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THE STORY OF CAPTAIN JAMES COOK

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    There is an old saying, ‘The sun never sets on the British Empire’ because it spanned its tentacles across the globe. But how did all this happen is indeed surprising? While going through world history one will find that the Europeans dared many sea voyages and overland journeys in the earlier centuries which resulted in their cross-globe explorations and discoveries. The first British explorer to make an overland journey to India was John Mildenhall in Circa 1560-1614 and the one who sailed to Australia all the way from England was ‘Captain James Cook’. Cook an eminent cartographer is one of the most popular names in Australian History. He circumnavigated the globe at the extreme southern latitude. He was described in the House of Lords as the first navigator of Europe. But the public opinion about Cook is competing and is divided because he spent only about forty days on the Australian shores. His two brief visits to Australia out of his voyages were in the years 1770 and 1773 to discover the South Pacific for signs of the postulated rich southern continent of Terra Australis were beginning to surface by then. During these visits, Cook and his crew carefully examined the coast and the waters of Australia. They collected in-depth information for the British Empire about the economic potential of the land and how the British ships could navigate the Australian coast. The Britishers did a similar thing when they landed in India in 1600 only to colonize her later. Cook and his crew members were the harbingers of the British Colonization of Australia. They were also the centuries of British influence in the Pacific more broadly.

    COOK’S PACIFIC VOYAGES:

    Cook’s three voyages of discovery in the Pacific in the 1770s marked a significant turning point in the history of Britain and the Pacific. Other Europeans, particularly the Spanish, had been crossing the Pacific Ocean since the 1500s, but largely for trade. However, it was Cook’s journey that signalled the advent of the British influence in the region, and the beginning of significant, ongoing disruption to the First Nations peoples (Indigenous people) and their lands.

    1768-1771 VOYAGE IN SHIP ENDEAVOUR

    The first Pacific voyage captained by James Cook had scientific and military goals. He was to observe and record the movement of the planet Venus across the sun from a location in the South Pacific so that the scientists could calculate the distance from the Earth to the sun. He was also instructed to fathom the sea depth and coastlines as a guide for future voyages. Cook was also supposed to look out for opportunities to expand the empire with the east coast of Australia in mind. The Endeavour observed the transit of Venus (also known as Earth’s “sister” or “twin”) from the islands of Tahiti located in the South Pacific in July 1769. Cook also mapped the north and south islands of Aotearoa New Zealand and the east coast of Australia. On his return home, Cook’s charts and journals were used to assert a claim against other colonial powers that Britain had lawfully taken possession of vast areas of Australia’s east.

1772-1775 VOYAGE IN SHIP NAMED RESOLUTION AND ADVENTURE:

    On his second voyage, Cook captained the HMS Resolution. He was accompanied by a companion-ship HMS Adventure, commanded by Tobias Furneaux. This time Cook aimed to further explore the far south of the Pacific to determine whether or not there is a major southern continent in the Antarctic region. Between them, the two ships made several forays into the south of the Antarctic Circle. The voyages included Tasmania, Aotearoa—New Zealand, Tahiti, Tonga, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Vanuatu (New Hebrides), New Caledonia and Norfolk Island.

1776-1780 VOYAGE IN SHIP NAMED RESOLUTION AND DISCOVERY:

    The focus of Cook’s third voyage which was his last was towards the North Pacific with the hope of finding a shipping route from the Atlantic to the Pacific – a ‘North-West Passage’. The journey went through the Kergueen/Kerguelen group of islands, Tasmania, Aotearoa—New Zealand, Tonga, Tahiti, Hawaii, Vancouver Island, Alaska and the Arctic Circle. From there the voyage headed back to Hawaii, where a dispute ended in Cook being killed along with 4 of his crew members and 16 Kanaka Maoli the native Hawaiians. A replacement captain then helmed the ship.

    The voyages gave the British government an overview of the layout of the entire Oceania region (Central and South Pacific Ocean) and a good understanding of their prospects for exploiting its lands and resources. This process of exploitation began soon after Cook’s third voyage, with various vessels soon setting sail to Australia, Tahiti, the southern oceans, the north coast of America and Aotearoa New Zealand to seek produce, hunt whales and establish settler colonies. Given the importance of Cook’s role on the voyages, he is considered a highly symbolic figure for First Nations communities of the Pacific.

ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER PEOPLES’ OBSERVATION OF COOK

    Aboriginal Australians first encountered Cook on 14 April 1770 when he sailed within the view of ‘Point Hicks’ in the East Gippsland region of Victoria, Australia. They immediately sent smoke signals of warning up the coast in the direction of the Endeavour’s travel.

CROSS-CULTURAL ENCOUNTERS

    Each of Cook’s voyages lasted three to four years. There were hundreds of meetings, understandings and conflicts between Cook and his crew and First Nations peoples and communities during these years.

    Captain Cook followed the coastlines closely to record shipping information and create charts. He made many stops at many Pacific Islands to refuel and restock food supplies. At times, he negotiated with First Nations peoples, exchanging European items such as metal tools in return for the use of local resources. If he met resistance to his visits or his requests for supplies, Cook and his crew forced their way through with a variety of weapons. He wrote in his diary:

    ‘We attempt to land in a peaceable manner, if this succeeds its well, if not we land nevertheless and maintain the footing we thus got by the superiority of our firearms, in what other light can they then at first look upon us but as invaders of the Country …’

    While Cook went on to say he wanted to be seen as a friendly visitor, in reality, he laid the groundwork for armed colonizers. However, many non-indigenous Australians resist the label of ‘invasion’ even today.

    Cook took heavy weaponry on his journeys.  If First Nations people impeded him during his journeys or his refuelling and at the stops to rest, Cook used small shots as a first warning, followed by a musket ball, or firing the great guns overhead to demonstrate the ship’s firepower. Only in the last resort would he allow his men to shoot to kill.’

SECRET INSTRUCTIONS

Before Cook set out on his first journey, the British Admiralty gave him secret instructions. They were both written and verbal. He was not allowed to read the written instructions until he had reached Tahiti and finished observing an important planetary event, the transit of Venus. Cook’s instructions were to head towards Australia and assess the east coast of the continent and its resources in all aspects: the beasts, fowls, fishes; the strata of the soil; for mines, minerals or valuable stones; trees, fruits and grains; and the number of natives and their genius, temper and disposition.

    The instructions also said, ‘With the Consent of the Natives take possession of convenient situations in the Country in the name of the King of Great Britain: Or: if you find the Country uninhabited take possession for his Majesty by setting up proper marks and inscriptions, as first discoverers and possessors.’

    Cook’s diaries of 1770 and 1773 show that he was a bit confused about his rejection by Aboriginals on the east coast and later Lutruwita (Tasmania). Cook failed to get the consent of the natives to enter the law and ceremony of the land. However, Cook went on to claim to the rest of the world that he had established ‘possession’ of the continent for the purposes of international law. He had broken Aboriginal laws and disregarded many of the existing rules of colonization. Millions of non-Indigenous people followed Cook’s footsteps, resulting in illegal land grabs and genocide. This is why Cook is remembered as ‘the original invader’ and a harbinger of the death of Aboriginal people and culture. In fact, to many First Nations people all over the Pacific, Cook remains a ‘Great White Evil.’

NAVIGATING EACH OTHER’S WORLDS

    During the first journey, Cook had some excellent luck. A remarkable Raiatean (an archipelago located in the South Pacific) man called Tupaia came aboard the Endeavour in Tahiti. He seemed very interested to join the journey. It turned out that Tupaia was a highly skilled navigator and was willing to share his extensive knowledge with Cook and Joseph Banks an English naturalist to translate his knowledge into at least two charts: ‘Tupaia’s Chart’, which showed the locations of 74 islands from the reference point of Tahiti, and ‘A chart of the Society Isles in the South Sea’.

    Tupaia was able to list all these islands despite not having visited all of them- his map was recorded as oral memory, the accumulated wisdom of generations of Pacific navigators. It is possible that Tupaia was interested in joining Cook’s journey as an opportunity to exercise his own knowledge.

    As Cook recorded in his diary: ‘I have before hinted that these people have an extensive knowledge of the islands situated in these seas.’ First Nations peoples of the Pacific were also able to predict the weather more accurately than Europeans at that time.

THE TURTLE STORY

    Each time Cook stopped to refuel and restock he relied on the generosity of the local people. He would typically stop at each place for at least a few weeks. At times his requests for wood, freshwater and vegetables pushed the limits of what local people had to spare. When it came to fishing, Cook and his crew generally helped themselves and they were keen to catch as much as possible. Towards the end of their stay in Guugu Yimithirr country, the Endeavour crew broke the law by catching too many turtles in the unseasoned period. Guugu Yimithirr community members tried to get the crew to hand some turtles back, but the crew resisted. The Guugu Yimithirr resisted by letting them know this was not okay by setting fire to parts of Cook’s onshore camp. Cook and Banks tried to save their equipment, and both of them fired their guns at the Guugu Yimithirr.

DEATH OF COOK

    Something similar happened in Hawaii too, leading to Cook’s death – an event that has been interpreted and re-interpreted many times by European historians and anthropologists. But why did this experienced traveller get stabbed to death late in his third journey is the question?

    Was it due to a misunderstanding by the Kanaka Maolis (The Native Hawaiians)? It’s possible that when Cook first arrived he might have been accommodated as a kind of religious figure because he accidentally turned up in the middle of an important religious festival (the Makahiki). However, Cook and his crew definitely overstayed their welcome and after enjoying lavish hospitality they returned too soon, needing to repair a broken mast and that created all the trouble.

IS COOK ALIVE OR DEAD

    Even though Cook definitely died in 1779, the strange thing is that the non-Aboriginal people in Australia seem to want to pretend that he lives on. Mudburra man Hobbles Danayarri an aboriginal lawman and community leader has noticed this, He says: ‘Aboriginal people all know that Captain Cook is dead. It’s the white people, European people, who don’t know that he’s dead, or who don’t accept that he’s dead, or who refuse to allow him to die because they still “follow his law”’.

    Maybe Cook’s Cottage is evidence of white Australia’s refusal to deal with these issues and to finally say goodbye to Cook – after all, the Cottage does have a life-sized statue of Cook standing in the back garden.

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By Kamlesh Tripathi

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https://kamleshsujata.wordpress.com

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