The Compassion of Captain James Cook

James Cook, the finest maritime explorer in recorded history, was among the victims of a massacre by First Nation peoples. His violent death and those of four marines protecting him, as well as the killing of another ten crewmen on his previous expedition, may be omitted from postmodern lists of historic massacres in the Pacific region. Nevertheless, what transpired on both occasions were massacres.

The first massacre occurred in New Zealand during the expedition of 1772–75. Recently promoted to Commander, James Cook was leading two vessels: his own ship the Resolution, and the Adventure captained by Commander Tobias Furneaux. Cook used them in tandem to explore and map the southern Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, searching for land at high latitudes while aspiring to approach the South Pole.

This essay appears in June’s Quadrant.
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By late October 1773 the ships had completed a first segment of their mission and looped back to New Zealand’s Queen Charlotte Sound for food, water and minor maintenance. Cook quickly arrived at this staging point and waited for Furneaux, who was delayed by a storm. The Adventure hadn’t appeared after three weeks, so, unwilling to linger, the Resolution headed off on November 23 to take advantage of summer weather. The Adventure arrived a week later and made rushed repairs at the anchorage. On its last day at this stopover, Furneaux sent a party headed by Midshipman James Rowe to forage for scurvy-grass, wild celery and edible greens. They had not returned by sundown. This was in Wharehunga Bay on December 17.

The next morning Furneaux sent a second group, led by Lieutenant James Burney and including ten marines, to find those who had disappeared. After an extensive search they approached a Maori gathering and were horrified to see the butchered remains of the missing crewmen in piles, much of the human flesh already cooked. Led by the chief Kahura, the Maoris were conducting a whangai hau ceremony where warriors eat parts of an enemy to absorb his spirit.

After driving off the Maoris with gunfire, Burney determined that none of the crewmen’s bodies were intact. His group recovered two hands (one belonging to Rowe), the head of the captain’s Negro servant, assorted bones, plus torn trousers, a frock coat, and six odd shoes. The deceased numbered two midshipmen (Rowe and Woodhouse), the quartermaster (Francis Murphy), one of Furneaux’s servants (James Sevilley), and six sailors (Michael Bell, John Cavenaugh, William Facey, Thomas Hill, Edward Jones and Thomas Milton).[1]

The second massacre occurred on the subsequent expedition of 1776–79. Now raised to the rank of Post-Captain, James Cook again was leading two vessels: his own ship the Resolution, and the Discovery captained by Commander Charles Clerke, who had served on both his previous voyages. Cook used the ships to explore the north-eastern Pacific, scouring the Canadian coast for a “North-West” sea passage from the Atlantic Ocean.

Over the warmer Arctic months of 1778 the ships explored and mapped parts of the west coast of Canada and Alaska, and the Bering Sea. Cook planned to rest his crews in the tropics for the northern winter, before returning to complete mapping the region from spring onward. So the ships made for the Hawaiian Islands which the expedition had happened upon a year earlier. The two-and-a-half-month visit was initially pleasant, but by February 1779 the mariners had overstayed their welcome. Tensions were strained, with pilfering and harassment by natives getting out of hand: “We have observ’d in the Natives a stronger propensity to theft,” Clerke recorded. “Every day produc’d more numerous and more audacious depridations.”[2] So February 12 saw all Hawaiians ordered off both ships, although that afternoon one climbed onto the Resolution where, startling the crew on deck, he grabbed what he could then dived into the sea and got away. Using the word “insolent”, Cook was exasperated.[3]

Then, overnight, the cutter was stolen. It had been well secured to the Resolution, but a four-inch rope was cut through. The theft was critical. Cook had been using this six-oared large rowboat—which had an attachable mast and could be sailed—for navigating shoals and precision mapping, as well as rowing ahead with the launch and towing a ship if becalmed in hazardous waters. The cutter was essential to guide the ships near ice floes. Besides, there were now only four boats (a pinnace, a launch, a small cutter and the light jolly boat or yawl), and the expedition was finished should any of them be also stolen.

Cook acted instantly after the theft was discovered. Early in the morning he led a shore party of ten marines to see Kalaniʻopuʻu, the island’s aged leader. When wakened in his hut the chief proved unaware of the theft. So Cook decided to take him hostage until the cutter was returned. The party led Kalaniʻopuʻu towards the beach. Halfway there, agitated natives began surrounding them. Cook said to Lieutenant Phillips of the marines, “We can never think of compelling him to go onboard without killing a number of those people,” and released the chief.[4] This was in Kealakekua Bay, at 8.00 a.m. on February 14.

The outnumbered Europeans were attacked at the shoreline. A native made to jab at Cook with an iron spike, so, giving the order to fire, the navigator fired his own musket loaded with small shot. The pellets merely stuck in the native’s clothing wrap. Cook called out, “Take to the boats!” although the chance had passed: according to Phillips “the business was now a most miserable scene of confusion—the Shouts and the Yells of the Indians far exceeded all the noise I ever came in the way of”.[5] As the marines fought, Phillips saw Cook clubbed from behind then turn and shoot this attacker dead at the water’s edge. This was his moment to flee, but Cook could not swim. He had never learned how. Other natives beat him, stabbed his neck, then shoved him under the waves. They kept on stabbing until he stopped moving. Unable to reload their rifles, others in the party were clubbed and knifed, before swimming to the launch which Midshipman Lanyon brought close in. All the while rowboats off the beach attempted covering fire, watched by crew on the two ships at anchor in the bay. The natives had killed four marines in the affray (Privates Theophilus Hinks, Thomas Fatchett, John Allen and Corporal James Thomas).


HOW did the respective naval commanders respond to this native violence? Tobias Furneaux delayed taking action straight after the 1773 massacre in New Zealand. For safety’s sake, no further party was sent ashore from his ship, while an increased watch was posted overnight to keep an eye out for canoes.

In this Furneaux was observing Admiralty practice. Anchored close offshore, the Adventure was vulnerable; and a captain’s duty was to protect his vessel and crew. Not that the officers and jack tars were emboldened to take reprisals. The cannibalism panicked them. Their anxieties were amplified by wet weather that made firearms unreliable. When volleys were attempted after the butchered bodies were discovered, some marines in Burney’s party had rifles either misfire or not discharge at all. This enabled the Maoris to flee, so all the shore party could do was disable three canoes drawn up on the beach to prevent pursuit.

The next morning Furneaux had resolved not only to avoid further contact with any Maoris, but to abandon the expedition altogether. Mind you, his departure fits with a pattern of over-caution on the voyage, Furneaux repeatedly testing Cook’s patience by holding back in bad weather and iceberg-ridden waters. Upon leaving Kealakekua Bay, the Adventure did not aim to rejoin the Resolution at either of Cook’s planned stops on Easter Island or Tahiti. Instead, Furneaux sailed for the Atlantic, and then onward to Britain.

Charles Clerke assumed command of the expedition after the 1778 massacre in Hawaii, taking measures to protect both ships and their crews. He called the rowboats to return. An observatory had been set up along the beach, and the ships’ carpenters had a workshop there, too. Clerke had Lieutenant King, Cook’s subordinate on the Resolution, lead a group to retrieve the meteorological and astronomical equipment, carpenter’s tools and a replacement foremast being readied for the Resolution. A squad of marines repelled several natives who attacked on the beach during this evacuation.

By 11.30 a.m. all were back aboard, and Clerke had the two vessels move further along the shore. There was now among the crew talk of vengeance. Lieutenant Bligh had observed via telescope natives cutting up the European corpses, so cannibalism was feared. The Discovery several times fired a cannon at the village and adjacent coconut grove. “I had some notion of taking a stout party onshore, make what distruction among them I could, then burn the Town, Canoes & c,” Clerke confided in his journal, but “I thought it would be improper.”[6] The pressure on Clerke, who was visibly dying of tuberculosis, was great. Yet he forbade reprisals, reiterating the expedition’s rule of minimal response to violence. He knew Cook would not have allowed pay-back. Cook had made this abundantly clear months earlier when they revisited the locality where Maoris had massacred Furneaux’s sailors. Clerke added, as practical justification, it would be “probably injurious to the expedition to risk further loss of the People”.[7]

The journals of the ships’ officers reveal discipline problems that afternoon and next morning. Clerke was so ill he rested in his cabin. Without permission, some tars went ashore, where they burned huts and shot at natives, killing two men then mutilating their corpses. “In every instance it was not in the power of the Officers to restrain them,” wrote the appalled Lieutenant King.[8] There was also taunting by certain Hawaiians. Midshipman Harvey on the Resolution recorded how on the beach “the lower class was insulting, who strutted about with our peoples Jacketts & Trouzers on, other flourishing Cutlashes, Hangers & Bayonets, defieing us to come ashore … some of them was seen to turn up their naked breach [that is, exposed their backsides to the ships], but we were not to fire at them.”[9]

Then chiefs appeared bearing white flags and gifts of food, making gestures to meet. King and Burney rowed over, and spoke with them from the water. (This was the same James Burney who had discovered the New Zealand massacre four years earlier.) “The Chiefs during the parley behav’d very well,” Harvey added, “not the least appearance of treachery among them”.[10] There was sincere talk of peace and the officers explained they needed to recover the captain’s body.

The next day an envoy from Kalaniʻopuʻu arrived under a flag of truce. He was allowed on ship. Expressing profound shame for the attack, the Hawaiian was aghast at being suspected of cannibalism. He explained how out of reverence for Cook—who natives mistook for either a Hawaiian chief or a god—funeral rites were already under way. The body had been ceremonially divided, with parts distributed among tribal leaders according to ritual. So Clerke used this envoy to send a message, chief-to-chief, promising no further violence while demanding the captain’s remains.[11]

Over three days the Hawaiians returned most of Cook’s bones, some flesh, and items of his clothing and personal equipment. Several bones had been left in sacred places. Clerke then felt able to conduct a burial at sea. Flags flew at half mast, bells were tolled, a ten-gun salute fired, and the catafalque slid into the sea. The Resolution’s new foremast was stepped the next morning, then the two vessels set sail. The remains of the deceased marines were never recovered.


JAMES Cook’s response to the massacre of Furneaux’s sailors in New Zealand had been necessarily delayed. The Resolution made another stopover at Queen Charlotte Sound in early November 1774, but natives were evasive when sailors asked after the Adventure. Suspicions were raised after one Maori “reciev’d a box on the ear” from his friends for referring to a vessel in conversation with Cook’s crew: “whenever I questioned the natives about it they always dinied all knowledge of it”, he noted in his journal.[12]

Cook learned what was being concealed when the Resolution visited Cape Town on his return voyage to Britain. An explanatory letter left by Furneaux was awaiting him there. This was in March 1775, over eighteen months since Cook’s last sight of the Adventure, which was meant to be accompanying his ship. The massacre and cannibal consumption of ten crew by Maori warriors was disturbing news to the expedition’s leader. But it had already sparked a sensation in Britain, with reports rocketing around foreign seaports with British shipping. At the same time Cook first heard of an altercation on a French expedition to the Pacific, which stopped at New Zealand’s Bay of Islands in mid-1772. Natives there had massacred and eaten the navigator Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne and twenty-six sailors. Brutal reprisals followed, the French killing 250 Maoris and incinerating a village.

Cook was also troubled in Cape Town to read parts of a book, An Account of the Voyages undertaken … for making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere (1773). Commissioned by the Admiralty from the fashionable littérateur John Hawkesworth, this work very freely used Cook’s and Banks’s Endeavour journals to recycle European dreams of fantastic and exotic peoples. Patagonian natives were giants, Dr Hawkesworth opined, while Tahiti was a cross between classical idyll and land of free love. The inaccuracies on natives worried Cook greatly.

Reaching safe harbour at The Downs, Kent, in July 1775, Cook went up to London and proceeded to curb talk of his most recent expedition encountering barbaric cannibals. He read the Adventure’s journal, meeting with some of the crew, and received a fuller account of what did happen at Queen Charlotte Sound. The navigator’s precise thoughts on these matters at this time we do not know.

And Cook now learned Hawkesworth’s book—parts of which had been serialised in the Gentleman’s Magazine—was not as well regarded as he feared. Various readers declared it irreligious, in bad taste, lewd, pompous and boring. Joseph Banks was in two minds: if the book heroised him, it twisted his careful observations. This probably was to be expected as Hawkesworth had done similar when editing Jonathan Swift’s letters, rewriting years of correspondence. James Boswell, who later met Cook at a dinner party, found him annoyed by how Hawkesworth took to trite generalising about Pacific natives on scant evidence: “He has used your narrative as a London tavern keeper does wine,” Boswell sympathised. “He has brewed it.”[13]

A year and a half later, in early 1777, James Cook was back at Queen Charlotte Sound, site of the Adventure tragedy. He was now leading a third Pacific expedition, with his dependable protégé Charles Clerke managing the consort vessel. Maoris appeared when the Resolution and Discovery anchored together.[14] Cook’s journal for February 11 runs:

We had not been long at anchor before several Canoes filled with natives came alongside the Ships, but very few of them would venture on board; which appeared the more extraordinary as I was well known to them all. There was one man amongst them that I had treated with remarkable kindness during my whole stay when I was last here, yet now neither professions of friendship nor presents would induce him to come into the ship. It appeared to me that they were apprehensive we were come to revenge the death of Captain Furneaux’s people.[15]

Using a Tahitian aboard, Omai, as translator, Cook tried to re-establish amicable relations:

I did all in my power to assure them of the continuance of my friendship, and that I should not disturb them on that account. I do not know whether this had any weight with them; but certain it is that they soon laid aside all manner of restraint and distrust.[16]

On February 13 the expedition pitched tents and established a shore camp. Fresh water and greens were obtained, spruce beer was brewed, a group harvested vegetables sown on the previous visit, observatories were set up and ships’ maintenance began. Cook gave orders that all working ashore be armed, with a guard of ten marines constantly protecting the camp, while King and three petty officers supervised shore activities. The journal continues:

A boat was never sent to any considerable distance from the Ships without being armed, and under the direction of such officers as I could depend upon and who were well acquainted with the Natives. Some of these precautions I had never taken before in this place; nor were they, I firmly beleive, more necessary now, but after the sacrifice which the Natives made of the boats crew belonging to the Adventure in this place, and the French in the Bay of Islands it was totally impossible, totally, to divest ourselves of apprehinsions of the same nature. If the Natives had any suspicion of our revenging these acts of Barbarity they very soon laid it aside, for during the course of this day a great many Families came from different parts and took up their residence by us, so that there was not a place in the Cove where a Hut could be built that was not occupied by some or another: the place where we had fixed our little incampment they left us in quiet possession of; but they came and took away the remains of some old huts that were there.[17]

The tars and their officers soon settled into friendly relations with the Maoris. Cook goes on:

The advantage we received from the Natives coming to live by us was not a little. For some of them went out afishing every day when the weather would permit, and we generally got by exchanges a good part of the fruits of their labours … Besides the people who took up their abode by us, we were occasionally visited by others whose residence was not far off, and other who lived more remote. Their articles of commerce were, Curiosities, Fish and Women.[18]

Then a noted figure made his appearance:

Amongst these occasional Visitors was a Chief named Kahoura [Kahura], who headed the party that cut off Captain Furneaux’s boat, and himself killed the officer that commanded. To judge of the character of this man by what some his Country said of him, he seemed to be a man more feared than beloved by them: many of them said he was a very bad man and importuned me to kill him, and I beleive they were not a little surprized that I did not, for accord[ing] to their ideas of equity this ought to have been done.[19]

Two days later, on February 16, the navigator enticed a trusted Maori into discussing the massacre. Cook had taken the five rowboats along the Sound to gather feed for the ships’ cattle, and came near an infamous beach:

we next proceeded down Grass Cove, remarkable for being the place where the Natives cut off Captain Furneaux’s boat; here I met with my old friend Pedro [chief Matahoua], who was almost continually with me the last time I was in this Sound; he and another man received us on the beach, armed with the Pat-too [patu club] and spear, whether out of courtesy or of caution I cannot say; but I thought they shewed fear. However if they had any, a few presents soon removed them, and brought down [to the beach] two or three more of the family, but the greatest part of them remained out of sight.[20]

Whilst we were at this place, our curiosity prompt[ed] us to enquire the reason why our countrymen were killed; and Omai put several questions to Pedro and those about him on that head, all of which they answered without reserve, and like people who are under no apprehension of punishment for a crime they are not guilty of, for we already knew that none of these people had any hand in this unhappy affair[21]

Showing Cook the place where the fight occurred, the Maoris described mistreatment by Furneaux’s sailors in the days before. Midshipman Rowe was the key antagonist in a pattern of rough behaviour towards natives. Sometimes food and native artefacts offered in trade had been taken but naught given in return. The fatal clash with the foraging party came when the sailors were sitting down sharing food with Maoris. A theft was attempted, which lead to a scuffle where Rowe struck at Kahura with his hanger. The bleeding warrior then led the massacre.

Other Maoris volunteered similar information to Cook in following days. Given so many corroborating accounts, he did not doubt the truth of what they said:

All agree that the thing was not premeditated … For Kahoura’s greatest enemies, those who solicited his distruction the most, owned that he had no intention to quarrel, much less to kill till the quarrel was actually commenced. It also appears that the unhappy Victims were under no sort of apprehension of their impending fate; otherwise they never would have sat down to a repast so far from their boat, amongst people who the next Moment were to be their butcherers.[22]

On February 24, Kahura came to the ship with his extended family. The Tahitian translator Omai brought him into the cabin, and introduced him saying, “There is Kahourah, kill him!”[23] Ignoring this outburst, Cook used the translator to interview Kahura:

I desired him to ask the cheif why he had killed Captain Furneaux’s people, at this Question, he folded his arms hung down his head and looked like one caught in a trap; And I firmly believe [he expected] every moment to be his last, but was no sooner assured of his safety than he became cheerfull, yet he did not seem willing to answer the question that had been put to him till I had again and again assured him that he should not be hurt. Then he ventured to tell us …[24]

Kahura’s account tallied with what Cook had heard from others. Showing the scar he had from Rowe’s blade, Kahura admitted leading the fight against the sailors which got out of hand, and afterwards conducting a cannibal ceremony. He also related how Burney’s search party arrived the next day and their reaction at finding natives consuming remains of the missing men.[25] The chief added that no Maoris were hurt when Burney ordered his marines to fire.

Cook had now encountered Kahura three times, and declared he forgave the warrior. But most natives still expected him to avenge the massacre; “many of them seemed not only to wish it but surprized I did not”, Cook wrote, while the Resolution’s surgeon, Dr Anderson, noted afterwards, “several requested we would kill him” (Kahura).[26] The natives were not alone. There was talk among the jack tars of stringing up Kahura. It has been suggested by one historian that the midshipmen responded with a mock trial of a native dog, which they killed, cooked and ate; but, relying on a secondary source recorded sixty years later, this smacks of an old sea salt’s colourful yarn.[27] Nevertheless, the ships’ officers were divided on the matter, with Burney—who was now Clerke’s second-in-command—believing a formal execution was in order.[28] The opinion of the many was expressed that day by the Tahitian aboard, Omai:

seeing the chief unhurt, he said “Why do you not kill him? you tell me if a man kills another in England he is hanged for it, this man has killed ten and yet you will not kill him, tho’ a great many of his countrymen desire it and it would be very good.[29]

So, then and there, Cook set all to rest with an extraordinary gesture. Kahura had seen and admired a portrait of a Maori drawn in pen and ink by John Webber, the expedition’s artist. Cook suggested Kahura sit in the great cabin and allow a portrait to be made of him. This was a signal honour, and its symbolism was equally understood by crewmen and natives. The chief solemnly agreed:

[Kahura] sat till Mr Webber had finished it without the least restraint. I must confess I admired his courage, and was not a little pleased at the confidence he put in me. Perhaps in this he placed his whole safety, for I had always declared to those who solicited his death that I had always been a friend to them all and would continue so unless they gave me cause to act otherwise; as to what was past, I should think no more of it as it was some time since and done when I was not there[30]

With this portrait, James Cook silenced further talk of the massacre in Queen Charlotte Sound. All knew that, for him, the subject was closed.

Webber’s portrait of Kahura is now in the Dixson Collection at the State Library of New South Wales.[31] Made in pen and ink with touches of watercolour, the likeness is on a sheet of paper trimmed to measure 43.8 x 31.3 cm. It shows the warrior’s head and shoulders turned so he looks to the left. He wears a feathered cloak, pake and ear ornaments, his hair pulled into a top-knot with four upright feathers. The bearded Kahura has tattoos curling down from his left forehead into twisting whorls upon his nose which then flow back across his left cheek.

More than sixty of Webber’s works made during the voyage became illustrations in the atlas published as the official account of the third Pacific expedition. Despite the care taken with Kahura’s portrait, it was not selected for engraving as one of those plates. Yet a figure resembling him appears adjacent to Cook within one of Webber’s large careful compositions portraying normal Maori life in New Zealand. He is shown going about typical activities. There was a reason for portraying him this way which connects directly with the political climate.

Important scientific advances across many fields were made on each of Cook’s voyages, but a popular fixation with Joseph Banks, that unstoppable self-promoter, has blurred shifting emphases. The first expedition was the botanical voyage, the second was the meteorological voyage, while the third was the ethnographic voyage.[32] We can see this in the immense body of visual art produced on the expeditions. The ethnographic material and landscape studies alone fill three sizable volumes in the illustrated catalogue published by the scholars Rüdiger Joppien and Bernard Smith between 1985 and 1987.[33]

As for personnel who made this visual record, Sydney Parkinson (twenty-three years of age) on the first voyage was a talented botanical draftsman; William Hodges (twenty-eight) on the second voyage, former pupil of the landscapist Richard Wilson, was selected to record climatic differences and specifics of weather, particularly regional light; while John Webber (twenty-four) on the third voyage, who was adept at illustrating rustic life, put a capable hand to representing anything rural: animals, plants, natural settings, unlikely dwellings, country folk in ethnic costume. On the first voyage Alexander Buchan was to draw landscapes and natives but, an epileptic, he died four days after arriving in Tahiti.

If each of these professionals was intermittently called to work outside their specialisation, with mixed results, they were chiefly to observe and scientifically record in line with their skills. Parkinson assisted the Linnaean botanists Daniel Solander and Joseph Banks. Although he expired of dysentery late in the Endeavour voyage, Parkinson’s 955 botanical drawings made in the Pacific are deservedly much known, with the forensic depictions of plants setting a benchmark for later taxonomic art. (Solander’s assistant from the British Museum, Herman Spöring, made precise drawings of native artefacts and landscapes after Buchan died.[34])

Hodges worked on the Adventure under the naturalists Johann and Georg Forster—and to a lesser degree the astronomers William Wales and William Bayly—producing landscapes which prompted a transformation in geographic understanding. Intently studied by the young Alexander von Humboldt, they were a formative influence upon his researches into the earth’s climatic zones. Those visual studies not only mark the threshold to climate science; they spurred the shift in British landscape art away from formulaic Italianate scenery to observational views which conveyed the geographic character of place and its local light.[35] Constable, Cotman and their followers would have been very different painters if not for Hodges’s scientifically informed work in the Pacific.

John Webber, the third artist, answered to Cook. There were surely occasions when instructions were given by the Resolution’s surgeon William Anderson, who was, in effect, the expedition’s naturalist, but Cook was boss. He was more than ever aware that he was making contemporary history, and he was already planning a book on the third voyage before leaving London.[36] Distilled from his twelve years of exploration, this would be Cook’s authoritative statement on the Pacific and its diverse peoples, a response to Charles de Brosses, and a corrective to John Hawkesworth.[37] For it he needed an accurate visual record of natives and their daily life for use as illustrations. Daniel Solander recommended Webber to him.

The artists on all three expeditions made detailed drawings of native utensils, tools, musical instruments, weapons, fishing equipment, clothing, ornaments, tattoos, canoes and dwellings. What sets Webber apart is how, during the voyage, he used such information gathered in the field to work up paintings portraying the different Pacific peoples on location: Tasmanian Aborigines, New Zealand Maori, Polynesians in Tonga, Tahiti and Hawaii, Canadian Indians, Siberian Chukchi. In Imagining the Pacific (1992), his watershed study of how Cook’s voyages reshaped European thought, Bernard Smith points out:

No other artist before had been called upon to draw so many varied ethnic types. [Webber] is Europe’s first serious ethnographic artist and his work stands on the threshold of ethnography as science. It was his business not only to draw native peoples as such but also to distinguish as best he could the visual differences to be observed between one ethnic group and another. He was the first artist to make Europeans aware of the great variety of peoples who inhabited the Pacific.[38]

In ink and watercolour, those paintings show natives undertaking group activities, including fishing, hunting, cooking, using canoes, exercising, making music, dancing, performing rituals and, of course, meeting the European explorers. There is a significant omission: apart from his renowned picture The Death of Cook, the illustrations devised by the artist do not have native peoples involved in violence or hostilities. “Webber’s developed compositions constructed on the voyage and for the official publication seem to be saying the same thing,” Smith continues. “The people of the Pacific are indeed pacific people.”[39]

Most telling is the composition Captain Cook in Ship Cove, Queen Charlotte Sound of 1777. Now in London’s National Maritime Museum, the original is in pen and watercolour on a large sheet of paper measuring 60.7 x 98.5 cm. Webber made it aboard ship under Cook’s supervision. He used part of the Resolution’s cabin as a shared workspace with William Bligh, the expedition’s cartographer. So probably Anderson, Bligh and Clerke would have seen Webber develop the composition, perhaps giving feedback.

Captain Cook in Ship Cove, Queen Charlotte Sound shows a tranquil scene where New Zealand natives go about daily activities in a small village before thick forest. Twenty-five Maori figures of different ages appear in the composition. The right quarter of the picture opens out to a view of a sandy beach with the Discovery and Resolution at anchor in the distance. We see sailors tending a rowboat at the shore, while Captain Cook stands up a gentle slope at the edge of the village, shaking hands with a lean older Maori perhaps modelled on Matahoua (Cook’s friend “Pedro”). Two Europeans, presumably Clerke and Anderson, accompany Cook while just to the right of them a muscular Maori in a feathered cloak, whose head clearly resembles Kahura, is bearing a harpoon and walking from some canoes towards the native huts.

This scene is a fiction. It is not what occurred when Cook returned to the bay. His journal describes local Maoris as initially cautious about approaching Europeans when the ships had appeared. And the Maori dwellings on the foreshore were erected once cordial relations were re-established. Besides, Cook and Webber knew hongi, rubbing noses, was the method of formal greeting among Maoris, using this appropriately on voyages, not handshakes.[40]

Why then does the picture depart so significantly from truth? Bernard Smith suggests more than idealisation is involved: “Ethnographical information of great interest is being conveyed about the nature of the temporary habitations, the dress and adornment of the Maori, but it is conveyed within the framework of a potentially political message: Cook the friendly voyager meeting his old friends the Maori.”[41] The picture also resolves a troubling matter, given the depicted scene is near where Furneaux’s men were massacred then eaten by Kahura’s warriors. What Webber contrived is the image of an abundant, supportive land where Maori and European henceforth interact in friendship and concord. Peace now reigns.


HOW the British government used its navy overseas was a sensitive subject in the early 1770s. The political climate was positively turbulent as the American colonies agitated over parliamentary representation. The matter wouldn’t rest.

London was chewing on this deteriorating colonial situation when the Adventure sailed alone back along the south coast in 1774. Furneaux may have quit the Pacific mission before completion. He may also have lost ten crew members to cannibals. Yet he carried on board Omai, a native youth from the far side of the world. Taken under the wings of Joseph Banks and the Earl of Sandwich, the Tahitian was presented to the King and Queen, dined with fellows of the Royal Society, was paraded before dukes and bishops, posed for a flamboyant portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, rode in a fox hunt, went to a race meeting, to the opera, to musical recitals, to preening parties in the Vauxhall Gardens.[42] Fashionable society was abuzz from summer onward, jostling to meet the authentic noble savage as Banks and Lord Sandwich steered their trophy on a circuit of select introductions: “He had on a suit of Manchester velvet,” noted Fanny Burney, “Lined with lace satten, a Bag, lace Ruffles, & a very handsome sword which the King had given him … Omai appears in a new world like a man [who] had all his life studied the Graces.” His hands, she added, were “very much tatooed, but his face is not at all. He is by no means handsome, though I like his countenance.”[43]

Omai, a common Tahitian without tribal status, relished the attention. But his stagey bows, fractured English, forced manners and social gaffes—he greeted George III with the words, “How do King Tosh!”[44]—saw him viewed in some quarters as a giddy fool, the target for cruel fun. The grinning “savage” was merging right into “only the best company”, quipped Samuel Johnson, becoming so like the Irish macaroni Lord Mulgrave “that I was afraid to speak to either, lest I should mistake one for the other”.[45] Tellingly, Joseph Banks dropped Omai.

Then came a stinging broadside which appeared in print during 1775. It took the form of a fictional letter written in heroic couplets by an anonymous agitator. With an eye on the writings of Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, An Historical Epistle from Omiah to the Queen of Otaheite, being his Remarks on the English Nation followed in that Augustan tradition of planting sharp political criticism within literary satire. In deftly crafted verse a guileless traveller reports, like Lemuel Gulliver, upon the wonders he has witnessed in a strange land. This visitor is no less than Omai the Tahitian, and his letter about England—which intermittently borrows from the complaints of American colonists—is unsparing in its portrayal of a smug avarice:

Can Europe boast, with all her pilfer’d wealth,
A larger store of happiness, or health?
What then avail her thousand arts to gain
The store of every land and every main:
Whilst we, whom love’s more grateful joys enthrall,
Profess one art—to live without them all.[46]

Parliamentarians, the clergy, polite society are all targeted for mockery, and the writer takes a crack at a tangled, self-serving legal system (“Not rul’d like us on nature’s simple plan, / Here laws on laws perplex the dubious man”). Especially biting is a passage where, invoking both new voyages of exploration and the continuing slave trade, the Tahitian complains of purportedly high-minded nations which:

                … in cool blood premeditately go
To murder wretches whom they cannot know,
Urg’d by no injury, prompted by no ill
In forms they butcher, and by systems kill;
Cross o’er the seas, to ravage distant realms,
And ruin thousands worthier than themselves.[47]

 An Historical Epistle from Omiah was among a run of literary works on the South Seas that appeared in the 1770s, most evoking an idyllic Golden Age, some satirically barbed.[48] Denis Diderot even dabbled with this in his Supplément au voyage de Bougainville (1772), the supposed reflections of an old Tahitian distressed by French explorers. Yet in its cutting criticism of Georgian Britain, and suggestions of brutalities inflicted upon native populations, An Historical Epistle from Omiah was certainly noticed. James Cook was reputedly shown the mocking verse when he got back from the Pacific in July. And Lord Sandwich, the head of the navy, began to view Omai as a political embarrassment.[49]

This begs the question of how naval vessels were expected to function in the South Seas. Among the orders the Admiralty originally gave to Cook when the Endeavour had departed for Tahiti was a section on his conduct towards natives—a paragraph repeated in the Admiralty’s orders for his subsequent two Pacific voyages. It ran, in full:

You are likewise to observe the Genius, Temper, Disposition, and Number of the Natives and Inhabitants, where you find any; and to endeavour, by all proper means to cultivate a friendship with them; making them Presents of such Trinkets as you may have on board, and they may like best; inviting them to Traffick; and shewing them every Civility and Regard; but taking care nevertheless not to suffer yourself to be surprised by them …[50]

The president of the Royal Society and renowned Scottish astronomer James Douglas, the fourteenth Earl of Morton, also prepared a memorandum advising Cook on aspects of the Endeavour voyage. The Society was the sponsor for this pioneering scientific expedition, and the document embodied the ideals of the philosophers of the Enlightenment. For example, the instructions on how Cook should treat natives suggests the Royal Society considered Pacific exploration as a step towards building a universal brotherhood of mankind led by Europeans—this memorandum appears an early motivation for the overt fraternal tenor of the compositions made by John Webber, under Cook’s supervision, on the third Pacific expedition.[51] On hostile actions or violence from natives, Lord Morton advised:

Have it still in view that shedding the blood of those people is a crime of the highest nature:– They are human creatures, the work of the same omnipotent Author, under his care with the most polished European; perhaps less offensive, more entitled to favour … Therefore should they in a hostile manner oppose a landing, and kill some men in the attempt, even this would hardly justify firing among them, till every other gentle method had been tried. There are many ways to convince them of the Superiority of Europeans.[52]

Lofty principles may have sat well in the Royal Society’s rooms off Fleet Street, but how to apply them in the field? On his voyages Cook did not go out of his way to connect with unknown native communities. His journals indicate when people on land and huts were sighted as his ship made its way along a stretch of coast; and serious attention was given to smoke ashore, as it indicated how densely an area was populated. But there was no automatic attempt to stop and parley with natives. Landfall occurred as needed: to obtain water, food, fodder for the ship’s livestock, and to undertake nautical maintenance. The need for water forced the stop at Botany Bay. Frequent landings were unnecessary.

Still, Naval orders and Lord Morton’s instructions were clearly distilled into working methods used when dealing with Pacific natives. Cook was cautious if unknown groups and native crowds approached shore parties, or strangers in canoes paddled to his ship. Then come instances of armed hostility where natives threaten sailors with clubs or pikes, or hurl rocks, “darts” or spears. When a situation becomes dangerous a shot is fired in the air above the natives. With those in watercraft, failure to move off led to shots aimed at the canoe’s hull, affecting its buoyancy; while for shore encounters, small shot to “sting” them was fired at aggressors who didn’t withdraw (the equivalent of using rubber bullets today).

The rule was minimal response, aiming to cause least injury. However, where light shot did not repel hostile strangers on shore, as last resort Cook had marines use bullets, targeting a main aggressor. Johann and George Forster, the naturalists on the second expedition, were later critical of this and argued in print that it too easily led to bloodshed (mind you, Johann was often quick with his trigger finger). Excited natives greeting Cook might mistakenly be fired on. But it was through using firearms that Tiata, a Tahitian youth travelling on the Endeavour, was rescued when Maori warriors in a canoe grabbed and tried to make off with him.

Difficulties initiating trade recurred when the ships halted at new locations. The Europeans were keen to purchase fresh fish, fruits and meat. But most Pacific cultures were unfamiliar with trade, so natives mistook efforts to barter for a presentation of gifts. It was common for early attempted swaps to end with a native taking the cloth on offer while smilingly keeping the item the sailor desired. Systems were developed. Realising how Islanders prized red feathers, Cook later used them for barter across Polynesia. And in Monuka, Tonga, he would establish a temporary marketplace on a beach. Otherwise the travellers found the west coast of Canada to be the only place where trade was known, Indians being linked in an extended fur trading network. On his third expedition, Cook was disconcerted at how Canadian Indians expected payment for anything taken. If firewood was gathered, fodder cut for the livestock, or fresh water taken from a creek, local natives wanted compensation.

Cook issued guidelines for trade. He formally read these rules out to his crew, saying they must “endeavour by all proper means to cultivate a friendship with the Natives, by showing them every kind civility and regard”.[53] Officers supervised exchanges. Unauthorised barter incurred a flogging, as also did trading supplies from the ships’ stores, or swapping nails for anything other than fresh provisions. Animated arguments with a native might also incur the cat. Cook abhorred any effort to trick or exploit natives: “It has ever been a maxim with me to punish the least crimes of any of my people committed against these uncivilised Nations,” he wrote. “Their robbing us with impunity is by no means a sufficient reason why we should treat them in the same manner.”[54] This is why Cook formally noted a violation of direct instructions in the ship’s journal when Lieutenant Gore shot at a native over a trading dispute, Cook insisting, “[We] know how to Chastise Trifling faults like this without taking away their lives.”[55]

Cook had qualms about prostitution, realising women were often forced by male relatives or tribal chiefs to have sex with visitors. His crew was cleared of venereal diseases before leaving England, but sailors did pick up infections at foreign ports and on Pacific islands. After being alerted by Dr Anderson to several men contracting tropical yaws, Cook forbade them from further relations with native women on the third voyage. One jack tar disobeyed. He was humiliated, flogged, then confined to ship for the rest of its stay at the island.

There always were problems with theft in the South Seas. Polynesians tried to steal whatever took their fancy, from items of clothing to maritime hardware, even astronomical instruments. Younger males treated theft as a sport, stealing metal buttons and buckles from marines who dozed off when standing guard on deck at night. Unidentified Tahitians prised nails out of ships’ fittings on each visit there. All the officers became frustrated over thefts. When a Maori was caught making off with a half-hour glass timer used to calculate speed, filched from the helmsman’s binnacle on the Endeavour, the alarmed ship’s master Lieutenant Hicks had the offender flogged before tribe members. Thieving halted at that anchorage; but it had to be dealt with again at the next stopover.

Cook accepted thefts mostly with a stoic resignation. On one occasion at Tahiti when he spent the night in a tent, he placed his stockings beneath his pillow, believing them secure under his head. Upon waking the next morning, Cook was amused to find his stockings gone. Yet there were occasions when he lost patience. Later on his last voyage—when he was suffering seriously deteriorating health—in desperation he ordered hair and eyebrows shaved off Islanders caught stealing, then chunks sliced from their ears and lobes cut off. This shocked officers and regular sea hands, who worried their commander was behaving out of character. It didn’t bring thefts to an end, either.

Cook and more alert crew members kept out of disputes between natives. Rival tribal figures tried to enlist the officers’ support when Cook revisited Tahiti on his second voyage; and it was obvious power games were under way. Likewise Cook was careful in Hawaii. Any endorsement there would have potent cultural implications. In Polynesia, he rebuffed occasional requests for violent intervention. Seemingly peaceful natives would ask him to kill tribal adversaries. This distressed Cook on his last visit to Queen Charlotte Sound, when over ten days a sequence of affable Maoris pressed him to execute Kahura:

If I followed the advice of all our pretended friends I might have extirpated the whole race, for the people of each Hamlet or village by turns applyed to me to distroy the other, a very striking proof of the divided state in which they live.[56]

The peoples of New Zealand already had a reputation for aggression before Cook’s arrival. Abel Tasman, the Dutch navigator who came upon the South Island in 1642, naming this new land after a province in the Netherlands, had tried to instigate trade. He sent a small boat to barter cloth and other merchandise with the natives on shore. A Maori war canoe rammed it and four of the sailors were clubbed to death. Tasman had his two ships weigh anchor and leave without landing, whereupon eleven large native canoes crammed with warriors gave determined chase. Europeans henceforth avoided the islands for over a century.

Cook was determined to establish cordial relations with the Maori, although his initial efforts were a tragedy of misunderstandings. Natives were sighted soon after the Endeavour arrived at New Zealand in October 1769. Recognising them as armed warriors, the explorers were cautious; and firearms had to be resorted to several times in the first days.

On the second occasion, when Cook, Banks and Solander went ashore in the yawl, a Maori group appeared a short distance away and, waving clubs, performed a haka. There was no mistaking this war dance. Instead of withdrawing, Cook signalled for the pinnace with a squad of marines. They arrived, accompanied by the translator Tupia, the ship’s surgeon Dr Monkhouse, and the astronomer and computer Charles Green.[57] After words of greeting by Tupia, thirty of the warriors moved in close, although the Tahitian was apprehensive, warning Cook they were volatile. After accepting gifts offered, the natives tried to snatch away the Europeans’ bladed weapons. One seized Green’s hanger and refused to give it back, then other Maoris turned aggressive. The thief was shot, so the warriors rushed behind a rocky outcrop. Further efforts to parley were not tried.

That afternoon, when crossing a bay, Cook had his sailors row towards two native canoes, intending to come alongside and “by good treatment and presents endeavour to gain their friendship”.[58] The Maoris paddled away. Cook relates: “I order’d a Musquet to be fir’d over their Heads, thinking that this would either make them surrender or jump overboard; but here I was misstaken for they immidiately took to their arms or whatever they had in the boat and began to attack us.”[59] Guns were resorted to, and three Maoris were killed and another wounded: “I am aware that most humane men who have not experienced things of this nature will censure my conduct,” runs Cook’s troubled journal entry for October 10, “nor do I myself think that the reason I had for seizing upon [the canoe] will at all justify me, and had I thought they would make the least resistance I would not have come near them.”[60]

Three youths tried to swim off, but the sailors pulled them from the water. The natives were terrified that the strangers were cannibals. Taken aboard the Endeavour, they were given gifts, clothing, food, “and to the surprise of every body became at once as cheerful and as merry as if they had been with their own friends”.[61] This meeting proved decisive, as word spread of how kindly the young men were treated.

The next morning the trio pleaded not to be put ashore, saying warriors nearby might kill and eat them. Cook was sceptical, although cannibalism came up in conversation with other Maori groups encountered as the Endeavour moved along the coast. Then, near Waikawa Bay, Cook and Banks met with warriors who boasted of having just eaten enemies, showing them the bone from a forearm. That afternoon more natives approached in a canoe, including a woman with heavily scarred arms and thighs. It was explained she had done this to mourn her deceased husband, a victim of cannibalism. Two days later a shore party came upon gnawed human bones at a Maori fireplace. The next morning warriors paddled up in a canoe with four fresh heads of men they had killed and consumed, Banks obtaining one head in a barter. Then, on January 30, 1770, Cook watched as five newly widowed women scarred their own limbs—a customary mourning ritual when husbands were eaten by warrior rivals.

Back in London there was consternation when Cook and Banks recounted these incidents, because cannibalism did not fit with Europeans’ idealistic beliefs about Pacific peoples. On Cook’s next expedition the ship’s officers found the butchered corpse of a youth on a beach in Queen Charlotte Sound. Maoris had even fixed its raw heart to a canoe’s prow. For two nails, Lieutenant Pickersgill purchased the corpse’s head from a warrior, and brought it back to the Resolution intending to carry it to Britain as a scientific specimen. Then a native came aboard, saw the head, and there was gesturing; so Lieutenant Clerke cut away a dangling flap of cheek, roasted it using the galley’s grill, and the Maori avidly devoured the flesh. Cook suggested they offer him the entire head if cooked, which was done, and the warrior consumed the lot. This unsettled the tars, some deckhands vomiting, while the shocked Tahitian interpreter Oedidee rebuked the Maori for the practice. Cook noted it all in his journal for the sake of doubters. Cannibalism was now confirmed—little did he suspect that four weeks later ten crew from his expedition’s second vessel, the Adventure, would be massacred and eaten by warriors in a bay nearby.


PERCEPTIONS of James Cook are impeded by two competing cliches: the British worthy, and the evil white man. Each is a rhetorical trope employed for argument’s sake, although by converting this man into a cultural abstraction they omit revealing facts.

His ethnic identity, for example, had implications in a nation fixated with rank. Raised in the remote and rural North Riding, James Cook spoke with a pronounced Yorkshire accent. He also seems to have retained a northern vocabulary; so where most naval officers he mixed with used words like small, girl and children, he would have said wee, lass and bairns. It’s also likely that during youth he was called “Jamie” in his northern community, not the “Jack” or “Jim” used in the south. This may strike some as inconsequential, but it was significant. Being from the northern counties carried a stigma in Georgian Britain. To some extent it still does.

Young James was the second son of James Cook, a rural day labourer, and his wife Grace. They lived in a two-room thatched cottage at Marton-in-Cleveland, a hamlet overlooking the Tees River, about twelve miles upstream from the North Sea. Raising a family was a struggle. Not counting miscarriages, Grace Cook bore eight children, although five died in infancy or youth. James would be the sole surviving son. Childhood for this skinny red-haired youngster was circumscribed by the seasonal routines of beasts, crops and land. The family moved twice, both to slightly better cottages, which were surely linked with Cook senior advancing to better agricultural jobs. Then he was appointed a “hind” or farm foreman—indicating he could read and write—upon which the eleven-year-old James, who already knew his alphabet, was enrolled in the village school at Great Ayton. There the lad learnt the elements of reading, writing and arithmetic. What would be useful, not a scrap more; yet they were valued skills, and enabled this determined farm-boy later to teach himself much, and rise from his humble background.[62]

Features we associate with a privileged officer class are missing from this upbringing. Creature comforts were outside Cook’s experience; nor did he acquire Latin, Greek and that fluency in the Classics expected of future leaders and polished sophisticates. This surely explains the matter-of-factness of his journals, the direct prose, as well as the names he gave islands, hills, bays and straits.[63] Cook never used Classical phrases. Where a Louis de Bougainville might flamboyantly call an island La Nouvelle Cythera, invoking the mythical isle of love, in contrast Cook gave formal dedications (Cape Moreton), rewarded his crew (Pickersgill Island), applied visual resemblance (Mount Dromedary), marked incidents (Kidnappers Bay) or invoked the home country (New Caledonia).

At sixteen years of age James was apprenticed at a haberdashers-cum-grocery store in Staithes, a fishing village fifteen miles south. Shop assistant was a step up for the entire family, a move away from rural labour. But the lad’s change in circumstances coincided with events that would, at the very least, have concerned his father.

Ethnicity plays a role here, because Cook senior was a lowland Scot. He was born and raised in a sheep farming community near Kelso in the Tweed Dale. But he had left the border country and travelled along the coast to North Yorkshire in 1715. This corresponded with a Jacobite uprising when, after years of tension, the British throne passed to George of Hanover. Many Scots relocated after the rebels were defeated that year. They had to, given an adverse social and political climate. Worst affected were the rural poor, who could be abruptly displaced upon the seizure of a Jacobite laird’s property. Even language was affected. Tory, from the Gaelic market insult torai (robber), and Whig, from whiggamore (cattle driver), which both had recently drifted into parliamentary slang, now became embedded in common English. Was the timing of Cook senior’s move complete coincidence, or was there more? Certainly, he is part of a Scottish diaspora evident in the eighteenth century.

Thirty years later in summer 1745, even as young James started as an apprentice, another Jacobite uprising was under way. It culminated in the battle at Culloden the next April, where the atrocities committed in the Highlands by a victorious English army are legend: the terrain all the way to Inverness was littered with mutilated bodies not only of Scots combatants, but farm workers, cottagers, young mothers, children, anyone in the vicinity. Then came calculated reprisals. A hundred and twenty Scots were hanged, over a thousand were transported for life, hundreds more rotted away in prison, four Scots peers—Lords Kilmarnock, Cromarty, Lovat, Balmerino—were hauled to London for show trials, while the officers of the rebel Manchester Regiment were hanged, drawn and quartered before a cockney mob, their heads impaled on pikes at Temple Bar (two of the bleached skulls overlooked the Strand for decades, only falling off in the late 1770s). Across the north, rebels were pursued, their cottages torched, their livestock stolen, their land seized. Wearing tartan and speaking Gaelic were made illegal, Highland chieftains were disempowered, clans fractured, forced clearances commenced. A whole way of life was stamped out as Britain formed mechanisms for colonial control.

Biographers make much of young James Cook’s experiences as a shop assistant at Staithes; how in that fishing village his gift at mathematics emerged; how he met there and lined up a job with a prosperous coal-shipper—the decision that saw his nautical career begin.[64] Yet those biographers say nothing of the Scottish question which dominated English politics and journalism over the same months, finding poignant outlet in the popular ballad “The Tears of Scotland”.[65] This was a serious matter for the inhabitants of Staithes, because Scots refugees appeared in every harbour along that stretch of coast: Blyth, Tynemouth, Sunderland, Seaham, Hartlepool, Tees Bay, Whitby, so many more. Entire families were adrift, destitute and forlorn, some unable to understand English, seeking safety, harried by authority, driven to begging and petty crime. (Emily Bronte’s fictional character Heathcliff, a swarthy urchin of unkempt “gypsy aspect” found at a harbour side, who speaks a strange tongue and nurses an innate connectedness to wild moorlands, is a lingering echo of those refugee Scots.)

Was young James Cook, himself a child of the Scottish diaspora, in some way affected by these ethnic tensions? Those who met him throughout adulthood instantly registered his parentage: the lean taut frame, rich russet hair tied behind in a queue, the brune brows above piercing hazel eyes, those high Scots cheekbones. Did occurrences across northern coastal villages shape the apprentice who was about to switch retail trade for shipping? Did seeing those dispossessed, impoverished peoples at Staithes leave an impression on him? Like much about the navigator’s career, we have the record of his actions yet we cannot read his thoughts to understand the underlying motivations.


OPINION of historical figures like Cook is steadily sinking. This is evident nowadays among young people and those entering university. They get little history in school, and what they do pick up is tainted by obligatory social resentments. “White men must be demonised” seems a cardinal rule. Besides, young people assume their own era is highly sophisticated, and they will under-rate the complexity of those who lived in past times.

It is different when you teach cultural history, as I have done, students expecting imaginative and psychological depths to works of art studied, and related examples of literature or music. When tackling certain historical periods, one can detect among undergraduates an unstated belief in our supposed moral superiority. On such weeks I sometimes made mischief; when we grappled with English art of the eighteenth century I would set students unpicking William Hogarth’s Marriage á la Mode or Four Times of the Day, analysing the pictures’ Georgian wit. Some students delighted in Hogarth’s urbane cleverness which struck them as advanced, almost present-day. Towards that seminar’s end I would introduce this passage on the Maoris of New Zealand, saying it was penned just a decade after Hogarth’s death, inviting class discussion and asking for suggestions on its author:

we debauch their Morals already too prone to vice and we interduce among them wants and perhaps diseases which they never before knew and which serves only to disturb that happy tranquillity they and their fore Fathers had injoy’d. If anyone denies the truth of this assertion let him tell me what the Natives of the whole extent of America have gained by the commerce they have had with Europeans.[66]

That was written by James Cook. This was during his second stay at Queen Charlotte Sound, and he was musing over the natives he had befriended there, how in a short time the process of trade was visibly corrupting them and their culture. It distressed him deeply.

The passage always surprised my students. In its emphatic concern it challenged certainties they held not only about Europeans of the period, but James Cook in particular. A sensitivity was revealed here that struck students as modern and morally enlightened. The individual revealed in that passage doesn’t match perceptions now circulating. Decades ago the Marxist historian Bernard Smith noted that criticism of Cook repeatedly came from persons who vilify him in order to advance their own agendas.[67] Some make him a scapegoat for things he took no part in: witness how social justice warriors now blame Cook for European colonisation of the Pacific, although this would be like convicting Albert Einstein for nuclear weapons. We surely need to distinguish between the navigator—who was not an advocate of colonisation—and the culture that came after his death. Besides, in studying his pioneering expeditions we sometimes find Europeans did not always begin what they are accused of.

Take environmental degradation. Easter Island was a sorry place when Cook’s Resolution dropped anchor there in 1774. Natives had deforested the land over generations, so it no longer supported the lush jungle common on islands at that latitude. This loss of habitat, combined with native hunting, had led to the extinction of animal species unique to the island. Prehistoric migration caused many extinctions across the Pacific, as discussed by Jared Diamond in his best-selling Guns, Germs and Steel (1997). There used to be flightless birds throughout Polynesia, including the moa of New Zealand and the land geese of Hawaii. Native occupation saw them hunted out, while large seal populations also dwindled on settled islands.[68] The most widescale zoological extinctions occurred in Australia, where the arrival of humans from Asia sounded a death knell, especially for resident megafauna.[69]

The vanishing of native utopias, which are said to have existed before Cook’s voyages, is more slippery. In his watershed book Orientalism (1978), the intellectual foundation for identity politics, Edward Said pointed out how the Pacific has long acted as a screen on which the West projects its cultural fantasies. So the scientific expeditions of Louis de Bougainville and James Cook were conducted against an immense corpus of “travel literature, imaginary utopias, moral voyages … [and] innumerable speculations on giants, Patagonians, savages, natives and monsters”.[70] Those popular myths wouldn’t go away, as was evident when John Hawkesworth falsified information from recent Pacific exploration to reconfirm tales of idyllic societies and bizarre peoples in the South Seas. Mind you, Cook himself wasn’t above massaging material; as we have seen, he had the artist on the Resolution contrive paintings to give an idealised view of tribal life in the Pacific. So the puzzle should not be what happened to those utopias, but whether—as Edward Said and the postmodernists hold—they were and continue to be imaginative projections. Like Paul Gauguin’s painted visions of Polynesians dwelling in spiritual rhythm with a shimmering, wildly coloured landscape, current stories of lost native paradises represent the escapist dream of urbanised and increasingly high-tech Westerners.

What one also repeatedly notices when closely studying those expeditions is how James Cook made such an effort to establish cordial relations with Pacific peoples. Political activists today insinuate he and his crew ran amok in the South Seas like the hyper-masculine, hard-drinking soldiers of recent American action movies. However, the journals of naval officers and other travellers on Cook’s voyages show he took a dim view of swagger or aggression. Tars who stepped out of line were flogged, and midshipmen “sent before the mast” (that is demoted). As for contact with natives, he strove to assure them he came in peace; and when hostilities did occur, there followed efforts to effect a quick and constructive reconciliation. Grudges towards natives were not tolerated, crewmen being told to set aside grievances.

Cook’s visit to New Zealand on his third expedition deserves especial study, particularly how he acted towards chief Kahura. When they met, Cook was dignified and respectful to Kahura. He quietly listened as the warrior volunteered his account of what happened with Rowe’s shore party and admitted to the cannibalism. Then, far from seeking revenge, and punishing this ringleader for massacring and eating ten sailors, Cook publicly forgave the Maori. Putting violence behind them, Cook next honoured Kahura by directing John Webber to make the Maori’s portrait, thereby sealing a peaceful reconciliation with this feared warrior. The navigator and the native parted amicably when the Resolution set sail the next day.

With that remarkable meeting, and his public act of forgiveness, might we therefore say James Cook started the historical process of reconciliation? Certainly as a practical instance of reconciliation-in-action Cook offers here a valuable model for positive behaviour on indigenous issues. The peoples of Australia and New Zealand would do well to reflect upon it.

Dr Christopher Heathcote is the co-author with Professors Bernard Smith and Terry Smith of Australian Painting 1788-2000

[1] Sevilley is spelt Swilley in Lt Burney’s journal. Suzanne Rickard, Sailing with Cook: Inside the Private Journal of James Burney RN, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2015, p.117.

[2] J.C. Beaglehole (editor), The journals of Captain James Cook on his voyages of discovery, Hakluyt Society, Cambridge, 1968, vol 3, pt. 1, p.531.

[3] The thief made away with a chisel, the armourer’s tongs, and the lid of a storage cask for the ship’s salt supply. Beaglehole, journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 1, pp.529, 531, and pt. 2, p1359-60.

[4] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 1, p.535.

[5] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 1, pp.535 & 536.

[6] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 1, p.540.

[7] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 1, p.540.

[8] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 1, p.562.

[9] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 1, p.541, footnote.

[10] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 1, p.541, footnote.

[11] The envoy reported to Clerke that 25 natives had died in the violence of last three days.

[12] J.C. Beaglehole (editor), The journals of Captain James Cook on his voyages of discovery, Hakluyt Society, Cambridge, 1955, Vol. 2, p.577.

[13] This was after Cook’s second Pacific voyage, at a dinner given by Sir John Pringle on 2 April 1776. Boswell detailed the conversation for Samuel Johnson the following day, relating the liberties Hawkesworth had taken with Cook’s journal. James Boswell, Life of Johnson (1791), Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford, 1998, pp.722-3.

[14] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 1, p.59.

[15] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 1, p.59.

[16] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 1, p.59.

[17] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 1, p.60.

[18] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 1, p.61.

[19] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 1, p.61.

[20] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 1, p.63.

[21] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 1, p.63.

[22] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 1, p.64.

[23] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 1, p.64.

[24] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 1, p.64.

[25] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 1, pp.64-5.

[26] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 1, pp.64-5; Anderson’s note on Kahura after this meeting adds, “He is a stout active man and to appearance turbulent and mischievous, as all the inhabitants concurr’d in giving him a bad character…” Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 2, p.818.

[27] The brief account of the mocking trial is recounted in his 1838 memoirs published by George Home, a son of one of the Discovery’s former midshipman in 1777. It notes mdshp Edward Riou had obtained at New Zealand a native dog in a barter, intending to give the animal as a gift to his patron back in Britain. But, during a period of hunger, the other midshipmen held the trial then cooked and ate the dog. No date is given for the incident, or when it occurred in relation to Kahura’s visits to the ships; indeed, the massacre of Furneaux’s men is not mentioned. There is no corroborating source for this colourful story, nor, significantly, is it anywhere mentioned in the writings of Lt Burney who the midshipmen were serving under. Anne Salmond, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas, Allen Lane, London, 2003, pp.1-4, 312-7.

[28] If nearly a chapter is devoted to the massacre of the ten crew in the recent book on Burney’s travels with Cook published by the National Library of Australia, this later episode with Kahura is avoided and not mentioned in that work. See Rickard, Sailing with Cook, op. cit.

[29] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 1, p.68.

[30] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 1, p.69.

[31] Webber worked up from this an oil portrait, since lost. Bernard Smith, Imagining the Pacific: In the Wake of the Cook Voyages, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1992, p.211 and note.

[32] Bernard Smith, European Vision and the South Pacific (1960), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1989, ch.2, 3 & 4; also Smith, Imagining the Pacific, op.cit., p.193.

[33] Rüdiger Joppien and Bernard Smith, The Art of Captain Cook’s Voyages, Oxford University Press, Sydney, New Haven and London, 3 vols, 1985-7. There is a volume for each of Cook’s Pacific voyages, although volume three physically comprises two thick volumes.

[34] Herman Spöring was aboard the Endeavour as an assistant naturalist, and, carrying a set of watchmaker’s tools, maintained the expedition’s scientific instruments. If he had completed studies in medicine and surgery in Åbo then Stockholm, Spöring had initially worked as a watchmaker when he settled in London. After apparently meeting Solander through the Swedish Church, he joined the British Museum as an assistant, helping Solander sort the botanical component of the natural history collection into Lineaen order. Spöring’s technically-oriented drawings reveal a fascination with intricate interlocking geometric forms, as evident in a sequence of meticulous studies of Maori carvings. Edward Duyker, Nature’s Argonaut: Daniel Solander 1733-1782, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1998, p.81.

[35] Joppien & Smith, Art of Captain Cook’s Voyages, op.cit, vol.2; Smith, Imagining the Pacific, op.cit., ch.5.

[36] Smith, Imagining the Pacific, op.cit., p.181.

[37] James Cook owned a copy of Charles de Brosses’s Histoire des Navigations aux Terres Australes (1756) which he consulted intermittently on his voyages, checking information on Dutch and Hispanic explorers. Joseph Banks also had a copy among the books he carried on the Endeavour. De Brosses’s Histoire was a compendium of all known voyages in the South Seas. The author urged future navigators heading for the Pacific to take along natural historians and scientific illustrators to gather information. It was due to de Brosses that the geographic terms ‘Polynesia’ and ‘Australia’ gained broad use in the late 18th century.

[38] Smith, Imagining the Pacific, op.cit., p.181.

[39] Smith, Imagining the Pacific, op.cit., p.199.

[40] Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, op.cit, p.117.

[41] Smith, Imagining the Pacific, op.cit., p.204.

[42] Willam Hodges made an oil sketch of Omai from life for the surgeon John Hunter (it is now in collection of the Royal College of Surgeons) which seems the more accurate portrayal of the Tahitian we have. In comparison, Joshua Reynolds made a flattering observational drawing of Omai, followed this with a stagey oil portrait which treats the polynesian as a blend of Roman senator and Indian maharajah.. So there was, as Bernard Smith observes, a tension between the claims of science and the claims of artistic taste. See Smith, Imagining the Pacific, op.cit., p.175; Smith, European Vision, op.cit., pp.80-82, illus. pl.12.

[43] Charlotte Barrett ed. The Diary and Letters of Madame d’Arblay (Fanny Burney), Hurst & Blackett, London, 1854, vol. 1, p.370; Peter McNeill, Pretty Gentlemen: Macaroni Men and the Eighteenth Century Fashion World, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2018, p.97; Rickard, Sailing with Cook, op.cit., p.186. Introduced by Lt James Burney when they reached Britain, Omai subsequently spent much time with the family of the prominent musicologist Dr Charles Burney, father of the naval lieutenant and the writer Fanny Burney.

[44] Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, HarperPress, London, 2008, pp.51-2.

[45] Boswell, Life of Johnson, op.cit. p.723; see also 608. Within his circle of friends, Johnson referred to the Irish peer Baron Mulgrave as “the blockhead”.

[46] Smith, Imagining the Pacific, op.cit., p.202.

[47] Smith, Imagining the Pacific, op.cit., p.202.

[48] The playfully cheeky, if anonymous Transmigration of 1778, wonders about the sexual exploits of Banks and Solander in Tahiti. See Smith, European Vision and the South Pacific, op.cit., pp.46-51.

[49] Portraying the Tahitian as a noble savage, Salmond’s account of Omai in London is very positive and omits negative voices. However, it is apparent Omai had become a political embarrassment after eighteen months and Lord Sandwich definitely wanted him gone. Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, op.cit, p.293-302.

[50] quoted in Smith, Imagining the Pacific, op.cit., p.197.

[51] Smith, Imagining the Pacific, op.cit., pp.207-8.

[52] quoted in Smith, Imagining the Pacific, op.cit., p.207.

[53] Cook’s five articles governing trade between sailors and natives were taken down word for word by Lt Burney. See Burney, Private Journal, 16 Aug. 1773, quoted in Rickard, Sailing with Cook, op.cit., p.123.

[54] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 2, p.292.

[55] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 1, p.196.

[56] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 3, pt. 1, p.62.

[57] A civilian, Green was responsible for taking sightings of the sun, moon and planets then computing the Endeavour’s exact position each day. This involved complex calculations and enabled Cook to map the ocean with a high degree of accuracy. The navigator mentions in his Journal that Green had been training up the ship’s petty officers (who then included Charles Clerke and Richard Pickersgill) to undertake this demanding work in future.

[58] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 1, p.170.

[59] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 1, p.170.

[60] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 1, p.171.

[61] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 1, p.171.

[62] Geoffrey Blainey attributes Cook’s attitude to learning and self improvement to his Scottish enthnicity. Geoffrey Blainey, Captain Cook’s Epic Voyage: The Strange Quest for a Missing Continent, Penguin, Melbourne, 2020, pp.4-5.

[63] In the introduction to his book on his second Pacific voyage, Cook requested the reader excuse “inaccuracies of Style” because his prose is “the production of a man who has been constantly at sea from his youth and… he has had no opportunity of cultivating Letters.” James Cook, The Voyages of Captain James Cook, Vol. I, William Smith, London, 1842.

[64] The overarching biographers’ agenda is set by J.C. Beaglehole’s authoritative The Life of Captain James Cook (1974), most who have written on Cook in the fifty plus years since offering condensed versions of his account of the navigator’s life before the navy. Despite other merits, this is evident even in the most thorough biography of the last decade, Frank McLynn’s Captain Cook: Master of the Seas (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2011).

[65] Mourn, hapless Caledonia mourn

Thy banished peace, thy laurels torn!/ Thy sons, for valour long renowned,/ Lie slaughtered on their native ground;/ Thy hospitable roofs no more/ Invite the stranger to the door;/ In smoky ruins sunk they lie,/ The monuments of cruelty.

[66] Beaglehole, Journals of Cook, op.cit., vol. 2, pp.175.

[67] Smith, Imagining the Pacific, op.cit., p.239.

[68] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years, Chatto & Windus, London, 1997, p.59-60.

[69] Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, op. cit., pp.44, 110. 304 & 308. Of course, its common now to point an accusing finger at early British colonists for exterminating the Tasmanian Tiger, although Aboriginals had long before hunted out the animal on Australia’s mainland.

[70] Edward Said, Orientalism, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1978, p.117.

4 thoughts on “The Compassion of Captain James Cook

  • Harry Lee says:

    It seems this is the most likely turn of events:
    People emerged in East Africa, more or less. Then in various groups, some spread out and landed in various places around the Earth. Those who went to what is now known as Europe developed ways of engaging with reality, ways of organising themselves, and ways of explaining to themselves what life is all about that were and remain far superior than ways developed and not developed by all the other groups who went elsewhere. “Superior” in this sense is superior in terms of human flourishing, across the board. It seems that his superiority is partly due to the features of topography and more generally the geography and climate of Europe. Over the most recent 500 years, and esp since 1945, all the groups of people whose descendants went to places other than Europe have been mightily benefitted, nett nett, by the Europeans. But most of the non-Europeans, and many Europeans, are ignorant of this fact. Indeed, they are certainly not grateful for European beneficence. In fact, they are resentful and angry about it all, and demand ever-increasing transfers of unearned wealth and power to themselves into the bargain. And a lot of this idiocy, this determination to live as ignorant, parasitic ingrates, is promoted by an alliance of power-mongering European marxists and naive, ultra-ignorant idealists.
    The rest is history.

  • Stephen Due says:

    “Far from seeking revenge, and punishing this ringleader for massacring and eating ten sailors, Cook publicly forgave the Maori. Putting violence behind them, Cook next honoured Kahura…”
    What can be inferred from this? Kahura was in the wrong, Cook forgave him. In Australia, the British settlers were in the wrong, therefore the Aboriginals should_____? Now there’s something to look forward to!

  • Harry Lee says:

    Surrounded by savages, then and now. Current highly-dangerous situation created by naive and/or idiotic and/or malicious policies initiated by the Left, and largely continued by nominally non-Leftist govts.

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    In New Zealand it is generally considered impolite to refer to the cannibalism practiced by the ancestors of today’s Maoris. I wasn’t told about it at school 50 years ago, despite endless history lessons on the period, so I can’t imagine it is taught today. New Zealand has been undergoing a similar process to Australia in the sugarcoating of indigenous, pre-contact history, however as colonization of New Zealand really got underway 60 years later than Australia, the records are somewhat better, and whitewashing, if I can call it that, is rather more difficult. None the less there are certainly Kiwi Bruce Pascoes willing to give it a go. Perhaps the best example I can offer is Te Rauparaha, a Ngati Toa chief notorious for well documented cannibal feasts on the beach at Kapiti Island just north of Wellington, Kaiapoi and Akaroa near Christchurch during the musket wars of the 1820s and 1830s. While the Wikipedia page on Te Rauparaha tells us that he composed the haka the All Blacks chant before a test match, there is no mention of its performance during a cannibal feast at Kapiti in October 1830, or indeed of cannibalism at all. Perhaps it is too triggering for the general public to be aware they are listening to a chant by a cannibal. Perhaps, as suggested above, it is too impolite to mention the cannibalism of someone’s ancestor, or perhaps it just doesn’t suit the politics of those writing the history. Whatever the case, just like the journals of the early explorers of Australia, the New Zealand records tell one story while the local Bruce Pascoes tell another. I know who I believe.

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