During his first voyage in 1769, Cook began trading for food with the local inhabitants of his first major stop: Tahiti. At first, two representatives “regularly came out to the ship with gifts of pigs, chickens, coconuts, bananas, yams and breadfruit.” Later, “a set of trading guidelines were established – a spike nail for a small pig; a hatchet for a hog; a small spike nail for a chicken; twenty coconuts or breadfruit for a forty-penny nail; ten for a white glass bead and six for an amber one.” (Salmond, p. 68)
As the voyages proceeded, Cook’s men constantly obtained food from the natives and gathered wild foods on unguarded islands. They had to do so to provision their ships with fresh food, as well as taking on drinking water wherever they could. In time, they tried a wide variety of new foods. The exotic fruits and vegetables cultivated on indigenous farms were usually very pleasing to Cook and his crew. Fish, sea birds, turtles, and shellfish were often more familiar. He described the foods of New Zealand: “The Sea Bays and Rivers abound with a great varity of excellent fish the most of them unknown in England, besides Lobsters which were allow’d by every body to be the best they ever had eat, Oysters and many other sorts of shell fish all excellent in their kind.” (Journals, p. 55)
Here is a photo of islands in the area where Cook had much contact with the Maori of New Zealand:
While exploring the Antarctic region, he wrote: “The Penguin is an amphibious bird so well known to most people that I shall only observe that they are here in prodigious numbers and we could knock down as many as we pleased with a stick. I cannot say they are good eating, I have indeed made several good meals of them but it was for want of better victuals…. Shags [cormorants] breed here in vast numbers and we took on board not a few, as they are very good eating.” (Journals, p. 182)
Domestic animals were fewer and smaller than in Europe; the natives were always amazed at the livestock – sheep, cattle, goats – on board Cook's ships. In Tahiti, Cook wrote: “For tame Animals they have Hogs Fowls and Dogs the latter of which we learnd to eat from them and few were there of us but what allowe’d that a South Sea Dog was next to an English Lamb.” Cook suspected that the dogs’ vegetarian diet (provided by the natives) contributed to making them good to eat. He concluded: “little can be said in favour of their fowles but their Pork is most excellent.” The local diet was undoubtedly more pleasant than shipboard dinners which might include “Pease Soup, Salt Beef and Pork.” On his third and last voyage, Cook’s cargo from London included “a Bull, 2 Cows with their Calves & some sheep … at His Majestys Command and expence” which he was to present to his friends in Tahiti. (Journals, p. 35, 174, & 205)
In contrast to the farmers of Polynesia and New Zealand, the Australian Aboriginals hunted and gathered their food. Cook wrote of them: “Natives know nothing of Cultivation. … Land Animals are scarce, as far as we know confined to a very few species; … the sort that is in the greatest plenty is the Kangooroo, or Kanguru so called by the Natives; we saw a good many of them about Endeavour River, but kill’d only Three which we found very good eating.” Although Cook’s men were open minded, there were exceptions. For example, English sailors didn’t want to eat sharks perhaps because sharks “fed on human flesh.” Cook wrote: “indeed hardly any thing came amiss to us that could be eat by man.” (Journals, p. 82; Thomas, p. 41, Journals, p. 55)
Cook was constantly concerned with providing healthful nutrition to officers, sailors, and accompanying scientists on his voyages. He insisted on the men’s cooperation in eating their rations, and went as far, in one instance, to give two sailors “12 lashes each for refusing to take their allowance of fresh beef.” What he saw in their refusal was mutinous insolence -- not to be tolerated. (Thomas, p. 39)
In 1773, on his second voyage, Cook commanded an ambitious joint expedition of two boats. Throughout this and other voyages he was most worried about scurvy – and considerably more successful in fighting it than many contemporaries. Here is one description of his measures: “Being a fine day I hoisted a boat out and sent aboard the Adventure [the other boat] to inquire into the state of her crew when I learnt that her cook was dead and about Twenty more were attacked with the Scurvy and Flux; at this time we had only three men on the Sick list and only one of them of the Scurvy, several more however began to shew some symptoms of it and were accordingly put upon the Wort, Marmalade of Carrots, Rot of Lemons and Oranges.” Cook’s measures against scurvy included instructing the ship’s cook: “to Brew Beer of the Inspissated juce of Wort, Essence of Spruce and Tea plant … for the Sick, to inlarge their allowance of Sour Krout, to boil Cabbage in their Pease, to serve Wine in lieu of Spirit and lastly to shorten their allowance of Salt Meat.” (Journals, p. 129)
The expedition was not always lucky with unfamiliar foods. Of one incident Cook reported: “The Night before we came out of Port two Red fish about the size of large Bream and not unlike them were caught with hook and line of which Most of the Officers and Some of the Petty officers dined the next day. In the Evening every one who had eat of these fish were seiz’d with Violent pains in the head and Limbs, so as to be unable to stand, together with a kind of Scorching heat all over the Skin, there remained no doubt but that it was occasioned by the fish being of a Poisonous nature and communicated its bad effects to every one who had the ill luck to eat of it even to the Dogs and Hogs.” A dog and a hog died; the men recovered. Another episode of fish poisoning resulted from eating the liver and roe of an unknown fish resembling a sun fish. (Journals, p. 169 & 174)
Cook’s philosophy of how to treat his men was also reflected in how he distributed scarce provisions. In Australia, food was scarce, and the natives were unwilling to barter as the Polynesians had done. He wrote: “The refreshments we got here” -- on the Endeavor River -- “were chiefly Turtle… Whatever refreshment we got that would bear a division I caused to be equally divided amongst the whole compney generally by weight, the meanest person in the Ship had an equal share with my self or any one on board, and this method every commander of a Ship on such a Voyage as this ought ever to observe.” (Journals, p. 74)
In Kauai, Hawaii, in January 1778, Cook made first contact with Hawaiian islanders. Cook’s men were preparing to search north of Alaska for the Northwest Passage. They loaded 200 green turtles on board the ships. They also got to know the Hawaiians: “The sailors were surprised to find that these people spoke a language very like Tahitian, and thrilled when [the Hawaiians] assured them that there were plenty of pigs, chickens, breadfruit, sweet potatoes, plantains, sugar-cane and coconuts on their island.” (Salmond, p. 380)
Returning from the Arctic, on December 1, 1778, Cook reached the island of Hawaii: “Over the following days… canoes flying white flags brought out large quantities of pigs, breadfruit, taro, and sugar-cane. Cook, concerned that his supply of spirits would not last for another season of Arctic exploration, ordered sugar-cane beer to be brewed and served to the sailors.” At the Hikiau Temple south of Kealakekua Bay (shown in photos above) Cook described a number of offerings on a ritual platform: “A rotting hog lay on this stage, which had a pile of sugar-cane, coconuts, breadfruit, plantains.” As Cook stood on a tower near the platform priests chanted the Kumulipo, a cosmological chant. (Salmond, p. 391 & 396)
At the beginning of his visit to the island of Hawaii, Cook enjoyed the admiration and even the worship of the Hawaiian people, who took him for a god named Lono. He was able to acquire large supplies of food, and prepared to continue his voyage. He left with a very high opinion of the Hawaiian natives.
Throughout Cook’s three Pacific expeditions, the most troubling issue relating to food was cannibalism among some of the tribes. The English revulsion was shared by some of the non-cannibal Tahitian natives who traveled with them. For a time, Cook and his company weren’t expecting to find cannibals, and doubted the evidence of cannibalism. But they saw indirect indications like some freshly eaten human bones in a basket that was opened accidentally. Reality jolted them: for example, when some Maoris saw a joint of mutton among the ship’s provisions and expressed the assumption that it was human flesh. The size of sheep’s bones, larger than any animal in their experience, caused this conclusion. It also illuminated their unfortunate experience with eating human flesh.
The English mariners were really unhappy when they had to accept that cannibalism was common among the Maori of New Zealand. These were some of the most easily befriended people Cook encountered, but they habitually killed and ate their enemies. Cook expressed a hope that the Maori “will become more civilized and then and not till then this Custom may be forgot.” (Thomas, p. 212)
The truth became inescapable when a group of Maoris massacred and ate 20 men from Cook’s companion ship, the Adventure. The reaction of their companions, who found the remains, was overwhelming: “Such a shocking scene of Carnage & Barbarity as can never be mentiond or thought of, but with horror” wrote one of the witnesses. (Thomas, p. 253)
In the end, of course, Cook didn't go far from Hawaii. His ship turned out not to be seaworthy. Only a few days after his optimistic farewell, the Hawaiians, who had formerly been so friendly and treated Cook as the incarnation of the god Lono turned on him and at Kealakeua Bay (shown below) he met the same fate as the men from the Adventure.
Like his near-namesake Captain James Kirk on the Starship Enterprise, Captain James Cook went where no one had gone before. I think his voyages were much more exciting.
- A. Grenfell Price, ed. The Explorations of Captain James Cook in the Pacific as told by selections of his own journals 1768-1779. Dover Publications: New York, 1971.
- Anne Salmond. The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Encounters in the South Seas. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
- Nicholas Thomas. Cook: The Extraordinary Voyages of Captain James Cook. New York: Walker & Co., 2003.