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Vintage English
It is foretold! The torrential flow of inexorable destiny!

Geo Discoverer - Captain Cook

Captain James Cook was a great explorer, navigator and cartographer. He started his career as an apprentice in a small ships plying coal along the English coast. At this time, he was less than eighteen years of age. During this adolescent period in his life, he took effort to study geometry, algebra, trigonometry, navigation and astronomy. All these knowledge were to come handy in his later years when he went around the world, navigating his ships through strange and tricky, uncharted waters of the seven seas.

After his three years of apprenticeship, he quickly worked his way up through the ranks of the merchant ships, and was soon offered the command of one of the ships he worked in. However, his interests were elsewhere. He joined the navy, starting at the bottom, for England was on the verge of war, which later came to be called the Seven Years War.

Soon he passed his masters exam, and was qualified to handle ships on the King’s fleet. Within no time, he was to experience minor naval skirmishes close to the English coast. During his service in the war years, he put his capacity for cartography and surveying to good use. This brought him to the attention of the Admiralty and the Royal Society.

As per an entry of his made during this period, he wanted to go

"... farther than any man has been before me, but as far as I think it is possible for a man to go.”

It was in 1776 that he was assigned the duty to go to Tahiti to record the transit of Venus around the sun. It was an assignment given by the Royal Society. The observation that he made were not as accurate as was hoped.

After this, Cook mapped the complete coastline of New Zealand. This mapping was fantastic in its accuracy. Moreover, he proved that New Zealand was not connected to any large land mass. Then he sailed further and reached the south-east coast of Australia. This was on the 19th of April 1770. He saw people on the coast. He wrote: several people upon the Sea beach they appear'd to be of a very dark or black Colour but whether this was the real colour of their skins or the C[l]othes they might have on I know not.

He went ashore a place, which he named as Botany Bay. This was named thus because the botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander on the ship collected many strange botanical specimens from this area. This place is now known as Kurnell Peninsula. Cook made his first contact with the native tribes of Australia here.

Later he sailed on, and landed on many other places in the sea. He landed on Possession Island on the 22nd of August, and explored the coastal area. This area he claimed as British territory. Later he reached back England after sailing through the Cape of Good Hope, on the 12th of July 1771.

It was a few years since he had left England. His return was greeted with surprise, and the accounts of his journey were very astonishing. However, the botanist on his ship, Joseph Banks also shared a great part of the accolades and glory. Joseph Banks was himself a great personality in his own right, as a fantastic botanist.

He was again asked by the Royal Society to find the Terra Australis. Terra Australis was a hypothetical land mass expected to be on the South of the globe, so as to balance the landmass in the north. Images of this hypothetical continent used to appear in European maps between the 15th and 18th centuries. During his first voyage, Captain Cook had surveyed the eastern coast of Australia, and found it to be a continent. However, the hypothetical Terra Australis was a land mass, much to the south. There were at least a few persons in the Royal Society who still believed that a huge land continent existed to the south polar region.

Cook personally commanded HMS Resolution, while the companion ship HMS Adventure was in the charge of Tobias Furneaux. The uniqueness of this second voyage was this expedition went round the earth at a very southern latitude. He became the first to cross the Antarctic Circle. This was on the 17th of January 1773.

His exploits this time included the surveying, mapping and taking possession of South Georgia for Britain and the discovery of Clerke Rocks and the Sandwich Islands. When the ships were navigating through the thick fog, they lost contact with each other, and they each went different ways. However, Cook continued his endeavour of exploring the Antarctic. He was unable to find the continent, which he searched.

Tobias Furneaux on his return trip to England brought one young Tahitian named Omai with him back to England. This young person became an object of much curiosity among the people. He acted as an interpreter to Captain Cook on his third voyage.

On his return trip, Captain Cook visited many islands, including Friendly Islands, Easter Island and Vanuatu. With his return, the belief in the existence of Terra Australis removed from popular mind.

He was now a very famous man, and given an honorary retirement from the Royal Navy. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Society. Cook could now retire. However, it was impossible for him to keep away from the sea.

Before long a third trip was contemplated. Cook again took command of HMS Resolution. The other ship that accompanied him was HMS Discovery, commanded by Captain Charles Clerke. The main aim of this trip was to discover the famous Northwest Passage. This is a sea route along the north of North America, that connects the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. Before going on this trip, Cook first went to return Omai to his native land. After that, he went ahead on his business purpose.

Cook was able to chart a huge section of the North American northwest coastland for the first time. This he did in one trip, which was a wonderful achievement. Moreover, he found out the extent of Alaska. He also did some exploration of the northern limits of the Pacific Ocean.

However, this trip was packed with frustrations. His repeated attempts to sail through the Bering Strait proved impossible. Moreover, this trip seems to have had a tryst with destiny. He sailed around the Hawai archipelago for some eight weeks. Then he made landfall at Kealakekua Bay on Hawai’i Island. His arrival there coincided with a harvest festival of that area, connected to the worship of God Lono. Somehow, their arrival was taken as a propitious concurrence, and they were treated with reverence.

After a month of friendly stay there, Cook started his sailing. Here again destiny seemed to play a hand. The foremast of Resolution broke. Both the ships returned to the Kealakekua Bay. Somehow, this sudden return was not seen as a favourable sign, at least, by some of the natives. Soon sharp tensions broke out between the British sailors and the Hawaiians. Someone took one of the ships boats. Cook went to enquire about it. Fighting broke out. As Cook tried to push his boat into the water, he was hit on the head by the natives. Then they stabbed him to death, as he lay face down in the water. Four of the British crewmembers were also killed in the attack. Two others were injured. Cooks body was dragged away by the natives.

Many reasons have been advanced as to why there was a change from affability to that of antagonism from the natives. They range from theological reasons, to the fact the British were have a very limited understanding of the native diplomacy, and triggers of the native politics. It is very much possible that the real reasons may lie embedded in the language of the natives. In many languages, each and every word has powerful inputs, in terms of meaning and featuring. Something goes wrong at any point, things can go bad. However, the English have had to face this problem throughout their colonial experience, but then they had time to overcome it. Here the action took place very fast. Moreover, it also possible that the attack was made by a small truculent group, and not by the whole society as such.

Despite the terrible tragedy that befell Captain Cook, it transpires that he was held in great respect by the seniors in the local society. For, his body was taken over by the local chiefs and elders, and given the funeral rites kept for the highest in the society. His body was disembowelled, baked, and bones carefully cleaned so as to make it fit for preservation. Moreover, when the crew asked for it, some of the remains of Cook were given back to them for a formal burial in the sea.

It is possible that what had occurred was only an aberration triggered by a minor group in the native society.

After the demise of Cook, the command was in the hand of Clerke. He also tried to traverse the Bering Strait, but to no avail. Later, Clerke also died. Then the command was taken over by John Gore and James King.

Cook’s sailing around the Pacific Ocean led to the furthering of knowledge in the modern world. Now, this is a very terrible statement. For, what is the ‘modern’ world, and why should the term ‘modern’ be used for medieval times? Well, it is all connected to certain links. For example, the modern knowledge systems in Commonwealth nations and even in the United States of America are connected to British historical experiences and knowledge. Even though, one can trace fragments of science, maths, democracy and much else to many places all around the world, what is being taught to the modern generations is what opened up with the induction of modern education systems brought in by the English. So, a student who views everything through this route, including history may really feel at home in this statement. However, extremes of patriotism and nationalistic feelings can come to contravene it.

Beyond all this, Cook made fantastic navigational charting of huge areas in the Pacific Ocean. Now, here it may be mentioned that for making accurate maps, knowledge of latitudes and longitudes is required. Calculating the latitude is relatively easy. There are instruments such as the sextant etc. with which one can measure the angle of the Sun or a particular star relative to the horizon. For example, by sighting the sun at noon using the sextant, one can find one’s latitude. As to knowing the longitude of a place, more information and capacity is required. It is connected to the knowledge that the earth rotates a perfect 360 degree relative to the sun every 24 hours. Therefore, for every one hour, the corresponding longitudinal difference is 15 degrees. That is, one degree corresponds to four minutes.

Cook was an expert in calculating the correct longitude of a place, and this was greatly helpful to him when it came to charting and navigating the high seas. He made use of many resources available to him at that time. His charts have been of fantastic accuracy.

Another one of his observation was that the various people who populated the vast sections of the Pacific Ocean were somehow related. Many renowned botanists had accompanied him on his voyages. They collected around 3000 plant species, which really helped in the growth of botany in Britain. James Banks was one of these famous botanists. He was also a great supporter of British settlement in Australia.

On the first voyage, many artists had also travelled along. For example, there was Sydney Parkinson. He finished 264 drawings before his death, which happened very near to the end of the voyage. These pictures were of much use for the botanists back home. On the second trip, one of the artists was William Hodges. His fame rests on his fascinating landscape paintings of Tahiti and other places.

Captain James Cook was famous all over the world. For instance, in 1779, during the American revolt against their mother country, Benjamin Franklin gave this request to the American Warships: if they were to find Captain Cook’s ship :

not consider her an enemy, nor suffer any plunder to be made of the effects contained in her, nor obstruct her immediate return to England by detaining her or sending her into any other part of Europe or to America; but that you treat the said Captain Cook and his people with all civility and kindness, . . . as common friends to mankind.

Captain Cook is honoured in Hawaii. The place where he was killed is marked and cordoned off. The land inside this enclosure is under British sovereignty. In Australia also, he is honoured.

To sum up, he was a great seaman, with exquisite surveying and cartographic skills. He was an extraordinarily brave man, who went forth into the uncharted waters of the deep oceans, to conduct explorations in extremely dangerous places. His capacity for leadership was also very great, for he had to lead tough men in tough situations, with nothing other than his mental prowess to depend upon. Beyond that, it has been mentioned that he had a propensity to go beyond his brief, but in a sane manner.

The various paintings about the manner he died had given rise to numerous interpretations about his character. Some saw them as evidence of his pacifist features, others perceived his cantankerous character in them. However, it is all a case of reading too much in a miniscule scene. What needs to be always borne in mind is that he and his crew were far off from home, dealing with a group of people of unknown mental process. The very dealing requires courage, for any failing means that none of them would ever see their homeland again.

Moreover, there is no need to see things in a European verses Black/Brown man issue. For one thing, Britain does not really represent continental Europe. Beyond that, the persons who killed him were not from the modern educated natives of this place. There are words like barbarian, primitive etc. in English. These are all relative. No educated person from any previously barbarian group would acknowledge that he or she belongs to a previously group categorised as ‘barbarian’. If the pictures are true, the native were of a primitive level of development. However, when one becomes intimate with them, one may chance to see the finer elements in their social system; which might have sparkling features. But then, it takes time and effort to reach out to this level of intimacy. Everything is basically a problem of communication!

Book profile



Author: Somerset Maugham

The Story

Folk songs:

On the banks of Allen Water,

On the banks of Clyde

Excerpt: Magnus in The Apple Cart

English Colonial History:

Emancipation of slaves

Scientist: Sir. Isaac Newton

Geo discoverers: Captain James Cook

Film: The bridge on River Kwai

Actress: Vivien Leigh

Battle: Jameson Raid

Incidence: Nelson’s death



Popular songs: Jingle Bells

Place: Rocks of Gibraltar

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