Man who added Hawaii to the map

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

These are hard times for the rep­u­ta­tions of great ex­plor­ers. Colum­bus is charged with in­tro­duc­ing dis­eases to the Caribbean that ef­fec­tively de­pop­u­lated some is­lands. The west­ward move­ment of Euro­pean set­tlers in Amer­ica is held re­spon­si­ble for the grad­ual erad­i­ca­tion of na­tive Amer­i­can cul­tures.

No legacy has been harder hit than that of the fa­mous English nav­i­ga­tor James Cook. Once con­sid­ered the great­est ex­plorer of his day, Cook is best re­mem­bered in some cir­cles for hav­ing in­tro­duced vene­real disease to Poly­ne­sia. But he is now res­cued, to a con­sid­er­able de­gree, by a first­class bi­og­ra­phy by a prom­i­nent Bri­tish his­to­rian, Frank McLynn.

Cook was born into poverty in 1727, the son of a farm la­borer. Ap­pren­ticed to a ship owner in Whitby, he learned the trade of a deck­hand and soon earned a mas­ter’s war­rant. In 1755, Cook made an im­por­tant ca­reer change, en­list­ing in the Royal Navy as a mere sea­man. Mr. McLynn can only spec­u­late as to Cook’s mo­ti­va­tion, for the navy was rarely a path to glory for those with­out so­cial con­nec­tions.

Cook again earned a mas­ter’s war­rant, how­ever, and be­tween 1759 and 1767 charted por­tions of New­found­land and Nova Scotia. The ac­cu­racy of the charts he made brought him to the at­ten­tion of the Ad­mi­ralty, and he was cho­sen to lead a voy­age of ex­plo­ration to Tahiti and Aus­tralia. Cook was not picked for his charm. Mr. McLynn de­scribes him as “Tall, hand­some, slightly built, with a dark brown com­plex­ion, he of­ten seemed in a world of his own and later would of­ten sit at a ta­ble with his of­fi­cers with­out say­ing a word.”

Cook’s ship, a 369-ton con­verted collier named En­deav­our, sailed from Ply­mouth in Au­gust 1768 on a voy­age to the South Pa­cific that would last 33 months. Al­though the Bri­tish es­tab­lished good re­la­tions with the Tahi­tians, the con­tin­u­ing voy­age to Aus­tralia and the East Indies saw En­deav­our holed and nearly sunk on the Great Bar­rier Reef. The trip was a sci­en­tific suc­cess — Cook demon­strated that Aus­tralia and New Zealand were not con­nected — but En­deav­our was not a happy ship. Thirty-eight of the ship’s com­ple­ment of 94 died in the course of the voy­age, many from malaria.

What kind of a com­man­der was James Cook? In the au­thor’s words, “as a cap­tain he in­sisted on a high level of dis­ci­pline and ef­fi­ciency, but he was no mar­tinet and did not go look­ing for trou­ble. He knew the likely sources of trou­ble from be­low decks: food, shore leave, grog, women.” On En­deav­our, Cook kept the lid on “a hun­dred men cooped up in a 97-foot-long ves­sel, with no room in which to swing a cat. . . . His crew was half­drunk half the time; the grog ra­tion was gen­er­ous.”

In July 1772, Cook un­der­took a sec­ond voy­age to the South Pa­cific — this time with two ships, Res­o­lu­tion and Ad­ven­ture. He probed the Antarc­tic south of Africa, charted the coast of New Zealand, and again vis­ited Tahiti. Thanks to Cook’s new ap­pre­ci­a­tion of an­ti­scor­bu­tics and the im­por­tance of air­ing his ships, Res­o­lu­tion’s sailors suf­fered few of the health prob­lems that had plagued his ear­lier voy­age. In the course of a three-year voy­age, the Res­o­lu­tion suf­fered only three fa­tal­i­ties. Cook’s third and fi­nal voy­age of dis­cov­ery be­gan in 1776, and was a search for the long-ru­mored North­west Pas­sage from Europe to the East. In the Res­o­lu­tion, ac­com­pa­nied by an es­cort, Cook ex­plored the cen­tral Pa­cific and dis­cov­ered the Hawai­ian Is­lands. He reached the North Amer­i­can coast in March 1778 and charted it as far north as the Ber­ing Strait, but there was no North­west Pas­sage.

Re­turn­ing to Hawaii, the Bri­tish voy­agers at first en­coun­tered a warm wel­come. But re­la­tions with the na­tives soon cooled as sailors re­acted to re­peated in­stances of theft.

The Hawai­ians show­ered Cook and his sailors with stones. The Bri­tish re­treated to the beach where Cook was help­ing launch boats when he was clubbed and then stabbed to death in the surf. Three sailors died with him on Feb. 14, 1779.

Mr. McLynn’s as­sess­ment of Cook is a gen­er­ous one. “On his voy­ages he added Hawaii, New Cale­do­nia and the New He­brides to the map and the cor­pus of knowl­edge. He es­tab­lished the outer lim­its of Antarc­tica, adding to his po­lar lau­rels by ex­plor­ing the Ber­ing Sea and the southerly lim­its of the Arc­tic Ocean. An in­com­pa­ra­bly bril­liant sur­veyor, he cir­cum­nav­i­gated New Zealand and pub­lished a map of the two is­lands which is stag­ger­ing in its ac­cu­racy.”

John M. Tay­lor’s books in­clude a bi­og­ra­phy of his fa­ther, “An Amer­i­can Sol­dier: The Wars of Gen­eral Maxwell Tay­lor” (Pre­sidio, 2001).

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