Capt. James Cook was one of the greatest navigators of all time. Voyaging back and forth across the Pacific and the southern hemisphere - whose land masses had been the subject of hazy conjectures based on a smattering of known fact - Cook became the first to chart the coasts of New Zealand, much of Australia and many remote islands. By the time of his death at the hands of Hawaii natives , he had done more than win a unique reputation as a meticulous explorer: he had laid the foundations of Britain’s Pacific Empire.
Contemplating the profusion of plants and trees from their ship, The Endeavour, Captain James Cook and his expedition promptly named the place “Botany Bay”. They then noticed a party of natives cooking over a fire and ignoring the pale faced strangers. But when Cook attempted to land they threatened him with strange curved throwing sticks which returned to the thrower after striking the target. Cook eventually effected a landing some distance from the hostile natives and hoisted the Union Flag to claim the territory for Great Britain.
After three years sailing round the world, HMS Endeavour has come home. The crew of sailors and scientists under Captain James Cook, searching for the great southern continent visited Tahiti, discovered New Zealand and mapped the east coast of Australia, the first Europeans to see it.
They reached Tahiti via Cape Horn in April 1769. There they found an innocent Arcadia , the people the epitome of Jean-Jaques Rousseau’s ‘Noble Savage’ “upon the Whole” wrote Cook “These people seem to enjoy liberty in its fullest extent”.
When the crew sailed off three months later, leaving behind a respect for private property and several cases of venereal disease, the islanders begged them to stay. From Tahiti the Endeavour sailed south reaching New Zealand in September. Seven months later on 19th April 1770. They sighted Australia. The crew’s first hint of land had come three days earlier when they sighted a butterfly.
Cook made his way up the eastern coast to a natural anchorage “the country rose this morning in gentle sloping hills which have the appearance of the highest fertility, every hill seemed clothed with trees of no mean size” wrote Joseph Banks the ship’s chief scientist. So verdant was the coast line, the crew called the anchorage Botany Bay.
There is an inlet on the Pacific ocean, a few miles south of Sydney. Around its shores stands the apparatus of modern suburbia, factories, an oil refinery, broad streets, tidy bungalows, this is Botany Bay where Englishmen first set foot in Australia. Behind it the scorching horizons of the Australian bush stretch 3000 miles to the west. Beyond the ocean 1500 miles to the east stand the mountains of New Zealand. Today across both these lands of the Antipodes flags of the Commonwealth Associations fly, and beyond again are galaxies of islands, dots on the blue Pacific whose names speak links with England, Scotland and Ireland.
James Cook is one of the most closely documented figures of British History. He kept his own voluminous journals in which he objectively and modestly recorded his epic achievements.
He was born on October 27th, 1728 in the village of Marton in Yorkshire. His father had risen from farm hand to bailiff and the son had nothing of the sea, still less the far Pacific in his sober Yorkshire head. His early maritime experience was gained on the colliers steaming out of Whitby with their sturdy capacious holds and shallow draught journeying up and down the North Sea Coast of England. Off watch aboard his vessel, he supplemented practise with theory sweating ove rthe mathematics of navigation in the dim light of the crew’s quarters. Young Cook had ambitions beyond the life he led and the times were filled with interest and opportunity.
In effect a deep change was taking place in the balance of imperial power, the older, smaller nations, Portugal and Holland were dropping our of the race for maritime supremacy and a rivalry on a greater scale was appearing. France, gripped by a now eager expansionism was combining with the declining, but still massive empire of Spain to present a formidable challenge to England and her colonies. By 1755 the Royal Navy was mobilising again, the Press Gangs were combing the ports to kidnap young men for active service . Amid the rising excitement, Cook joined the navy as a volunteer “having a mind to try his fortune”. His timing was good. To his employers he showed much promise but promotion was slow since no man was eligible for a commission until he had served 6 years. However he was made master first of the Solebay, then of the Pembroke, a sixty four gun ship of the line. He was responsible for navigating and conning the ship. He was heavily involved in the capture of Quebec and surveying the treacherous reaches of the St. Lawrence River. He became a much consulted man; Wolfe himself, sought his advice. He was then commissioned to survey the Gulf of the St. Lawrence and also Newfoundland.
From very early times geographers had held, that the southern half of the world lay as a vast continent the size of Europe and Asia combined. Its existence seemed necessary to balance the weight of the land masses, of the northern hemisphere and was though to cover the whole southern surface of the earth and front onto all the adjacent oceans, the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Indian. But the people of antiquity believed they could never get there for it was an article of faith that anyone who sailed to the underside of the globe would be ‘fried’ by the tropical sun as he crossed the equator. Indeed in the early middle ages, Marco Polo’s text spoke of ‘a golden province to which come few foreigners because of the inhumanity of the people”. From the 16th century on, spasmodic reports from pioneers in the Pacific, seemed to imply that the great southern continent was more than a travellers legend. By the time of Cook’s youth the enthusiasm for the land mass of the south, fanned by increasing imperial competition, was reaching fever pitch. As yet the Pacific was too vast and too far from Europe for a systematic exploration but with the end of the seven years war in 1763, there was time and energy to set about the great ocean in earnest.
By 1766 the race was on and Samuel Wallis and Philip Carteret were searching for Terra Australis for Britain. The next year the ‘Chevalier de Bouganville’ followed for France. Carteret found Pitcairn Islands; both Wallis and de Bougainville rediscovered Tahiti and de Bouganville sighted North Eastern Australia.
In 1769 the celestial path of Venus would bring it between the Sun and the Earth. The Royal Society were very anxious, that this should be observed from several different points, including one in the Pacific and the Admiralty seizing the chance agreed to send a ship for the purpose. The Admiralty’s choice of leader for this expedition was Cook. Cook urged that he be given, not a warship, but a humble Whitby collier of the type he knew so well.
Since there was a perfect example of this type of ship lying in the Thames it was purchased , renamed Endeavour and fitted out to the specifications provided by Cook himself. But meanwhile, the Royal Society appointed a chief scientist for the trip, a young man called Joseph Banks. Between the rich, sporting youthful Banks an the level headed professional Cook, now a lieutenant, there was every reason for difference, but as it happened they became close professional colleagues and lifelong friends.
Cook’s precise instructions were drafted into two separate parts. The first dealt with the ‘transit of Venus’. He was to sail via Cape Horn to Tahiti, and there supervise the observations. Al this was for public consumption. The second part was secret. His business at Tahiti finished, he was ordered to head south for 1500 miles, at which latitude 40 degrees South, there is , his instructions read, reason to believe ‘a continent of land may be found’. He was there, to establish friendship and alliance with the inhabitants, and with their consent, possess the country in the King’s name. If he found no continent, he was to turn west and investigate the land known as New Zealand. He was to come home via the Horn or the Cape of Good Hope at his discretion.
The tiny 370 ton Endeavour was about to venture into an arena of a size and grandeur that still challenges comprehension. The Pacific stretched 10,000 miles from China to the Americas, and 9,000 miles between the wastes that from the approaches to both poles. Large areas of it are subject to almost perpetual equatorial calms; others to unceasing single directional wind; others to overwhelming hurricanes and typhoons. Majestic currents, sweeping for thousands of miles furrow its depths.
Three main races, of who's customs little was known, dominated the island necklaces; the brown skinned Polynesians, once masters of the sea who’s great canoe voyages carried them from Tahiti to Hawaii and established the Maoris of New Zealand; the darker Negroid Melanesians, mask wearers and head-hunters; the Micronesians of mixed Negro and Mongolian stock, with a strong infusion of Malay characteristics. Due to its extreme proximity from Europe, there were a great many unknowns about Australia and in search of the truth the Endeavour left Plymouth on August 25th 1768 with 94 men who would pit the reasoned outlook of the 18th century against a void of over one third of the earths surface.
After a stay of some seven weeks in Tahiti, for the purpose of doing scientific research and observing the astronomical event, involving an eclipse of the Sun by Venus, the Endeavour weighed anchor on July 13th and headed for the underside of the globe. As the Endeavour proceeded southward the journey yielded no land and the long swells told Cook there could be none for far ahead. Reaching the limit of his orders, latitude 40 , and mounting seas he turned west for Tasman’s New Zealand.
On October 7th 1769, after five more weeks of tumbling empty seas, a headland was sighted and was dubbed ‘Young Nick’s Head’ in honour of the junior sailor who first observed it. Slowly Cook circled New Zealand’s north island counter clockwise surveying and charting as he went. He could do little ashore for the Maoris were hostile. The moving through the Strait that now bears his name, Cook passed round the south island continuing his patient recording. After 6 months his circuit of New Zealand was complete and he knew it was not a continent. The British flag now flew over New Zealand and the crew were looking forward to a speedy return to England
A thousand miles of meticulous recording as he moved on up the coast, and then disaster struck as the Endeavour was caught in the Great Barrier Reef and ran aground. The crew were now longing to get home. Cook keeping a level head directed the operation of jettisoning all inessential equipment until the ship refloated and he put in for repairs at a convenient inlet. His ships carpenters did an excellent job in making the Endeavour seaworthy again. Cook was determined to solve the question of the Torres Strait.
He had revolutionised exploration. Till then it had been a storm-tossed adventure. He had turned it nto a controlled methodical science and when he at last sighted the English coast on July 10th 1771, his crew, although diminished by tropical disease still remained free from scurvy and Banks and his team had in their packing cases, 1300 new plants a massive contribution to the late 18th century explosion of information.
Land had been explored and claimed for Britain in the Antipodes but both Australia and New Zealand were primitive territories, not the great and perhaps highly developed continent of expectation.
Banks finding the place a naturalist’s paradise called it Botany Bay. The landscape around Cook delighted him “it can never be doubted that most sorts of grain, fruit, roots etc. would flourish were they once brought hither planted and cultivated, and here are provender for more cattle than can ever be brought into the country. It reminded him of Glamorgan shire and he named it New South Wales.
Tacking gingerly with boats out ahead among the fearsome reefs around Cape York, the northern most tip of Australia, he at length found open water. He had he said settled a doubtful point. Before sailing away, he held a little ceremony to take formal possession of Australia. The flag was ran up onshore to a brisk rattle of musketry. Then with parts of the ships bottom so worn that they were no thicker than the sole of a shoe, Cook limped into Jakarta for refit.