Captain James Cook (1728 – 1779)

When I read about Captain James Cook and his men camped out at Mercury Bay, I romantically envisioned the mighty ‘Endeavor’ at anchor amidst a rumbling blue ocean, the beach littered with its rowboats and the setting sun glistening off the surrounding greenery of Pre-European Nova Zeelandia!

What tipped me into my ‘know no limits’ poetic license was the fact that one of the men had taken upon himself to engrave on a nearby tree the date and name of ship that had faithfully carried them to end of the world. I’m sure it was nothing like that. The insects for one would have driven them to insanity.

I would like to think that Captain James Cook took a moment to himself to see where his choices and hard work had brought him too. He really was at the end of the world, standing where no other European had stood before. If someone had told him where his destiny lay when he was up to his ankles in mud feeding the pigs their slops back in Yorkshire, he wouldn’t have taken one word seriously.

James was born to James and Grace Cook in Yorkshire, England in 1728. After he had finished school, he went to work alongside his father at a nearby farm. When he had time to himself, he preferred to be outside, exploring the nearby countryside and climbing up anything he could. In 1745, he finally flew the nest and headed to Staithes to become a Grocer’s cadet. Those who knew him said it was there that he fell in love with the sea, being able to see it from the window of where he worked.

It soon became obvious that working in a store was not for James. He packed up his things and headed to Whitby where he was to meet the Walker family – boat owners that could possibly have work for him. He was taken on as an apprentice. As he worked in the low ranks of the Walker’s trading vessels, he was studying all the time – algebra, geometry, trigonometry, navigation and astronomy.

By 1755, James had moved up the ranks with lightening speed. He was finally offered a ship of his own to command and after all his hard work, he was getting the chance to write his own ticket. In an amazing turn of events and in a gentlemanly display of duty, James put his dreams on hold and volunteered to join the Royal Navy ships that were to engage in a conflict known today as The Seven Year War. Poor James experienced his first taste of war from the very bottom rank.

His exposure to the big names of the Royal Navy was to benefit him eventually. Just like before, he moved up the ranks and was well trusted and well liked among his comrades. After the war, James was offered a ship and the job to explore the South Pacific Ocean and the region known as Terra Australis. Another reason for the sail down south was to observe and study the transit of Venus crossing over the sun.

Before he set sail, he managed to find the time to marry Elizabeth Batts. They would go on to have 6 children. Sadly, some were to see their graves before James did while the others gave the Captain and Mrs. Cook no grandchildren at all.

The Endeavor reached Nova Zeelandia’s waters in 1768 and the first map of New Zealand was drawn amazingly with very few errors. It was here that James decided to ‘anglicize’ Abel Janszoon Tasman’s (the Dutch explorer that discovered New Zealand roughly a 100 year earlier) name of Nova Zeelandia to New Zealand. Aboard was Joseph Banks, a botanist and the reason why our Peninsula bears the name of Banks today. Although back in 1768, it was known as Banks Island which was considered one of James’ mistakes in his mapping.

James’ easy going nature not only impressed his fellow sea lovers but also the natives he came across. Not to say there weren’t problems and the loss of lives on both sides; James did his best to keep the peace and was eventually held in high regard by all.

James was back down south in 1772 on a ship named the ‘Resolution’. This ship was the first European vessel to cross the Antarctic Circle. Missing New Zealand completely, the Resolution sails north to Tahiti for supplies.

James’ third voyage to our parts was in 1774. By this time, many reports say that James had become too at ease with the dangers that surrounded them. As they sailed around the South Pacific, they discovered and landed at Easter Island, Norfolk Island and Vanuatu to name a few. James’ crew began doubt their trust in him as he was beginning to behave a bit erratically. Some say his failing health was to blame for the change in him. Nevertheless, he returned home to England as a hero.

In 1776, James, who had actually retired, was back on the sea and in search of the Northwest Passage. He was the first European to step ashore on Hawaii in 1778. A year later he returned to Hawaii just in time for ‘Makahiki’, a harvest festival. The natives who held James in very high esteem took it upon themselves to make him an incarnation of a god known as ‘Lono’. This and James’ very casual attitude of those around him was to prove fatal.

After a month’s stay, the ‘Resolution’ raised anchor and made an attempt to sail home. It became clear within moments that the ship needed maintenance so the ship returned to Hawaii, namely Kealakekua Bay and dropped anchor. James and some of his men went ashore and were confronted by some very upset and confused natives. Why was the god ‘Lono’ returning when the harvest was over? A conflict erupted and James decided to return to the ship a.s.a.p.

James turned his back to the natives to climb back onto the rowboat when he struck on the head. He was then stabbed by their spears. James’ men had little time to react before James’ body was dragged away.

The reports that returned home with the ship’s men sent shock waves through the European world. The men had claimed they witnessed the native consume parts of James’ body. What was not fully understood at that time that the eating of flesh was to honour James who was as important to the native people as much as their own Chief. There really is no right way to say this but these guys basically didn’t eat those they didn’t like. Crikey!!

“He was a modest man, and rather bashful; of an agreeable lively conversation, sensible and intelligent. In temper he was somewhat hasty, but of a disposition the most friendly, benevolent and humane. His person was about 6 foot and though a good looking man, he was plain both in dress and appearance. His face was full of expression, his nose extremely well shaped, his eyes which were small and of a brown cast, were quick and piercing, and his eyebrows prominent, which have his countenance altogether an air of austerity”.

David Samwell – a crewman from the ‘Resolution’.

*image courtesy of*

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