Monday, 15 June 2020

The ongoing Captain Cook korero

James Cook (1728-1779), painted by Nathaniel Dance-Holland [public domain]

The insanity has come to New Zealand. At the very time that the number of students studying history are showing a rapid decline, the politicising of history is on the way up.
So it starts with tearing down statues of slave traders and it ends with a school in Sussex ditching its plan to name one of its houses after JK Rowling because she has dared to criticise the cult of transgenderism. What a deranged week this has been. Statues toppled or defaced by middle-class mobs haughtily taking offence on behalf of all black people. Classic comedy shows erased from streaming services. People cancelled for wrongthink on everything from white privilege to genderfluidity. Anyone who thinks this has anything to do with George Floyd needs to give their head a shake. This is the zeitgeist of intolerance intensifying. Enough. Institutions under pressure to censor need to start showing some backbone [says Spiked's Brendan O'Neill], and the rest of us need to offer solidarity to all victims of the woke witch-hunt. Freedom depends on it.

No backbone was shown in Dunedin, where the owner of the Captain Cook pub -- where many a Flying Nun band got their start -- announced that it will be changing its name from The Captain Cook -- one of many reactions worldwide to Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in the United States. That link is as tenuous as the reason for the change: "For some people," said the owner, "Captain Cook is as offensive as a Nazi flag."

It's the owner's perfect right to change the name. It's our's to wonder how a death in the United States ends up with one of the Enlightenment's greatest explorers linked with the Nazi flag. A man who in "ten years, in three voyages of discovery of high risk and prodigious burden, ... achieved what surely ranks as one of the greatest expansions of the known world (superbly chronicled in J.C. Beaglehole’s edition of Cook’s journals)."
The other marker which emerges from the journals is Cook’s humanity.  For a man of initially-limited horizons and trammelled with great responsibility, Cook often showed keen understanding, a remarkably non-judgemental attitude and a willingness to see things from the other person’s point of view.  It made him a shrewd and scientific observer, and gave him a claim to fineness of character.
"Fineness of character." I recommend you read the entire post at that link, to consider whether equating this fine man with a foul flag says more about today's protests (and protestors) than it does about Cook and his achievements.

You would think from reading continuing media reports here about reactions to James Cook however that he did little more in his long life but come to New Zealand to commit "hara or atrocities" -- two words used recently on Radio New Zealand to discuss this man's contribution to history.

The commemoration last year of Cook's first visit here threw up the "worst" of what Cook allegedly did here. In October last year, RNZ recounted how an "expression of regret" on the part of the Crown is to be given, as part of the 250-year commemorations of Cook's arrival to these shores, to "leaders of Gisborne iwi." This is accompanied on the RNZ website (our "public broadcaster") by "related stories" with a headline "He Was a Barbarian," and another recounting how graffiti on a James Cook statue in Gisborne is "an act of activism that prompts debate about New Zealand's history" inciting a "hard but necessary korero.".

If this is a "debate" over Cook's legacy then, if this sort of media coverage were any sort of guide, it began as a very one-sided one -- and it has continued that way.

Acknowledge as you must that the killing of any innocent is a tragedy. And indeed that is just how Cook saw these five deaths, as we will see. But all such incidents happen within a context that, if our "korero" is to be an honest one, must be part of every account.

That First Encounter

It may surprise readers to learn that Cook was down here in the Pacific not to rape and pillage but to carry out astronomical measurements and, while down here, to explore the botany and geography and to map the coastline of this country -- a place of whom the rest of the world knew little about the inhabitants other than that four of Abel Tasman's crew had been killed by them in 1642. This being the main reason for Tasman spending little more time here, scarpering as soon as the slaughter started.

And as fearful as Cook's crew must have been of their imminent first encounter, imagine how it must have appeared to those on land:
To picture how those undreamed-of strangers must have appeared to the Maori, we must imagine what our reactions would be if we suffered a Martian invasion. According to one Maori chief, Te Horeta Taniwha, who as a small boy was present when Cook came to Mercury Bay, the Maori at first thought the white men were goblins and their ship a god. Eighty years later, the old man recalled their astonishment when one of the goblins pointed a walking-stick at a shag and, amidst thunder and lightning, the bird fell down dead. "There was one supreme man in that ship. We knew that was the lord of the whole by his perfect gentlemanly and noble demeanour.' [1]
A startling and wholly unexpected encounter for the locals! So how did this noble and gentlemanly figure oversee the death of (what is said to be) nine men at Poverty Bay? Recall that this was Cook's first encounter with a people of whom little was known other than a slaughter. He had come prepared, inviting on the voyage a friendly Tahitian called Tupia to help with interpretation. Cook's Endeavour arrived in Poverty Bay after first sighting East Cape two days earlier, anchoring "in a deep bay where it was hoped to find wood, water and fresh provisions."
The natives were numerous -- "a strong raw-boned, well-made active people..." as Cook described them -- and their speech was near enough to Tahitian for Tupia to be able to talk with them. Far from being friendly, however, they were insolent and aggressive, and showed little wish to trade. This was their first contact with white men, and they had yet to learn the chastening power of firearms. There were minor skirmishes ashore in which two Maori were killed and several wounded.
    When a fishing canoe came near the ship's boats Cook ordered those in it to be brought aboard, forcibly if need be, so that Tupia could explain to them the visitor's desire for peace and friendship. Not surprisingly the natives resisted. A volley was fired and four were killed. Cook's conscience about the affair was uneasy, and his excuse that otherwise he and his companions would have been "knocked on the head" must have sounded thin even to himself.
    [Ships Botanist Joseph] Banks was shocked. He wrote that it was the most disagreeable day his life had yet seen, and added: "Black be the mark for it." In their brief time ashore he and [his assistant] Solander collected a meagre forty plants, and they were glad to get away from the place. So was Cook. 
    He named it Poverty Bay, "because it afforded us no one thing we wanted," and the unhappy name has stuck. On its shores now stands the town of Gisborne. [2]
So now you have some wider context on which to judge this debate, and the beginning of some context to deduce whether commemorating Cook should be more celebration or commiseration.

An impression by naturalist Alexander Sporing of Endeavour's  1769 
encounter with the defiant occupants of a Maori war canoe,

Could It Have Been Better?

Could things have happened differently? Could that first encounter have been beeter? Of course -- as both Cook and Banks agreed at the time. Indeed, they had hoped fervently it would be so -- and in many later landings on this voyage it was so, especially as Cook discovered (as many rugby-playing nations have since discovered too) that, despite their obvious love of fighting, "the main purpose of the Maori [haka] was to demonstrate their courage by insulting the white man rather than actually to attack them."[3]

And it could have been a whole lot worse -- as it had been for those local inhabitants who had encountered Cortez in Mexico, Pizarro in Peru, or the Belgians in the Congo - or for those Maori who almost at the same time, encountered the likes of French sea captain Jean-Francois Marie De Surville -- or for the crew of Tobias Furneaux, or Marion du Fresne and his crew.

First contacts between two entirely unknown cultures invite trouble. There is no reason to believe Cook wished to kill anyone, and every reason to believe he intended only peace and fervently regretted what happened.

Cook's Legacy

If this is a debate, then let us make a case for this man and his legacy. He is much, much more than the cartoon figure appearing on NZ websites in recent days. To paraphrase George Reisman, "Those who do not understand the place of Cook have been intellectually barbarized by corrupt education."

Cook left New Zealand on this first voyage having observed a people mired in war, slavery and human sacrifice, yet still "deeply impressed with what he had seen of New Zeland and its people." [4]  With this voyage, and his mapping and reports -- and those of Banks and other scientists accompanying him on this voyage -- he left behind a people now connected, through the small amount of trade conducted and the great amounts to come, to the international division of labour. And with it Western Civilisation.

Whatever the accomplishments of Maori in their eight centuries here, what Cook and other explorers brought with them was this link to this wider accomplishment grafted out over many millennia. Over those millennia, savagery was steadily (if irregularly) diminished around the globe. As it has here in New Zealand.

This is not trivial. Without it, human progress on the scale we all now take for granted would not be possible.

To further paraphrase George Reisman,
Those who deny [this] demonstrate that they have not made the knowledge and values that constitute Western Civilization their own. They are self-confessed and self-made aliens living in the midst of Western Civilization yet preferring to all of the knowledge and values that constitute it, the meagre, primitive state of knowledge and values constituting the culture of “indigenous peoples,” who are at a level comparable to that of people who lived many thousands of years ago, with no knowledge of reading or writing, and hardly any knowledge of science, mathematics, philosophy, music, or art.
    Whoever, in the words of Ludwig von Mises, prefers life to death, health to disease, and wealth to poverty, is logically obliged to prefer Western Civilization and its offshoots of individual freedom and capitalism to all other civilisations and cultures that have ever existed.

'The Death of Cook,' 1785, by Francesco Bartolozzi, William Byrne, John Webber [public domain]

Correcting the Debate

Cook himself was killed at Kealakakua Bay, Hawaii, murdered by another misunderstanding, "sacrificed by the priests of Hawaii. They had made a living god of him and had then realised their error, and the only way to prove him mortal in the sight of the people was to kill him. Many great men have died for the same reason." [5] The man known as to Britons as "the ablest and most renowned navigator this or any other country has produced" was dead. It was said that on hearing the news "all Britain mourned,"
and not only Britain but her friends and her enemies and the whole western world. No-one could be sure how the people of his favourite island, Tahiti, would have reacted, for in their eyes he was a demi-god and presumably immportal ...
Cook was essentially a man of peace. He never commanded a ship of the line, and he never fought in a major naval engagement; yet apart from Nelson he remains today the most famous of all Britain's captains ... 
He was a natural leader of men, a peerless seaman and navigator, a superb cartographer, an acute and accurate observer, and the foremost explorer os his own age. He died knowing that his acheivements in three historic voyages made between 1768 and 1779 could never be surpassed or even again be equalled, for he had left comparatively little for others to do.
"It is almost impossible," say the authors of The Voyages of Captain Cook, "to overstate Cook's contribution to geographical knowledge":
On the negative side, he silenced forever those theorists ... who insisted that there must be a great southern continent to counterbalance the land mass of the northern hemisphere, and he disproveed the theory that there existed a practical north-west passage around the top of America...
    On the positive side, he discovered and charted much of the Pacific that we know today, from the west coast of Canada and the Hawaiian islands to New Caledonia; he established, by sailing around it, that New Zealand was no part of a mythical continent but two large, narrowly separated islands; he disproved the Dutch belief that "New Holland" was entirely barren by traversing the whole length of its fertile eastern coast, thus paving the way for British settlement there eighteen years later; and he confirmed that a strait separated New Guinea from what is now Australia.
    He did much more however. He pioneered and perfected the use of the chronometer to determine longitude, and so took a lot of the guesswork out of navigation. He showed by practical example how scurvy, the greatest single scourge of seafarers, could be controlle and conquered. He wrote simply and informatively about the places he visited and with humanity and insight about the people he met and how they lived. His accounts of his voyages, illustrated by the various artists who accompanied him, became best-selling books which not only broadened the knowledge and mental horizons of the many who read them but lent such apparent weight to the theories of Rousseau and other philosophers of teh back-tonature school that it took several decades of earnest missionary propaganda to tarnish the poppular image of the 'noble savage.' And as father of modern marine surveying he esatablished a tradition and fouded a line that extended through Vancouver, Bligh, Broughton, Flinders, Owen, Fitzroy and others far into the nineteenth century.
    It is remarkable enough that any one man could have achieved so much, but in Cook's case it is even more remarkable ... for he came into the world with no advantage at all save his own intelligence and will.[6]
He was a great man, an Enlightenment-era hero,  and a world-historical figure. That an apology is now possible for what he himself abundantly regretted in that first encounter is a measure of how the world and New Zealand's place in it has changed since then, not least because of him and the values he both represented and helped bring here.

And since we can all now share a similar sense of humour, here's Billy T. James' own reconstructions of those historic "first contacts" ...

[1] Keith Sinclair, A History of New Zealand (1991), p. 32-3
[2] Rex & Thea Rienits, The Voyages of Captain Cook (1968), p.43
[3] Ibid, p. 45
[4] Ibid, p. 50-51
[5] Ibid, p. 152
[6] Ibid, p. 12-14

[NB: This post is based on one made last year at the time of commemorations for Cook's first visit.]meaMeaw


  1. Tag,

    Sehr beeindruckend! Ist dies hiermit unter Dach und Fach?

    Mit freundlichen Grüßen,

    1. Liane. It would have been kind to have found a translator and posted your comment in English. I wonder why you didn't.

    2. Translation: Day,

      Very impressive! Is this herewith locked up?

      Sincerely yours

  2. That's the thing with Cancel Culture: everything is black and white, and ANY taint makes one entirely evil (I almost said "taint of black", but "taint of white" would be more appropriate here). Nuance is simply not allowed; either a person is a saint or is unmitigated evil. The idea that these are flesh-and-blood people, with admirable and deplorable qualities, is completely foreign to the thinking of the Left-wing rioters and statue-destroyers.

    What they never seem to ask themselves is: Why is unity so important that it's wroth sacrificing thinking to achieve? Riots, demonstrations, removal of public monuments are political actions; this implies that someone wants to weld these groups into a single voting block. Who, why, and at what cost are never considered.

  3. You cancel Cook, you have to cancel most all off the Maori culture Cook came across on his visits here. The slavery, the misogyny, the mystical ideology (no different than Western religious dogma), the incessant inter-tribal warfare, and all else which we now find abhorrent in other cultures.


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