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  • Captain James Cook


    Portrait of Captain James Cook.

    Captain James Cook’s three voyages of 1768-1780 were of unparalleled importance for the history of exploration, anthropology, natural history and empire.

    They marked a new epoch in contacts between Europeans and Indigenous peoples across the Pacific Islands and around the Pacific rim. Cook himself, the scientists who travelled with him, and many of his officers, were wide-ranging in their curiosity and self-conscious about the moral and political issues raised by voyaging and encounters with non-European peoples. Yet they took possession of many of the places they visited, some contacts were violent, and the consequences of the visits included the spread of venereal and other diseases. Native peoples today often regard Cook negatively, considering him the first of many invaders.

    Cook was born in Yorkshire in 1728. He sailed on merchant vessels until the 1750s when he joined the Royal Navy and became specialized in the arts of surveying. Work he did around Newfoundland set a new standard, and he was selected to command a voyage in the Endeavour to Tahiti, ostensibly to observe the Transit of Venus of 1769, but intended also to continue the longstanding search for a great southern continent. This first voyage was notable for the circumnavigation of both the north and south islands of New Zealand, and the mapping of the coast of eastern Australia. On returning to England, Cook presented his Admiralty superiors with a bold plan to establish once and for all whether any southern land existed. The second voyage of 1772-5 was notable not for the discovery of any continent — though Cook sailed further into Antarctic waters than anyone had before, and proved that there was no inhabitable landmass of any extent in far southern waters — but for cruises in the tropics which dramatically extended contacts with Pacific Islanders. The third voyage was designed to solve a further longstanding geographic question, of whether any Northwest Passage existed, that would have enabled a quicker sail from Europe to the markets of Asia. The findings were again negative — Bering Strait was probed but even at the height of summer ice blocked attempts to cross the seas above both the American and Asian continents — and the voyage overshadowed by Cook’s death in Hawaii in February 1779. Prior to this much-debated event, however, Cook had again visited Tahiti and Tonga for extended periods.

    The Cook voyages are important, not only for wider historical reasons, but because they brought back the first major collections of artifacts and art from Oceania. Indeed what were called ‘artificial curiosities’ became a focus of interest for many voyage participants, and hundreds of tremendously significant objects, ranging from images of gods and ancestors and ritual costumes to quotidian things such as baskets and fishing hooks. The resulting collections have complex histories and are today dispersed among many museums in Britain, Europe, north America, Australia and New Zealand. MAA holds approximately 10% (215 objects) of some 2000 in museums today, attributed on good evidence to the voyages.Spears collected by Captain Cook during his April 1770 visit to Botany Bay

    The Cambridge collection is especially important because much of it was collected by Cook himself, or at any rate was presented by him to John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792), First Lord of the Admiralty, a famously rakish character, and a great supporter of Cook. Sandwich in turn presented it to Trinity College, where he had been a student (1735-37); the College deposited the collection in the Museum in the early twentieth century.

    The collection includes, in addition to important pieces from across the Pacific, a rich range of Maori carved and woven objects, and four spears — three multi-pronged fishing spears, and one fighting one. These are of unique historic significance in that they were obtained in Botany Bay, within an hour of Cook’s first landing on the Australian coast, on the afternoon of 28 April 1770. They are the only objects known with certainty to have been collected from Australia during Cook’s first voyage, or any of his voyages, though the British Museum holds a shield (currently on display in the Enlightenment Gallery) which has long been believed to have been collected from Botany Bay on the same occasion. The spears, and less definitely the shield, are also the first Aboriginal objects known to have been collected by any European from Australia — though earlier Dutch mariners, and the English navigator William Dampier, visited the continent’s western and northern coasts, there is no record of them collecting artifacts and no evidence that any pieces in collections today date from their voyages.

    Further Reading

    J. C. Beaglehole (editor). The Journals of Captain James Cook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press/The Hakluyt Society, 1955-67.

    J. C. Beaglehole.The Life of Captain James Cook. London: Black, 1974

    Adrienne Kaeppler. Artificial Curiosities: An Exposition of Native Manufactures Collected on the Three Pacific Voyages of Captain James Cook, R.N. Honolulu: Bishop Museum, 1978.

    N. A. M. Rodger. The Insatiable Earl: A Life of John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich. London: HarperCollins, 1993.

    Anne Salmond. The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas. London: Penguin, 2003.

    Bernard Smith. European Vision and the South Pacific. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

    Nicholas Thomas. Discoveries: The Voyages of Captain Cook. London: Penguin, 2003.


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