Saturday, June 22, 2024

In Captain Cook’s Footsteps

 Captain James Cook (1728-1779) was a great explorer, a skilled mapmaker and an innovative user of technology: especially a recently-invented chronometer that enabled a ship to establish its longitude. He was a respectful observer of cultures other than his own, which was unusual for his time. He was an admired leader, and the men who traveled on his ships during his three remarkable voyages were loyal because Cook was good to them. He enforced discipline, which is essential at sea, but was never cruel; his use of physical punishments like flogging were far less frequent than the usual practice of sea captains of his era. 

The Wide Wide Sea: Imperial Ambition, First Contact and the Fateful Final Voyage of Captain James Cook by Hampton Sides (published April, 2024) is the latest of many books about Captain Cook that I have read, as I find his life and adventures to be totally fascinating. On this, his third voyage, Cook seemed somewhat different than on earlier voyages — this author suspects that among other reasons, Cook was beginning to fear that his interactions with previously uncontacted or rarely contacted peoples were in fact very harmful to their civilizations and their way of life — a point of view that’s shared by many modern people from many backgrounds. He was especially horrified at the ravages of venereal diseases introduced by his sailors to the willing women in Polynesia and Hawaii.

The author does not belabor this point, but allows it to come out in the process of describing Cook’s visits to a number of destinations where Polynesian and other peoples had lived materially and spiritually good lives for many generations. Unlike some of the other voyagers, Cook was not motivated by a need to convert the natives from their own religious practices to Christianity, or to change their collective morals.

As I read this well-organized and interesting book, I enjoyed recalling my own travel to several of the locations that Cook visited, and in this post, I’m simply going to show some images that recall my own experiences, and reflect on how I remember them. That is, this isn’t a book review, it’s just some thoughts of mine and some quotations.

Captain Cook in Hawaii

I’ve been to both of the Hawaiian islands where Cook spent considerable time on his final voyage; that is, to the Big Island and to Kauaʻi. I’ve especially often been to Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island, which was the center of life on the island at the time of Cook’s visit, and was the site where Cook lost his life in a complex and much-disputed skirmish with the large armed forces of the King of Hawaii. Several things had changed, as the king had previously welcomed Cook, and in fact treated him like a god. Or had in fact believed that Cook was literally the god Lono, returned from his to his worshipers from his far-away home. This disaster has been the subject of many other discussions as well as that of Hampton Sides.

Here are the images that I pictured as I read:

The Captain Cook Monument in Kealakekua Bay as we saw it a few years ago from a snorkeling boat.
It’s supposedly at the site of Cook’s death, or at least where the large native town was located.

Captain Cook’s ship in Kealakekua Bay, along with several native canoes, 1779.

Mahaulepu Beach on Kauaʻi — the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen.

Mai, a Young Man from Tahiti

One of the missions of Captain Cook’s third voyage was the return of a young man from Polynesia to his native island, Raiatea. Mai had been brought to England on the Adventure, a ship which had accompanied Cook’s ship on his second voyage in 1774. The Adventure had returned directly from Tahiti to England, not continuing with Cook’s further explorations. 

Mai was a very personable fellow, and very popular with the upper class Englishmen of the day, but he longed to return home with the hope of reconquering his native island from the Bora Borans, who had expelled him some years prior to Cook’s arrival.

As I read, I realized that I had visited Mai’s native island, and had respectfully walked around the
sacred site that still stands there. Our host was a priest who had lived all his life on this island.

Hampton Sides explained: 

“Mai was a native of Raiatea, a volcanic island about 130 miles northwest of Tahiti that was considered the Ur of Polynesia, the cradle of this extraordinary seafaring culture. Raiatea, which means ‘faraway heaven,’ is believed to be one of the first places where ancient navigators, coming from the west, landed several millennia ago and developed a rich civilization. Their culture had reached its apogee at Taputapuatea, a complex of marae temples that more or less served as the spiritual center of the South Seas. Taputapuatea was a pilgrimage spot, the birthplace of Oro, the god of war and fertility. There, upon sprawling courts of black volcanic rock, priests from all across Polynesia held elaborate ceremonies, sometimes performing human sacrifices. It was also a gathering place where navigators would compare notes on their distant discoveries.
“Mai’s kin owned property and enjoyed some prestige on the island, and his early boyhood seems to have been happy. But then, one day in about 1763, when Mai was ten or so, invaders from the nearby island of Bora Bora, under the command of the great chief Puni, came in their long canoes. They were fierce warriors with an expertise in amphibious attack, known for the ‘silent stroke,’ a stealth technique for paddling their fleets of canoes without making noise. Puni succeeded in conquering Raiatea.” (p. 20)

Mai’s goal was to bring firearms to his countrymen, who were exiled in the bigger island of Tahiti, and to unite them and retake his own island. The British also wanted him to introduce European ways and European agriculture to the natives, though in fact, the natives had very successful agricultural methods and plenty of meat. cultivated produce, and fish — they were in no need of European help. The author of The Wide Wide Sea has quite a lot to say about the European attitudes towards the natives and their civilizations, as well as about the growing doubts reflected in Captain Cook’s journals: questioning whether the European contact was doing anything but harm to the Polynesians and to the Hawaiians.

All the descriptions of the approach of Cook’s ships to the islands and how they were seen reminded me of my visit there in 2019. A few photos:

Bora Bora

The shore of Makatea, another island.

Landing in big waves was a challenge for Captain Cook. (These aren’t that large!)

A portrait of Mai by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1776.

indeed, Mai was restored to his native land, along with the livestock, the armaments, and other gifts he had received in England. However, it’s not clear that he ever succeeded in restoring his family honor on their native island, and the livestock, rather than being bred, were evidently slaughtered and eaten not long after Cook and the ships departed. 

New Zealand

We visited New Zealand in 2007, where Len attended a scientific conference in Wellington. We took a few guided tours, particularly one overnight to the south island, where Captain Cook spent most of his visit. In the book, the Maori’s beautiful crafts, wood and stone carving, and other decorative forms, were considered remarkable for their skill and artistry. We saw some very wonderful examples in the national museum in Wellington, and also saw the land and sea in a wonderful way.

A Maori stone carving from the museum.

Maori wood carving.

A view from the very small airplane that flew us from one island to another.

What did Captain Cook Eat?

As you can probably tell, I was enchanted by the descriptions in The Wide Wide Sea, especially by the many quotations from Cook himself. A few years ago, I read several books about Captain Cook, and I wrote a post titled What did Captain Cook Eat? Again in reading this book, I found fascinating descriptions of the foods the men on the ship ate, and the concern that Cook showed for the nutritional needs of his men. While scurvy was a death trap for most early voyages, Cook recognized the need for vegetables and fruits (though it would be many decades before the actual discovery of Vitamin C). For example, in New Zealand, he has his men brew beer from a plant that he hoped would prevent scurvy.

The most tempting food descriptions in the book describe the wonderful fish dinners that were served in almost every harbor and stopping place on the long, long voyage.

A traditional Polynesian fish trap from our visit in 2019.

In every port, Cook’s men were happy to eat fresh foods, and to restock the ship’s larders. On Christmas in 1777: “the captain gave all hands the day off  ‘to amuse themselves … and every one had a pint of brandy to make merry and drink health to their friends in Old England.’ The Christmas dinner offerings were large quantities of roasted fish and shark steaks, vats of turtle burgoo, and platters of broiled seabirds.” (p. 198)

In New Zealand — where we remember eating fabulous fish dishes — Cook’s men were treated to a rich seafood meal:

“The Māori fishermen had brought loads of delicious fresh catch. The lobsters were judged very fine, as were the cockles, oysters, and mussels. There was mullet, tarakihi, blue cod, and mackerel. But by far the most popular was the fish the Natives called moki, which yielded fillets that were incredibly moist and delicate, much like sea bass.” (p.119)

Here are a few of the beautiful restaurant offerings and evidence that fishing continues. I enjoyed eating fish in these locations where Captain Cook once visited. Did I appreciate them as well as a sailor who had been at sea for months? Impossible to compare! 

Curried New Zealand Mussels from our trip to Wellington, 2007.

Fish that we ate at Merriman’s famous restaurant on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Destination: Alaska

A major goal of Cook’s voyage was to explore the Arctic north of Alaska, searching for the “Northwest Passage” which would allow ships to sail north of the American continent and much more quickly reach Europe from the Pacific. Because ice blocked this route in all seasons, Cook’s search only demonstrated that this was not possible at that time. (Current global heating is changing this). 

I have never been to the far north of Alaska, but I did visit the Arctic a few times, and so I was able to visualize some of what Cook saw. In terms of the food he could find in this forbidding environment, I was impressed by this:discussion of the hunting of walrus meat, and Cook’s enjoyment of a meat that his men all found disgustingly inedible:

“Cook genuinely seemed to like walrus, calling their fat ‘as sweet as marmalade’ and praising their steaks as a form of ‘marine beef.’ Clerke [the captain of the other ship on the expedition] agreed. ‘For my own part,’ he wrote, ‘I think them pleasant and good eating; and they doubtless must be infinitely more nutritive and salutary than any salt provision.’” (p.282)

A walrus on the ice above the Arctic Circle on our trip to the Svalbard Archipelago in 2015.


Blog post © 2024 mae sander. Photos © 2007-2024
Shared with Deb’s Sunday Salon.


Iris Flavia said...

Food is such an interesting subject (as history is, too, of course).
I am glad I live in an industrialized country and can choose (more or less. Ingo yesterday went to two groceries/butchers and could not get what he wanted. Like in East-Germany, it´s crazy).
Very, very sadly I only like... like chicken... only tasteless white fish and tuna.
And even then Ingo has to take care I get nothing "icky".

To imagine to explore the world and never know what you find or get....
Glad there are people like Columbus, James Cook and Co.

Boud said...

Captain cook, my villager! I was a child in the neighborhood he's from, in northeast Yorkshire, and was familiar with Captain Cook's Monument on the moor near our house. Interesting to read more of him. He was a brilliant man.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I'm intrigued with Cook. I hope to read The Wide Wide Sea later this summer. I don't know a lot about Cook or his voyages, and I've never been to any place he has traveled.

I can only imagine how amazing it must have been for those aboard Cook's ships to have seen such a wide variety of places and people and cultures.

My name is Erika. said...

You've been some amazing places Mae. Walrus are on my animal bucket list. Maybe some day. And I really like Hampton sides historical books. This one is on my list. Have you read in the Kingdom of Ice by him? I enjoyed this post, with your photos as well as the book. It made an interesting read. hugs-Erika

eileeninmd said...

A great review and thanks for sharing this book.
Hubby and I went to Hawaii on our honeymoon and I remember him loving the snorkeling around the Captain Cook's memorial. The beaches in Hawaii are beautiful. I love your photo of Bora Bora, what a gorgeous place. Take care, have a great weekend.

Jeanie said...

I know zilch about Captain Cook (or that part of the world, for the most part). This one sounds very interesting!

ashok said...

Very interesting 👌

thecuecard said...

I love how you have talked about this book about Cook's voyage with the places you went that you visited. All the photos and recap of your trip made it hit home all the more ... the isolation, the waters, how far Cook went, the peoples he met ... it's amazing what he accomplished ... and the crew didn't get scurvy. I too finished Hampton Sides book in May ... and thought it was quite well done, the writing too. I don't think I've been back to Hawaii since high school or college ... but we lived on Oahu in the late 60s ... and I always wanted to read about Cook so the Hampton Sides book was a must.

Nicky said...

Wow, some great photos there!

Joy said...

I loved hearing about your experiences in these locations. Great photos!

Vagabonde said...

You have posted beautiful photos of your trip. I remember reading a review of this book last April on the New Yorker. I think it was called « How Capt James Cook got away with murder. » You might google it and find it. I also read in the BBC News last January-February that Capt. Cook’s statue had again been vandalized in Australia. In Melbourne his statue was sawn off at the ankles and the remaining marble portion sprayed with paint saying « The Colony will fall. ». In Sydney it has been vandalized several times and the mayor has now asked that the statue be taken down as many think it stands as a reminder of colonial oppression.

I also remember reading in 2019 that some Maori tribes had banned the replica of Cap Cook’s ship to dock in some areas of New Zealand during the tour commemorating 250 years since cook’s arrival there. They called him « a barbarian. » and refused to honor him.

So different people have différents views, as it goes everywhere in history.

Mark Baker said...

All those pictures made me want to go back to Hawaii.

Mae Travels said...

@vagabonde — I looked up the review in the New Yorker, and it’s really interesting, in fact it’s more than a review of just this book.

shelleyrae @ book'd out said...

I know a bit about Cook and his connection to Australia since it’s taught at school, but not a lot about his earlier voyages to be honest. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Wishing you a great reading week

stacybuckeye said...

What a great post! I've always been intrigued by Cook, but have never read a (adult) book about him. Love your connections to the places. Thanks so much for sharing.

Jinjer-The Intrepid Angeleno said...

It's nice to hear that Cook seemed to be a good guy, for the most part.

Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

I enjoyed very much this book review with personal touches from your own trips. "Place-centered" takes on a whole new meaning when you've actually been to the places (and I wish I had been to these!) Your own pictures are wonderful... it was fascinating to read that Captain Cook cared about nutrition for his crew (and how he intuited the importance of the right kinds absolutely correctly).

Divers and Sundry said...

It must add an entirely different dimension to a book to have traveled to the locations described. I hurt for Cook in his realization of the damage these kinds of interactions did to the native populations. Tragic results.

The food!