Written on board the Endeavour during his trip down under in 1770, James Cook’s journal records the beginning of Australia as we know it today.
Captain James Cook FRS RN (27 October 1728–14 February 1779) was an English explorer, navigator and cartographer. Cook made three voyages to the Pacific Ocean.
James Cook was the first European explorer to chart the east coast of Australia. Written on board the Endeavour during his 1770 trip, James Cook’s journal records his first impressions and traces the beginning of Australia as we know it today. He is presented in many Australian text books as a hero. In tracing his voyage around the world, writer Tony Horwitz discovered that to many Indigenous people he is seen as a villain:
Initially, I was drawn more to Cook’s voyages than to Cook himself. The man went everywhere: he touched every continent except Antarctica, and he only missed that by a hundred or so miles. In the past, writers have focused on Cook’s considerable maritime achievements as a navigator and mapmaker. But to me, the most compelling part of his story is what happened on land: the drama of 'first contact’ between Europeans and native peoples. Island after island, Cook and his men stepped off their ship with no idea whether they’d be greeted with embraces or arrows. They knew little or nothing of the cultures they were about to encounter, and islanders knew even less of them. Yet somehow they had to find a way to communicate, trade, and get along — and remarkably, for the most part they did.
But as I began to research the captain’s voyages, I became just as entranced by Cook the man. He was born in a mud hut in rural Yorkshire, the son of an illiterate day labourer: the very bottom of Britain’s class-bound, 18th-century society. Yet he broke free from this cramped world and went on to explore more of the earth’s surface than any person in history. He’s a British Abe Lincoln: a once-in-a-generation figure who comes out of nowhere to transform his world and ours. You have to wonder what drives a man like that, and much of my book is an attempt to understand Cook’s character …
Memory of Cook varies a great deal from country to country. In Tahiti, where the French seized control from the British 70 years after Cook’s voyages, he’s conveniently forgotten. In New Zealand and Australia, he’s seen as a 'founding father’ by some whites, while being reviled as an imperialist by many Maori and Aborigines. In Tonga, which has modelled itself on monarchial England, he’s remembered fondly: a turtle he gave to a Tongan king roamed the palace grounds until a few decades ago. In Hawaii, he’s widely despised, because American missionaries spread disparaging tales about his behavior on the islands. One Hawaiian activist has termed Cook a ‘syphilitic, tubercular racist’ and declared it a point of pride that the captain didn’t leave Hawaiian shores alive. So I had plenty of controversy to work with in writing this book.
The sad truth is that Cook’s discoveries paved the way for whalers, traders, colonialists, missionaries and others who dispossessed native peoples, destroyed their cultures and belief systems, and despoiled the environment. We have to recognize this, and do what we can to repair the damage done. But I don’t think we should dismiss and vilify Cook in the process. He didn’t set out to ravage the Pacific: his mission was to explore and understand, not exploit. And much of what he wrote was strikingly sensitive. Most explorers before him were brutal men: gold-mad conquistadors and buccaneers who regarded natives as heathen savages and thought nothing of slaughtering them.
Cook was open and tolerant, and willing to learn from unfamiliar cultures — he admired their non-materialism and their respect for the environment. I think this is instructive at a moment in time when we tend to regard foreign societies with fear, and in many cases, hostility.
From an interview with Tony Horwitz, author of Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before (2002).