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Captain Cook took science to the Australasian seas

Posted in Discoveries, Exploration, Historical articles, Science, Sea on Saturday, 12 November 2011

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This edited article about exploration and discovery originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 861 published on 15 July 1978.

Captain Cook, picture, image, illustration

Captain Cook’s voyage of exploration up the East coast of Australia was fraught with danger, by Oliver Frey

The seamen, all spruce, neat, well-fed and bursting with fitness, stood stiffly to attention as their captain walked down the ranks inspecting them. Nowhere on board any ship would anyone have found a cleaner bunch of men.

The reason was simple. Captain James Cook, master of the Endeavour, believed there was a link between uncleanliness and disease. And he was determined to have no disease on his ship.

In the middle of the 18th century, when scurvy – a disease caused by lack of vitamins found in vegetables and fruit – ravaged ships’ crews, to sail for any distance and return without having lost at least half the crew was a rare occurrence. So Cook faced a formidable task as he prepared the 370-ton collier for the voyage of exploration to New Zealand that May in 1768.

No one, however, was left in any doubt that Cook was ushering in a new scientific age of exploration.

“No people ever went to sea more elegantly,” says a writer of Cook’s time. “They have a fine library, they have all sorts of machines for catching and preserving insects, they have two painters and draughtsmen . . .”

Much more important, perhaps, was the 12 months’ food supply that included malt, vinegar, wheat and orange and lemon juice – the scurvy fighters. At every port of call Cook gave instructions to take on fresh food – he once ordered twelve lashes for a man who refused to eat fresh beef. The Endeavour was to live up to her reputation as the smartest ship afloat.

Sometimes, even, the crew were a bit too zealous in following their captain’s orders. At one island they took on board a native, Tupia, whose special skill was that he roasted dogs to perfection. Mindful of keeping his men on their strict fresh food diet, Cook tried some dog on a spit and claimed that it was “next only to English lamb”.

A hundred and seventy years after Abel Tasman had seen, but not landed upon, the west coast of New Zealand. Cook dropped anchor there. The first to see the land was Nicholas Young, whose sharp eyes were commemorated when the point was named “Young Nick’s Head”. It is still so called today.

The New Zealand Maoris gazed in awe at the Endeavour. They did not like it at all. It looked to them like a huge bird with great white wings, with gods as passengers. They shook their spears angrily and made landing a hazard which Cook was not prepared to risk.

At last the Endeavour found an anchorage in what is now Cook’s Bay, where there were fish, wild fowl and oysters “as good as ever came out of Colchester”. Later still, Cook landed in Queen Charlotte’s Sound. He climbed a hill and saw that the seas on both the eastern and western coasts of the North Island were united. So Tasman had been wrong in thinking that this country was all part of a great southern continent.

Nearly three months later, when the Endeavour had sailed all the way round New Zealand’s North Island, Cook was able to sum up the natives from his considerable observation. “They come off in canoes which will carry a hundred people; when within a stone’s throw of the ship, the chief of the party would brandish a battleaxe, calling out: ‘Come ashore with us and we will kill you.’ They would certainly have eaten us, too, for they were cannibals.”

With such a welcome in store, there was no point in staying. Cook accordingly set off westwards and on 18th April he sighted Australia. Nearly a month later he landed at Botany Bay – so named after the great variety of plants found there by the ship’s botanist. Then, sailing up the coast of eastern Australia, Cook took possession of the whole of that land for King George the Third, calling it New South Wales.

James Cook, a Yorkshireman who spent his boyhood in the Whitby area, was one of the world’s greatest explorers. His feats as a mathematician and marine surveyor and his constant search for scientific accuracy were the more remarkable because he was completely self-taught. All his knowledge, gained from experience and observation, he set down in his brilliantly written journal, now in the British Museum.

Cook was 16 when he left the haberdasher’s shop at Staithes near Whitby to which his father had apprenticed him, and ran away to sea. In the next 24 years before his first great voyage to Australia, his naval career included piloting General Wolfe’s army up the St. Lawrence river for its successful attack on French-held Quebec.

A year after his return to London from the three-year long voyage to Australia, Cook was off again, with two ships, Resolution and Adventure. This was to be a decisive voyage in the story of exploration, for on it Cook proved that there was no great land to the south of Australia or South America except the land of ice lying about the South Pole.

“I will not say,” he wrote, “it was impossible anywhere to get farther to the south; but attempting it would have been a dangerous and rash enterprise.” This was, in fact, a most wise decision, for Antarctica remains the least fruitful and hospitable of the Earth’s five continents.

Home again after another three-year absence, Cook quickly volunteered for a third voyage – its object, to discover the elusive North-West Passage to China.

With Resolution, and Discovery, a second ship which joined him later, Cook sailed from Plymouth to New Zealand and then across the Pacific, discovering the then unknown Cook Islands and the Sandwich Islands, which he named after the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty; and also annexing Vancouver Island.

From Vancouver Island he sailed on northwards, then west, then north again. All the time it grew steadily colder. Ahead of him now was the grimly bleak passage of the Bering Strait. Was this, at last, the way to China? The answer came speedily in the form of a solid wall of ice with no way round it. Cook, like dozens of others in the three centuries before him, was beaten, and sorrowfully turned his ship back.

From the Sandwich Islands he went back again to Hawaii, anchoring in Karakakooa Bay. There the natives, whose thieving habits were by now well known to Cook’s crew, got into an argument with the English sailors. The row went on until, exasperated, Cook went with a party of his men in the ship’s pinnace to see the local chief.

One of the Resolution’s crew afterwards described the tragedy that followed:

“The chief would willingly have come off, but was hindered by his wife and those about him. They afterwards were very troublesome, and at last obliged the captain to fire on them . . . The whole . . . began to arm themselves . . . The pinnace pulled in. The natives began the attack, when stones showered down with great violence. The whole body, pressing in on our people, armed with spears, clubs, daggers and slings, forced them into the water. The captain fell in the conflict, with four of the marines.”

So, 18 months later, Resolution and Discovery arrived in the Thames without even the body of their commander. But all across the Pacific Ocean and around the great Australian sub-continent James Cook left his name indelibly – the name of the first great explorer to bring science to the sea.

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