Captain Cook’s “Discovery” 250 Years On

Hugh O’Neill

Captain James Cook (1728-1779) by Nathaniel Dance


Abridged from a lecture by Professor Bernard Smith (1916-2011)

The evil that men do lives after them, The good is oft interr’d within their bones.”
Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2

That’s one way to start isn’t it, but in Cook’s case it misses the point rather badly. Because his bones were not properly interred, they were carried around for over forty years in a reliquary bundle at Hawaii (at the carnival time of the god Lono, the time of the god’s harvest festival) as a sign that the god had returned, and a sign perhaps too that the god was now an Englishman.

In Cook’s case, both the good and evil aspects of his astounding achievements have been keenly debated since his death. Cook’s three Pacific voyages had immense consequences because they changed the world so radically that their good and evil consequences continue to be debated e.g. is modern industrial society a blessing or a curse? We enjoy the benefits even as we become increasingly apprehensive as to the costs. Cook was unquestionably a great formative agent in the creation of the modern world.

Amidst the collapse of the colonial empires, it is highly important that Cook and his achievements be seen and judged in a less Eurocentric fashion e.g. Cook discovered little in the way of new lands, that wherever he came he found people already settled for centuries, that his discoveries could even be described as a useful eighteenth-century English legal fiction. The peoples he encountered in the Pacific provided him, through trading, with the provisions essential for the successful prosecution of his ventures.

The discovery of the world is really a subject for pre-historians. Cook was not a discoverer of new lands in any fundamental sense. He was the highly successful and highly efficient leader of three scientific research teams, a communications man, instrumental in bringing a mixed bag of goods, ironware and syphilis, written language and centralised government, and much more, to the Pacific.

Cook helped to make the world one world – not an harmonious world as the men of the Enlightenment had so rashly hoped, but at least a more interdependent world. His ships began the process of making the world a global village.

Nor must Cook be viewed as an innocent agent of history. Already by the Second Voyage he was well aware that he was bringing evils as well as benefits to the Pacific. He became aware how the Polynesian desire for iron tools and nails, for example, was beginning to break down their traditional moral values – he grasped the connection between trading and syphilis.

He did what he could to minimise such evils but, as he knew, it was beyond him. Sometimes he could behave with great brutality – as when his boats were at risk, sometimes, as in the annexation of New Zealand and Australia, his desire for patriotic achievement may have exceeded his instructions.

Yet when his actions in the Pacific are assessed in both human and moral terms it can still be said that he behaved better than any who came from Europe before him and better than most who came after him to convert, trade and conquer; he was the leader remarkably able and successful scientific teams. For it was these men who provided Europe with its first intellectual and visual conceptions of the Pacific world. Furthermore it was these artists and scientists who were the first to realise that the problems and the significance of culture-contact would in the end become of greater importance than the imperial ambitions of possession and occupancy.

Cook’s voyages posed sharply the problems of living in a multi-cultural world. He did what he could to face the daunting problems of living in such a world. Today we are still learning to face the kinds of problems he had to face daily in the Pacific.


“The proper study of Mankind is Man”
Alexander Pope

Professor Smith (above) quoted Shakespeare’s eulogy for Caesar – the ultimate challenge to historians: to see beyond the constraints of our own cultural and political prejudices requires an attempt at self-awareness. Furthermore, we can apply different lenses (and mirrors) to examine the Human Conditions of past and present to think about hierarchies intrinsic to notions of culture, race and political systems.

Despite what Professor Smith says about God being an Englishman, Cook’s father was a Scottish farm labourer in Yorkshire (thus Cook had a chip on each shoulder). His father’s employer paid for Cook’s primary education, but thereafter, Cook was an autodidact, determined to better himself despite the obstacles of class and wealth. By diligent perseverance, Cook rose in the hierarchies of both Merchant and Royal Navies to be appointed leader of these global expeditions. Cook cared for his men, as evidenced by no deaths from scurvy, the plague of seafaring: he ‘tricked’ his crew into eating the anti-scorbotic Sauerkraut by saying it was reserved for the officers and gentlemen i.e. too good for sailors.

In general, Cook respected other cultures and their hierarchies; however, his draconian judgement, obsessive materialism and cultural insensibility (whether exacerbated by his physical or mental condition) led to his death. Before Hawaii, Cook had taken to punishing petty theft with the wanton destruction of canoes and homes, incarceration, flogging and the removal of ears. His attempt to take a king hostage against the return of one of the ship’s boats, led to the fatal confrontation on Kealakukea beach (14th Feb 1779). Cook’s crew responded by shooting 30 Hawaiians. The more lasting damage to the Hawaiians was sysphilis from subsequent European contact which (according to G W Bates’ 1854 estimate) reduced the population from 500,000 in 1779 to 90,000. Leprosy gained a foothold in the 1830’s.

Cook’s ‘discovery’ of Australia gave Britain a dumping ground for unwanted petty criminals. Those first settlers looked down upon the Aboriginal population (who had preceded them by some 65,000 years) and wiped-out the Tasmanian aborigine. When sugar plantations required cheap labour, aborigines were duly enslaved and people-trafficking (“Blackbirding”) became a profitable business throughout the Pacific. The same notions of racial superiority and entitlement which permitted such atrocitities still drives current Australian Foreign Policy to imprison refugees from Western Wars in offshore concentration camps, oblivious to international law. Pacific Islands have suffered the worst of colonial exploitation and their subsequent use as military bases or nuclear weapons testing grounds remains an abomination

Perhaps there were two sides to Cook’s character, which is indeed an all-too Human trait. Robert Burns’ “Man’s Inhumanity to Man, Makes countless thousands mourn!” was written in 1784, just 2 years before he almost embarked for a position on a Jamaican plantation. Can we not listen to those better angels of our nature? There is one such better angel who hails from Hawaii and wishes to bring the spirit of Aloha and respect for Mankind: Tulsi Gabbard is running for US Presidency in 2020, but her pacifism will lead to her destruction by the media, all owned by the masters of war.