzhistory.govt.nz/people/james-cook Even in the European context Cook has swung between hero and villain. Salmond, p. 431. 

  4. Salmond, Cannibal Dog, pp. 430, 431; Erik Olssen, ‘Simplicity compounds ignorance’, Otago Daily Times Online news, otd.co.nz/opinion/simplicity-compounds-ignorance 

  5. Jean Balchin, ‘Facing realities of colonisation’, Otago Daily Times Online News, otd.co.nz/opinion/facing-realities-colonisation; sl.nsw.gov.au/learning/captain-james-cook; Glyn Williams, ‘Captain Cook: Explorer, Navigator and Pioneer’, bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/captaincook_01.shtml, updated 9 March 2012. 

  6. Smh.com.au/national/captain-cook-s-legacy-must-be-faced-head-on-20180604-p4zfg.html; Williams, ‘After cook’s voyages’; William Frame with Laura Walker, James Cook: The Voyages, Auckland, 2018, p. 160; 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. 

  7. Williams, ‘After cook’s voyages’; Wilson, ‘European discovery’; Smh.com.au/national/captain-cook-s-legacy-must-be-faced-head-on-20180604-p4zfg.html Salmond does suggest that Cook’s recordings of Maori life during his second and third voyage were less detailed than the first encounter with the people of Aotearoa. Between Worlds: Early Exchanges Between Maori and Europeans 1773-1815, Auckland, 1997, p. 146. 

  8. Williams, ‘After cook’s voyages’. 

  9. Salmond, Between Worlds, p. 141, 145, 146; Nla.gov.au/unbound/looking-at-cook; Wilson, ‘European discovery of New Zealand’; Williams, ‘After cook’s voyages’. 

  10. Salmond, Between Worlds, pp. 145, 146; Frame with Walker, pp. 127, 168. The various animals onboard the ships during the third voyage, were intended to bring ‘the benefits of British agriculture to the Pacific’, and turned the ship into ‘Noah’s ark’. Maori watched the animals disembark for grazing with ‘great astonishment’, having ‘never seen horses or horned cattle before’. Walker with Frame, p. 168. 

  11. Salmond, Cannibal Dog, p. 373. 

  12. Balchin; Salmond, Cannibal Dog, pp. 185, 311, 315. Contact with the indigenous people at Adventure Bay was friendly and peaceful. The Europeans described them as in the ‘rudest state of nature’ because of their lack of inhibitions and their mannerisms which were so different to their own. Salmond, p. 311. 

  13. Olssen. Olssen maintains that the term murder is not one used by eminent scholars such as Prof Dame Anne Salmond who has carefully examined all the evidence pertaining to this event. 

  14. Nla.gov.au/unbound/looking-at-cook. When Cook’s last voyage was published, its preface urged Britain to ‘take the lead in reaping the full advantage of her own discoveries’. See: Williams ‘After cook’s voyages’. 

  15. Frame with Walker, p. 218. 

  16. Olssen. 

  17. Salmond, Between Worlds, p. 517. 

  18. Salmond quoted in Olssen; Rowan Light, ‘Captain Cook ‘First Encounter’ celebrations’; Smh.com.au/national/captain-cook-s-legacy-must-be-faced-head-on-20180604-p4zfg.html 

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