CAPTAIN COOK - - ANTHROPOLOGIST
The mariner who mapped the Pacific
was also a keen observer of human nature.
J ames Cook was on his second Pacific Ocean voyage, anchored off New Zealand, when a Maori father brought his 10-year-old son onboard. Cook’s sailors had made much of the notion that the Maori people were trying to sell their children, and Cook presumed that this was the man’s intention. But it turned out the gesticulating father merely wanted a shirt for his son. Mulling over the incident later, the seasoned explorer wrote: “This story, though extreamly trifling in its self, will show how liable we are to mistake these peoples meaning and to ascribe to them customs they never knew even in thought.”
For more than two centuries, Cook has been hailed as one of the world’s great explorers. In three voyages from 1768 to 1779, Cook charted almost all of the North and South Pacific, ranging from Antarctica to the Bering Strait. He literally put Hawaii on the map and has been enshrined as a founding father of Australia and New Zealand. Yet Cook’s most lasting contribution was not the charts he so meticulously drew but rather his insights into the people he encountered along the way. He was a pioneer of globalization at a time when people around the world were just learning how big the globe is and were wondering about the morality of a world driven by commerce. “Cook actually got to know Tahitian and other Pacific people very well,” says Nicholas Thomas, an anthropologist and author of the 2003 reassessment Cook: The Extraordinary Voyages of Captain James Cook. “He worried about the impact of his voyages.”
SOCIAL SCIENCE . Indeed, the importance of these first encounters was lost on no one at the time, least of all Cook. The admiralty gave him explicit instruct-ions “to observe the Genius, Temper, Disposition and Number of the Natives,” with the aim of expanding British trade with them. That Cook did, puzzling over the behavior he saw and recording impressions that became more intrigued, and anthro-pological, as time went on. Indeed, for a man from rural English roots, Cook defended some shocking practices. “They eat their enemies slane in Battell,” Cook wrote of the Maoris. “This seems to come from custom and not from a savage disposission.”
Thus it’s more than a little sad that in recent years history has been revised to cast Cook not as a great explorer and observer but as the evil conqueror. Cook has been written out of the Australian national anthem and—much as with revisionism in American history—is characterized in museum exhibits there as an “invader.”
Cook’s own encounters with natives, despite his good intentions, were often marred by cultural misunderstandings. Maori warriors were not cowed by the Britons’ attempts to intimidate them by shooting their firearms, even when Cook’s men shot the Maoris dead. Australian aborigines ignored the beads and ribbons that the mariners strewed in their huts and made it clear that they wanted nothing more than to have the Europeans gone, now.
OUT OF SEASON. And the locals also had their own misunderstandings. ---- When Cook first arrived at the Hawaiian Islands, the Hawaiians honored him as an incarnation of the deity Lono. Cook departed a hero, but when he returned to repair his ship it was the wrong season for a Lono visitation, and he was met with suspicion. When the Hawaiians stole a boat, Cook attempted to force its return by taking a high-ranking chief hostage, a strategy he had successfully employed on other Pacific islands. But the Hawaiians reacted differently, attacking Cook’s party in a melee that ended in Cook’s murder on a beach 225 years ago, on Feb. 14, 1779.
Cook’s tragic end belies the care he took throughout his voyages to protect local people from the worst effects of encountering Europeans. He tried time and again to bar sailors with venereal diseases from contact with local women, and he was alarmed to discover that despite his efforts his men had infected Maori women. Even more disturbing was his discovery in New Zealand’s Queen Charlotte Sound. On his ship’s first visit there, the Maori men seemed indifferent to the fact that some Maori women had sex with sailors. But on the second visit, the Maori men were forcing women to copulate with the foreigners. This was hardly the sort of trade with natives that the admiralty had envisioned. “Now we find the men are the chief promoters of this vice,” Cook wrote in his journal, “and for a spike nail or any other thing they value will oblige their wives and daughters to prostitute themselves whether they will or no.” Cook continues, in words realms removed from that of a Yorkshire farm boy : “Such are the consequences of a commerce with Europeans and what is still more to our Shame civilized Christians, we debauch their morals already too prone to vice and we introduce among them wants and perhaps diseases which they never before knew and which serves only to disturb that happy tranquillity they and their fore Fathers had enjoy’d. If any one denies the truth of this assertion let him tell me what the natives of the whole extent of America have gained by the commerce they have had with Europeans.”
U. S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT
February 23 / March 1, 2004. (pgs. 73-4)
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