|Cook's chart of Botany Bay
This points to a difficulty. If you'd looked Cook up in an encyclopaedia when I was a child, it would have told you that he was a hero, a great explorer, who discovered hitherto unknown lands. (A couple of years ago, in a fit of manic decluttering, I got rid of just such a set of encylclopaedias. If I hadn't, I'd be able to quote the appropriate entry to you. There's a lesson there...)
Now, it doesn't look quite that simple.
Cook's first voyage, with the Endeavour, was purportedly to observe the Transit of Venus (now there's a title for a book!) across the face of the sun at Tahiti (or Otaheite, as he knew it), in June 1769. But he also had secret Admiralty orders to search for land in the south Pacific, including the Great Southern Continent, if it indeed existed. If he found land, he was 'to cultivate a Friendship and Alliance' with its inhabitants, to chart its coastline and to investigate its potential in terms of trade. Further, he was 'to take possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the name of the King of Great Britain' - albeit with the consent of the inhabitants.
|Cook and his ship
On that first voyage, he took with him as a naturalist the young Joseph Banks. I've written about Banks in various History Girl posts, and he features in my recent book for children about plant hunting, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley - he was a fascinating and very influential character. He was also tall, handsome, genial, and one of those charismatic people who gets on very well with everybody - whereas Cook was more dour and introverted: they made a good team. So when it came to getting the 'consent of the inhabitants', Banks was a great help. Certainly in Otaheite he threw himself into socialising with the (mostly) welcoming inhabitants with great gusto. He became good friends with Tupaia, the chief priest of the island - so much so that Tupaia asked to accompany the Endeavour when it was time for the visitors to continue their voyage, and did so as a translator and interpreter. Tupaia also drew and painted scenes from their travels, some of which are displayed at the exhibition, alonside many other contemporary images, artefacts, letters and journals. Sadly, both Tupaia and his young son, Tayeto, died when, on the way back to England, after various adventures in Australia and New Zealand, the ship docked at Batavia for repairs: unfortunately Batavia was rife with fever, and almost half of the company, including the two Tahitians, succumbed.
And the exhibition doesn't shy away from revealing that, although Cook was indeed a great explorer who achieved an enormous amount for his country, there was another side to what he did. The lives of the people he 'discovered' were not just touched by his arrival on their shores: they were to be changed forever, even when the intentions of the explorers were good. Tupaia and his son were one example. Another concerns a later voyage, when Cook, meaning to be helpful, presented the Maoris in New Zealand with domesticated animals - sheep, pigs etc. He thought it would make life easier for them if they didn't have to hunt for their food. But the animals had a huge effect on the indigenous flora and fauna, leading to the extinction of a number of native species.
And it was Banks who suggested that Australia would be a good place for a penal colony - which on the one hand led to the creation of modern Australia, but on the other to the near-destruction of the indigenous Aborigine culture.
|Tupaia's drawing of Sir Joseph Banks trading with a Maori - a piece of cloth in exchange for a lobster.
You can find out more about the exhibition on the British Library website, here.