Captain Cook (Part 2)

After observing the transit of Venus across the sun in Tahiti, Lieutenant Cook sailed the Endeavor south as ordered to look for the lost continent, Terra Australis. It was during this exploration that Cook first discovered New Zealand, interacted with its indigenous people, the Maori, circumnavigated the islands, and literally put New Zealand on the map for the Europeans.

However, initially for some seven weeks after leaving Tahiti, no land was sighted. Cook offered a gallon of rum to the first man to sight land and that “that part of the coast of the said land should be named after him.” Finally land was sighted from high up on the masthead by a 12-year old boy, Nick Young. True to his word, Cook named the promontory Young Nicks Head. This was on October 6, 1769 and a few days later the Endeavour anchored on the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand in what was to be called Poverty Bay, at the entrance to the Turanganui River assuming that the long lost southern continent had at last been found.

The initial meeting between Cook and the Maori did not go well with a Maori man being killed within an hour of the British landing. A stand-off then occurred. Lieutenant John Gore described the first haka:

About an hundred of the Natives all Arm’d came down on the opposite side of the Salt River, drew themselves up in lines. Then with a Regular Jump from Left to Right and the Reverse, They brandish’d Their Weapons, distort’d their Mouths, Lolling out their Tongues, and Turn’d up the Whites of their Eyes Accompanied with a strong hoarse song. Calculated in my opinion to Chear Each Other and Intimidate their Enemies, and may be call’d perhaps with propriety A Dancing War Song.

This initial tense situation ended in a surprising way. While in Tahiti, Cook had invited aboard his ship a Polynesian priest and navigator named Tupaia. Tupaia was able to call out to the armed Maori men who “perfectly understood him” defusing the volatile situation.

This is remarkable in that the Maori people had not met an outside Polynesian for hundreds or even 1000 years, but they were able to understand what was said, providing evidence of their ties with Polynesia.  The Europeans also noted that the Maori cooked in earth ovens and that the convoluted spiral facial tattoos or moko of the Maori shared similarities with the Tahitian puncturing and tattoos they had seen thousands of ocean miles away.

Portrait of a Maori Chief, Sydney Parkinson, 1769 (1)

Portrait of a Maori Chief,
Sydney Parkinson, 1769 (1)

Cook changed his tactics. He kidnapped several Maori, brought them onto the Endeavor and showered them with gifts and food, then released them to shore where he hoped they would speak with favor of the visitors to the others. While this served to somewhat ease tensions and allow some future trading, Cook’s interactions with the Maori remained difficult. Cook ended up naming the place Poverty Bay ‘because it afforded us no one thing that we wanted’ including an initial peaceful interaction with the indigenous people.

Over the next month, similar tense interactions occurred with Maori in other locations, with Maori often attempting to steal or take items without trading, and Cook and his crew responding with shows of force often resulting in further deaths. In a later encounter, evidence was found of Maori cannibalism. For what it is worth, one Maori justified it by claiming that they only eat their enemies.

After leaving Poverty Bay, Cook then sailed briefly south then back north rounding the tip of North Island and then sailed down its west coast. He then sailed through Cook Strait, which separates the two islands and is named in his honor, and back to where he had started some months earlier definitively establishing that the North Island of New Zealand was an island. Similarly he sailed down the east coast of the South Island rounding its southern tip and circumnavigating it.

It is stunning how accurate the map was that Cook made of New Zealand.

The map Cook made of New Zealand, 1770

The map Cook made of New Zealand, 1770

All in all, Cook’s interactions with the Maori remain mixed; despite conflicts in some locales, in others trading and mutual cooperation occurred. Although some might disagree, Cook showed remarkable forbearance and restraint in his dealings with the Maori particularly compared to other explorers during his time. Indeed, guidelines given to Cook and his crew from the Admiralty included the following:

To exercise the utmost patience and forbearance with respect to the natives of the several lands where the ship may touch.

To check the petulance of the sailors, and restrain the wanton use of firearms.

To 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, equally under his care with the most polished Europeans; perhaps being less offensive, more entitled to his favor.

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 has been tried.

Cook was also instructed that any natives were to be regarded as ‘the natural, and … legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit’.

With regards the Maori, they reacted according to their own beliefs and culture and in the way anyone might when strange visitors with unknown intent arrive on one’s lands from afar.

Cook spent some six months charting and exploring New Zealand and claimed both the islands for England. During all this time, Joseph Banks and the other naturalists collected numerous specimens of the unique flora and fauna of New Zealand which they would bring back to England.

On April 1, 1770 Cook bid New Zealand farewell giving the name Cape Farewell to the last visible spit of land.

Cape Farewell on northern tip of the South Island

Cape Farewell on northern tip of the South Island

He then sailed west reaching the east coast of Australia, which at that time was called New Holland, making landfall in what is now known as Botany Bay. Later the Endeavor was badly damaged on the Great Barrier Reef and had to be beached on the Australian coast for several weeks for repairs.

During the entire voyage Cook had been assiduous in demanding his crew eat antiscorbutic (preventing scurvy) foods and had not lost a man to scurvy which was up until then the scourge of long sea voyages often killing more than 50% of a crew. However after leaving Australia, the Endeavor sailed for Batavia (Jakarta) where the crew became plagued with disease primarily dysentery and malaria and a great number died including Tupaia, the Tahitian priest, and Sydney Parkinson, the painter. The Endeavor returned to England on July 12, 1771. Cook’s first voyage had lasted almost three years. The Admiralty was pleased. New lands had been discovered and England’s dominance in the Pacific had been expanded, and later both Cook’s and Banks’ journals of the voyage would become bestsellers among the public.

(to be continued)

1) By Parkinson, Sydney, 1745-1771. Parkinson was the artist on Captain Cook’s 1st voyage to New Zealand in 1769. From: Parkinson, Sydney. A journal of a voyage to the South Seas. London, 1784, plate 16, opposite page 90. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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