To New Zealand and Back with Captain Cook

9781108070508fc3d‘There’s something BIG up there!’ ‘Can it really have snow on it? It’s the middle of the summer!’ ‘It’ turned out to be Mount Tapuae-o-Uenuku (over 2800 m), looming over the coast and the rest of the Kaikoura Ranges, still covered in snow in midsummer. The two awestruck Pommie tourists could have been James Cook and Joseph Banks on the Endeavour, sailing down the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island 240 years earlier, when the only sheep were on board the ship, not on the mountain slopes.

The Kaikoura mountains

The Kaikoura mountains

Wednesday 14 February 1770.   ‘We had run 21 leagues … which brought us abreast of the high Snowy mountain, it bearing from us N.W. in this direction. It lay behind a Mountainous ridge of nearly the same height, which riseth directly from the Sea, and runs Parrallel (sic) with the Shore… These mountains are distinctly seen both from Cape Koamaroo and Cape Palliser, but they are of a height sufficient to be seen at a much greater distance.’

9781108070508_CaptainCookCaptain Cook’s Journal  of his first voyage, during which he observed the Transit of Venus, mapped the coast of New Zealand, and landed at Botany Bay, was published in its complete form only in 1893, more than 100 years after his death. A number of accounts of this voyage did appear in print before the end of the eighteenth century, and the first biography of Cook, by Andrew Kippis, was published in 1788. Parts of Cook’s journal had been incorporated in a rather problematic 1773 book edited by John Hawkesworth. This work was in fact an amalgam of the journals of Cook, Banks, and the botanist Solander, liberally laced with additional material by the editor.

The map in Wharton's edition of the Journal

The map in Wharton’s edition of the Journal

In his preface to his 1893 ‘literal transcription of the original mss’ by Cook, William James Lloyd Wharton evaluated Hawkesworth’s work as follows: ‘What could be better than to combine these accounts, and make up a complete narrative from them all? The result, however, according to our nineteenth-century ideas, was not altogether happy. Dr Hawkesworth … managed to impose his own ponderous style upon many of the extracts from the united Journals; and moreover, as they are all jumbled together, the whole being put into Cook’s mouth, it is impossible to know whether we are reading Cook, Banks, Solander, or Hawkesworth himself.’ As a sales pitch setting out the need for a new edition, this is pretty persuasive stuff!

Wharton goes on to explain that captains normally forwarded a copy of their journal to the Admiralty every six months, but that Cook was in such remote seas that two and a half years went by before he had a chance of sending his duplicate home from Batavia (now Jakarta). How this contrasts with the situation of today’s travellers! My son recently spent six months cycling round the South Island of New Zealand, but I was able to follow his blog and chart his progress, if not day by day, at least week by week. I often wondered how the mothers of young sailors felt, back in the eighteenth century. But I digress.

When Cook arrived back in England, he deposited a complete manuscript of the Journal at the Admiralty. According to Wharton, the incomplete copy Cook had sent ahead was kept by a Secretary of the Admiralty and eventually sold on by his descendants, ending up with a Mr Corner, who was keen to see it published. The complete copy at the Admiralty was absent for several years ‘in some unexplained manner’ but was eventually recovered, and was Wharton’s source of the last portion of the edition, from 23 October 1770. A third copy, also incomplete, ended up in the possession of Queen Victoria. But all of these were copied by professional clerks, and Wharton did not know whether Cook’s original had survived. In fact, it turned up in the early twentieth century, and was acquired by the Australian National Library in 1923 for £5,000; you can read the story here: as well as seeing a photographs here (the NLA also holds Bligh’s notebook kept after the mutiny on the Bounty).

Cook’s journal is often quite terse. It gives summaries of the ship’s position and the weather conditions each day (full details would be in the log), and brief but fascinating vignettes of life on board: loading provisions of ‘beef and greens’, carrying out repairs and maintenance, punishments (lashing or ‘confinement’) for misdemeanours ranging from disobeying orders to stealing rum or pilfering nails, to ‘refusing to take their allowance of fresh beef’, and, inevitably, accidental deaths.

At times, Cook is much more expansive. Famed for keeping his crew healthy throughout the long voyage, on Thursday 13 April 1769 he reveals how he persuaded the sailors to eat their ‘Sour Kroutt’ by ‘… a method I never once knew to fail with seamen: this was to have some of it dressed every day for the Cabin Table, and permitted all the Officers, without exception, to make use of it, and left it to the Option of the men either to take as much as they pleased or none at all; but this practice was not continued above a week before I found it necessary to put every one on board to an allowance … the moment they see their superiors set a value upon it, it becomes the finest stuff in the world, and the inventor a honest fellow.’

There is more to describe when the ships put in to shore: interactions both friendly and hostile with indigenous peoples, and their agriculture, diet and customs.

New Zealand war canoe

New Zealand war canoe

At Botany Bay (so called because Banks and Solander found so many fascinating plants), Cook observed the Aborigines harvesting shellfish in small groups. He seems particularly entranced by the bird of Australia: 6 May 1770 ‘In the Wood are a variety of very beautiful birds, such as Cocatoos, Lorryquets, Parrots, etc.’

Australian finches, from Saville-Kent's 'The Naturalist in Australia'

Australian finches, from Saville-Kent’s ‘The Naturalist in Australia

By contrast, a few months later he experienced the ‘Truly Terrible Situation’ of facing almost certain shipwreck on the Barrier Reef: on Thursday 16 August 1770 Cook records windless conditions, water too deep to anchor in, and the waves carrying his ship towards ‘Vast foaming breakers … not a mile from us … All the dangers we had escaped were little in comparison of being thrown upon this reef, where the Ship must be dashed to pieces in a Moment. A reef such as one speaks of here is Scarcely known in Europe. It is a Wall of Coral Rock rising almost perpendicular out of the unfathomable Ocean, always overflown at high Water generally 7 or 8 feet, and dry in places at Low Water. The Large Waves of the Vast Ocean meeting with so sudden a resistance makes a most Terrible Surf, breaking Mountains high…’ Cook finishes by reflecting ‘Was it not from the pleasure which Naturly [sic] results to a man from his being the first discoverer … this kind of Service would be insupportable, especially in far distant parts like this, short of Provisions and almost every other necessary.’

It took Cook another year to get back to England. Wednesday 10 July 1771: ‘Pleasant breezes and Clear weather. At 6 o’clock in the Morning sounded, and Struck ground in 60 fathoms Shells and Stones, by which I judged we were the length of Scilly Isles. At Noon we saw land from the Mast Head, bearing N., which we judged to be about Land’s End.’ A postscript to the Journal outlines the best way of approaching further discoveries in the South Sea. It also identifies two ships reported to have visited Tahiti about a year before Cook’s arrival there as Bougainville’s expedition that had left Europe two years before Cook. Strangely enough, Tasman, Bougainville, and La Pérouse did not feature among the narratives of the South Sea explorers that we were taught at primary school. But, more of them another time.


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2 Responses to To New Zealand and Back with Captain Cook

  1. Pingback: Captain Cook Was Here! | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

  2. Pingback: Meeting Venus | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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