James Cook is the greatest Englishman since Shakespeare. —Novelist and Cook expert, Graeme Lay
Honouring the great man
By Roger Childs
Captain James Cook is a hero. From humble beginnings he worked his way up, first in the merchant navy, and then the royal navy. He established a reputation in the late 1750s and early 1760s for his navigational and charting skills off the coast of eastern Canada. Later in 1766 he was appointed captain of the Endeavour and sailed for the Pacific to observe the transit of Venus in Tahiti. From there he followed secret instructions to search for the “great southern continent” and on 8 October 1769 Cook stepped ashore near modern Gisborne.
The date should be declared a national holiday. In Graeme Lay’s words, that occasion 250 years ago is the greatest event in our history.
Extraordinary achievements and a lasting legacy
You are … to observe the Genius, Temper, Disposition and Number of the Natives, if there be any and endeavour by all proper means to cultivate a Friendship and Alliance with them, making them presents of such Trifles as they may Value inviting them to Traffick, and Shewing them every kind of Civility and Regard; taking Care however not to suffer yourself to be surprised by them, but to be always upon your guard against any Accidents. Secret instructions to Captain Cook
This 1768-1771 voyage would be the first of three epic expeditions by Cook to the Pacific and in the process he would visit every continent on the planet. However, of all the places he visited it was New Zealand where he had his greatest impact.
In accordance with his instructions from the Admiralty, Cook showed the diverse peoples of the country, who varied in hair colour, stature and skin colour, the Civility and Regard they deserved. Unfortunately misunderstandings over ownership and theft in what Cook called Poverty Bay, led to the deaths of some natives, however, in other places good relations were established.
James Cook and botanist Joseph Banks collected hundreds of plant and bird specimens, introduced new animals and plants from England and their widely disseminated reports told the world about the nature and resources of New Zealand.
As a result of his explorations, the work of scientists on board, and the paintings of the official artists, notably Sydney Parkinson, the lands around the world’s biggest ocean became known to Europe and America. It was inevitable that in the South Pacific, as in other parts of the world beyond Europe, the exploitation of resources by white people, as well as settlement and governance, would follow.
A lasting legacy and salvation for Maori
The 1840 Treaty of Waitangi and western development saved Maori from possible extinction. The Treaty ended the endemic inter-tribal warfare which probably killed more than 40,000 in the first four decades of the nineteenth century. As a consequence, Maori women were freed from a life of insecurity where rape, abduction, slavery and murder following battles, were common.
The Treaty was not always honoured in the years following, however, ultimately Maori have benefitted hugely from the colonisation, economic development and social progress that were the consequences of Cook’s comprehensive reports on New Zealand.
A great man who had a huge impact
Cook’s arrival in New Zealand is unquestionably one of the most important events in our history. His charting or our shores and the reports, paintings and sketches from his three voyages set in train the modern development of the nation.
The 250th anniversary of the Endeavour coming to New Zealand is a milestone we should all commemorate with pride.
Furthermore, in future years we should celebrate the extraordinary James Cook with a holiday on the day he first set foot in this country.