The English mariner who crossed cul­tures and be­came part of the Pa­cific

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

YOU are like­wise to ob­serve the ge­nius, tem­per, dis­po­si­tion, and num­ber of the na­tives and in­hab­i­tants, where you find any; and to en­deav­our, by all proper means, to cul­ti­vate a friend­ship with them.’’ Such were James Cook’s in­struc­tions in 1768 re­gard­ing his con­tact with the peo­ples of the Pa­cific, in­struc­tions that he car­ried out as­sid­u­ously. In­deed, in keep­ing with the spirit of in­quiry of the voy­ages, it seemed that ev­ery man on board with ac­cess to plume and pa­per was mak­ing ob­ser­va­tions of the na­tives.

Cap­tain Cook: Voy­ager Be­tween Worlds is not so much a bi­og­ra­phy as a schol­arly ex­am­i­na­tion of Bri­tish and Pa­cific cul­tures dur­ing the lat­ter part of the 18th cen­tury, the one poised on the brink of the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion, which would also af­fect the other. It brings into fo­cus ‘‘ that rare mo­ment when two dif­fer­ent cul­tures viewed each other across a fron­tier that was rel­a­tively open and un­clut­tered by the weight of many pre­vi­ous en­coun­ters’’.

Cook had al­ready trav­elled through dif­fer­ent worlds be­fore sail­ing into the Pa­cific. The En­light­en­ment pro­vided a win­dow of op­por­tu­nity through which, given the right pa­tron­age, a man of Cook’s am­bi­tion and abil­i­ties could pass. The son of a farm labourer, he be­came a trainee gro­cer, then served an ap­pren­tice­ship on North Sea col­liers be­fore join­ing the Royal Navy and ris­ing to the rank of post cap­tain. Apart from the months be­tween voy­ages, Cook spent the last decade of his life ex­plor­ing the Pa­cific, en­coun­ter­ing Poly­ne­sians, Me­lane­sians, Aus­tralian Abo­rig­ines and North Amer­i­can Nootkas. Af­ter his death at Kealakekua Bay, the Bri­tish com­mit­ted his fleshly re­mains to the deep; the Hawai­ians kept the bones con­tain­ing his spir­i­tual power as sa­cred relics. In death Cook had truly crossed cul­tures and be­come part of the Pa­cific.

This voy­ager be­tween worlds un­der­stood how the un­ex­pected ar­rival of a ship full of men may be in­ter­preted: ‘‘ In what light can they at first look upon us but as in­vaders of their coun­try; time and some ac­quain­tance with us can only con­vince them of their mis­take.’’

For the most part, time and ac­quain­tance led to an in­ter­ac­tion based on a shared hu­man­ity, a will­ing­ness to ac­com­mo­date and learn about the other. John Gas­coigne points out that the gulf be­tween Euro­pean and Pa­cific cul­tures at the time was not nearly as vast as it would be­come in the 19th cen­tury. The sea was an in­te­gral part of the lives of Cook’s peo­ple and the in­hab­i­tants of Pa­cific is­lands and coasts. The ves­sels from both sides of the world were made of tim­ber, re­liant on hu­man mus­cle and fickle winds. Though Cook’s ships were equipped with pre­ci­sion in­stru­ments — sex­tants, tele­scopes, com­passes and chronome­ters — his sailors, like the sailors of the Pa­cific, had to be able to read the chang­ing pat­terns of weather and tides. They learned their coastal nav­i­ga­tion by di­rect ob­ser­va­tion and word of mouth, of­ten in the form of chants and rhymes.

Cul­tural dif­fer­ences be­came ev­i­dent in trade ne­go­ti­a­tion. In Cook’s life­time Adam Smith fa­mously called his coun­try­men ‘‘ a na­tion of shop­keep­ers’’. Pa­cific ex­change of goods was not based on mar­ket value as the Bri­tish un­der­stood it, but on a sys­tem of rec­i­proc­ity in which gift- giv­ing sig­nalled friend­ship and re­spect, so­cial rank and obli­ga­tion. The mis­un­der­stand­ings and breaches of eti­quette ac­com­pa­ny­ing trade of­ten re­sulted in con­flict. The thiev­ing that so an­noyed Cook may have been an at­tempt to bal­ance the scales or, as he sus­pected, a sub­ver­sive chal­lenge to his author­ity. Gun­ner’s mate John Marra noted per­cep­tively: ‘‘ Is it not very nat­u­ral, when a peo­ple see a com­pany of strangers come amongst them, and with­out cer­e­mony, cut down their trees, gather their fruits, seize their an­i­mals and take what­ever they want, that such a peo­ple should use as lit­tle cer­e­mony with the stranger as the strangers do with them.’’ Iron­i­cally, the Hawai­ian dag­ger that felled Cook was made from Bri­tish iron.

Gas­coigne com­pares Bri­tish and Pa­cific cul­tures through at­ti­tudes, be­liefs and so­cial prac­tices in re­la­tion to the sea, trade, war, pol­i­tics, re­li­gion, sex and death. In par­tic­u­lar, he fo­cuses on 18th- cen­tury Bri­tain as a chang­ing so­ci­ety amid the be­gin­nings of in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion and a cap­i­tal­ist econ­omy, and the weak­en­ing of so­cial struc­tures based on hi­er­ar­chy and re­li­gion.

Gas­coigne’s pic­ture of life in Ge­or­gian Eng­land, par­tic­u­larly Cook’s North York­shire, is metic­u­lously mapped with an at­ten­tion to de­tail that Cook would have ad­mired.

He draws on the sub­stan­tial ethno­graph­i­cal ma­te­rial pro­vided by voy­age jour­nals, ac­know- ledg­ing that through them ‘‘ we know much more about the van­tage point of those on Cook’s boats than the peo­ples who looked back at them from the other side of the shore’’.

How did the peo­ple on shore view those on the boats? The sea some­times brought war par­ties, yet Cook’s men did not con­form to a Pa­cific idea of war­riors. They lacked war cries, tat­toos and mark­ings. Few of them, apart from Cook, had the physique of what Hawai­ians called tata toa ( fight­ing men). Like the Bri­tish, Pa­cific peo­ples viewed the strangers in terms of their cul­tural pa­ram­e­ters. Un­like the dis­tinct sep­a­ra­tion in Protes­tant Eng­land be­tween nat­u­ral and su­per­nat­u­ral, the phys­i­cal world of the Pa­cific was in­fused with the spir­i­tual. In Poverty Bay, New Zealand, the En­deav­our was seen as a great bird, the smaller boat that was rowed ashore ‘‘ a house­ful of di­vini­ties’’. The Nootkas of Van­cou­ver Is­land de­scribed the Res­o­lu­tion as ‘‘ a fish come alive with peo­ple’’. The vis­i­tors with their white skin, strange ap­parel and su­perla­tive weaponry were of­ten taken to be em­a­na­tions of the divine. Such glimpses from the other side are il­lu­mi­nat­ing. We could wish for more. Marele Day is the au­thor of Mrs Cook: The Real and Imag­ined Life of the Cap­tain’sWife.

Dis­cov­ery: Far left, Cap­tain James Cook; left, a draw­ing of the En­deav­our land­ing in Aus­tralia

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