James Cook: Celebrated North Country Explorer

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On long voyages ships often had to call in at a main port in order to carry out repairs and to re-supply. Strategically placed ports had been established from the sixteenth century by colonial powers, such as Spain, France, Portugal, the Netherlands and Britain.

These, like the Portuguese port of Rio de Janeiro, where Cook called at the start of the first voyage, were important trade centres on the main shipping routes and were heavily defended by forts and naval ships.

Many places charted by Cook in the Pacific Ocean were low, uninhabited, sandy islands, like Palmerston Atoll, visited on leaving the Marquesas on 13th April 1774 whilst making his way back to New Zealand via Tahiti. The reef prevented the Resolution entering the lagoon on 17th June and so a party went ashore briefly to inspect the islands.

This arch in Tolaga Bay, New Zealand, was one of the natural wonders recorded on Cook’s first voyage:
One of them (the rocks of Tolaga Bay)…was very romantic, it had the appearance of a large arch which led from the sea-side into the vallies, and through it ran a stream of water.

Few places visited by Cook had sophisticated port facilities and man-made harbours against which the ships could tie up. The ships had to anchor in the natural harbours and crews went ashore in the ships’ boats or else the native peoples rowed or sailed out to the ships in their canoes in order to trade. Many of these locations were extremely beautiful and inspired the artists on the voyages. John Webber’s two views in Aimeo, one of the Society Islands, towards the sea and the opposite view towards the mountains, were painted on the third voyage in 1777.

Imaio is, without exception, the most pleasant of all the Society Isles. Its appearance is truly romantic, and it abounds with variety of landscapes that are delightful beyond description.”
(William Ellis, 1782)

Certain places, like Matavia Bay, Tahiti, were visited on a regular basis during Cook’s voyages. These tended to be safe natural harbours, which gave the ships protection in bad weather, where the native peoples were familiar, welcoming, friendly and eager to trade with the crew. Cook also returned to places where he knew he could re-supply the ship with fresh food and water.

Off the South point lies a small, but high Island so near to the main as not to be distinguished from it, close to the north end of this Island at the entrance into the Bay are two high rocks, the one is high and round like a corn stack but the other is long with holes thro’ it like the arches of a bridge. Within these rocks is the Cove where we cut wood and fill’d our water.
(Cook, Journals I, 185, 29 October 1769)

Tahiti provided Cook and his crew with a much needed and plentiful supply of fresh food and water:
The produce of this Island is Bread fruit, cocoa-nuts, Bananoes, Plantains, a fruit like an apple, sweet Potatoes, yams…All these articles the Earth almost spontaniously produces or at least they are rais’d with very little labour, in the article of food these people may almost be said to be exempt from the curse of our fore fathers; scarcely can it be said that they earn their bread with the sweet of their brow, benevolent nature hath not only supply’d them with necessarys but with abundance of superfluities. The sea coast supplies them with a vast variety of most excellent fish…
(Cook, Journals I, p.120-1, July 1769)

Cook detailed the landscape and buildings of the places that he visited. In Tahiti he observed:
The Houses or dwellings of these people are admirably calculated for the continual warmth of the climate, they do not build them in Towns or Villiges but separate each from the other and always in the woods and are without walls so that the air coold by the shade of the trees has free access in whatever direction it happens to blow…
(Cook, Journals I, p.128, July 1769)

Some of the more substantial structures of the native peoples were religious buildings or defended settlements. When Cook and Banks were guided around Tahiti in late June 1769 they were shown Marae or temples:
…it is a long square of stone work built Pyramidically…it rises by large steps, there are 11 of these each of 4 feet.”
(Cook, Journals I, 113)

Joseph Banks described a Ewharee no Eatua, or the house of the god, similar to this structure, which:
…consisted of a chest whose lid was nicely sewd on and thatched over very neatly with palm nut leaves, the whole was fixd upon two poles by little arches of carvd wood very neat; these poles seemd to be usd in carrying it from place to place…One end of the ches was open with a round hole within a square one…and probably the contents of the chest were removed as there was nothing at all in it.
(Banks, Journal I, 316, 18 July 1769)

Joseph Banks described one of the fortified villages which were a feature around parts of the coast of New Zealand:
After breakfast we all went ashore to see an Indian Fort or Eppah…the most beautifuly romantick thing I ever saw…built on a small rock detachd from the main and surroundd at high water, the top of this was fencd round with rails after their manner but was not large enough to contain above 5 or 6 houses; the whole appeard totally inaccessible to any animal who was not furnishd with wings…
(Banks, Journal I, 431-2, 12 November 1769)

The environment and landscape of those places which Cook explored in the extreme northern and southern areas of the oceans contrasted greatly with the islands in the Pacific. Of this area in Prince William Sound, Alaska, North America, Cook wrote:
The land near the shoar is low, part clear and part wooded; the clear ground was covered tow or three feet thick with Snow…..”
(Cook Journal III, I, 351).

Cook left New Zealand to return to Britain via the Southern Ocean in November 1774 and arrived in Tierra del Fuego, South America. in December. Cook took on stores and spent the holiday in what he called Christmas Sound. He described the area:
except those little tufts of shrubbery, the whole country was a barren Tack (or Rock) doomed by Nature to everlasting sterility”.
(Cook, Ms Journal PRO Adm 55/108)

Extreme weather conditions in far northern and southern latitudes led Cook to issue his crew with protective clothing:
Moderate gales and Clowdy Weather with a large swell from Southward. In the PM served to each Man a Fearnought Jacket and a pair of Trowers which were allowed by the Admiralty.
(Cook, Journals, 24th February 1772)

Serv’d the People Bays Caps Covered with canvas to prevent there Ears being Froze bit.
(Pickersgill, Journal, 28th December 1772)

Resolution called in at Fayall, in the Azores, to re-supply and re-water on the return voyage to Britain in July 1775:
The town is called D’horta and is seated in the bottom of the Bay close to the edge of the Sea, it is defended by two Castles, one at each end of the Town or Corner of the Bay and a wall of stone work extending from the one to the other.
(Cook, Journals II, 674, 13 July 1775)

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