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