James Cook: Celebrated North Country Explorer

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Cook and his crew recorded in great detail the people of the areas that they visited - their appearance, dress, language, customs, beliefs and activities.

Cook described the people of Tierra del Fuego:
the women…seldom exceeding 5 ft …In this dress there is no distinction between men and woemen, except that the latter have their cloak tied round their middle with a kind of belt or thong and a small flap of leather hanging like Eve’s fig leaf over those parts which nature teaches them to hide… Their food…was either Seals or shell fish…the latter were collected by the woemen, whose business it seemed to be to attend at low water with a basket in one hand, a stick with a point and barb in the other, and a satchel on their backs which they filled with shell fish.
(Cook, Journal I, 227-8, 20 January 1769)

Cook wrote of the Fuegean men:
They are something above the Middle size of a dark copper Colour with long black hair, they paint their bodies in Streakes mostly Red and Black, their cloathing consists wholly of a Guanoacoes (llamas) skin or that of a Seal, in the same form as it came from the Animals back, the Women wear a peice of skin over their privey parts but the Men observe no such decency.
(Cook, Journals I, p.44, 16th January 1769)


Cook described a ceremony staged in Tahiti:
“There is a ceremony which they perform at or after the funerals of the dead…relations dress’d himself in a very odd dress…with Plumes of feathers something in the same manner as those worn by Coaches hearses, horses & ca. at the funerals in London; it was very neatly made up of black or brown and white cloth black and white feathers and pearl oysteres shells…and not only looked grand but awfull likewise. The man thus equip’d and attended by two or three more men or women…would about sunset take a compass of near a mile runing here and there, and where ever they came the people would fly from them as tho they had been so many hobgoblins not one daring to come in their way. I know not the reason for their performing this ceremony which they call Heiva.

(Cook, Journals I, p.135-6, July 1769)

Cook recorded this scene in Tahiti in August 1777:
Some of our gentlemen in their walks found what they were pleased to call a Roman C(at)holic Chappel…it proved to be a Tupapow in which the remains of the late Waheatua laid as it were in state. It was a pretty large neat house which was inclosed with a low palisade…it was covered and hung round with different Coloured cloth and Mats so as to have a pretty affect…Small offerings of fruit &c seemed to be daily made.
(Cook, Journals III, I, 190-1)

Cook and some of his crew witnessed this ceremony that took place over two days in September 1777 in Tahiti. It was described in great detail by William Anderson:
On certain occasions but particularly on going to war, as in the instance we saw, and in times of great scarcity which sometimes happens here, the priest pretends to consult their god and asks his assistance…and (says) that it is necessary to sacrifice a man on the occasion…having determined on the man he is by their order suddenly put to death either with a club or by stoning…We could not see the Body, as it was fastened lengthways to a sort of pole with some Cocoa leaves over it but they uncover’d it after the priest had repeated some sentences for ten minutes…The Priest sat at a small distance from the feet…he seemed often to expostulate with the dead person, to whom he constantly address’d himself and sometimes ask’d several questions seemingly with respect to the propriety of his being killd…he askd him to deliver Morea, its chief who is namd Maheine, the hogs, women and other things of the island into their hands, which indeed was the express intention of the sacrifice…a hole was dug by two men about two feet deep, when they threw in the body with an air of great indifference and coverd it over with earth and stones.
(Cook, Journals III, 2, 978-84)

Walking in Tahiti in September 1777 members of the crew came across:
…a kind of private Heeva or amusement, which consisted of about a hundred of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood who wer(e) sitting in a house and in the midst of them two women with an old man behind, each beating very gently upon a drum, and the women at intervals singing in a softer manner than I ever heard at their other diversions. The assembly listened with great attention and were seemingly almost absorbed in the pleasure the music gave them, as few took any notice of us and the performers never once stop’d.
(Cook, Journals III, 2, 985)

On 7th August 1769 Sydney Parkinson and Joseph Banks went to see the entertainment called a Heivo:
A large mat was laid upon the ground, and they began to dance upon it, putting their bodies into strange motions, writhing their mouths, and shaking their tails, which made the numerous plaits that hung about them flutter like a peacock’s train. Sometimes they stood in a row one behind the other, and then they fell down with their faces to the ground, leaning on their arms, and shaking only their tails, the drums beating all the while, with which they kept exact time.
(Parkinson 1773, 74)


Samwell wrote:
Capt Cook went on shore in the Bay & fixed upon a House which he hired of the Indians for our Use during our Stay….& a Market was established before the House…where those who had any thing for market exposed them to sale.
(Journals III, 2, 1013)

Samwell described the scene at Hapaee in the Friendly Islands (Tonga):
A prodigious Number of the Natives were collected together on the Beach & a large Space was left clear for our People. Captn. Cook with some of the officers of each Ship sat in a House at the upper end of the open Area along with Phenow & the Chiefs of the Island.
(Samwell in Cook, Journals III, 2, 1016-19)

Cook described the entertainment on his arrival at Hapaee:
Presently after a number of men entered the Circle or Area before us, armed with Clubs….and began to engage and continued till one or the other gave out or their weapons were broke….there were Wristling and Boxing matches; the first were performed in the same m(an)ner as at Otahiete, and the second very little different from the method practiced in England.
(Journals, III, i, 107)

Cook first came across tattooing in Tahiti and found that many of the peoples of the Pacific islands and New Zealand decorated themselves in this way. Some of the Endeavour’s crew decided to get tattoos, perhaps starting the tradition of the tattooed sailor. One of the first included Robert Stainsby, aged 27, an able seaman originally from Darlington in the North East of England:
"Mr Stainsby, myself, and some others of our company, underwent the operation, and had our arms marked.
(Sydney Parkinson’s Journal , 13th July 1769)

Cook described the tattoos of the older men of New Zealand:
Many of the old and some of the middle aged men have their faces mark’d or tattow’d with black and some few we have seen who have had their buttocks thighs and other parts of their bodies mark’d but this is less common. The figures they mostly use are spirals drawn and connected together with great nicety and judgement; they are so exact in the application of these figures that no difference can be found between the one side of the face and the other if the whole is mark’d, for some have only one side and some a little on both sides, hardly any but the old men have the whole tattowd. From this I conclude that it takes up some time perhaps years to finish the operation which all who have begun may not have perseverance enough to go through, as the manner in which it must be done must certainly cause intolerable pain…
(Cook, Journals I, pp.278-9, March 1770)

Cook described the process of tattooing in Tahiti:
Both sexes paint their bodys Tattow as it is called in their language, this is done by inlaying the Colour of black under their skins in such a manner as to be indelible. Their method of Tattowing I shall now describe. The coulour they use is lamp black prepared from the smook of a kind of Oily nutt (the candlenut) used by them instead of Candles; the Instruments for pricking it under the skin is made of very thin flat pieces of bone or shell…one end is cut into sharp teeth and the other fasten’d to a handle; the teeth are diped into the black liquor and then drove by quick sharp blows struck upon the handle with a stick for that purpose into the skin so deep that every stroke is followed (with) a small quantity of blood, the part so marked remains sore for some days before it heals.
(Cook, Journals I, p.125, July 1769)

Cook on tattooing in Tahiti:
As this is a painfull operation especially the tattowing their buttocks it is perform’d but once in their life time, it is never done until they are 12 or 14 years of age.
(Cook, Journals I, p.125, July 1769)

New Zealand
3 Oct 1769-Apr 1770

At first the native Maori people of New Zealand were very hostile and unwilling to trade with Cook and his crew but soon friendly relations were established. Joseph Banks wrote of trade with some of the Maori:
But above all the luxuries we met with the lobsters or sea craw fish must not be forgot….Of them we bought great quantities of the natives every where to the Northward
(Banks Journal II, 7)

Parkinson wrote:
Many of the women that we saw had very good features, and not the savage countenance one might expect; their lips were in general, stained of a blue colour, and several of them were scratched all over their faces as if it had been done with needles and pins.”
(Parkinson Journal, 98).

Cook wrote of the native Australians:
…of a middles Stature straight bodied and slender-limbd, their skins the Colour of Wood soot or of a dark Chocolate, their hair mostly black…Their features are far from being disagreeable and their Voices are soft and tunable. They go quite naked both Men and women…they wear Oraments Necklaces made of shells, Bracelets or hoops about their arms, made mostly of hair…The men wear a bone about 3 or 4 Inches long and a fingers thick, run through the Bridge of the nose, which the Seamen Call’d a sprit sail yard…Many of them paint their bodies and faces with a sort of White paist or Pigment…
(Cook Journals I, 395, August 1770)

Cook described the weapons of the aborigines:
Their Offensive weaphons are Darts, some are only pointed at one end others are barb’d, some with wood others with the Stings of Rays and some with Sharks teeth…They throw the Dart with only one hand, in the doing of which they make use of a piece of wood about 3 feet long made thin like the blade of a Cutlass, with a little hook at one end to take hold of the end of the the Dart…by the help of these throwing sticks, as we call them, they will hit a Mark at the distance of 40 or 50 Yards, with almost, if not as much certainty as we can do with a Musquet…Their defensive weapons are Shields made of wood…
(Cook Journals I, 395-6, August 1770)

King described the masks worn by the Hawaiian men:
“…We never saw these masks worn but twice, and both times by a number of people together in a canoe, who came to the side of the ships laughing and drolling with an air of masquerading. Whether they may not likewise be used as a defence for the head against stone, for which they seem best designed, or in some of their public games, or be merely intended for the purpose of mummery, we could never inform ourselves.
(Cook/King 1984 III, 139-40)

Cook described the people of the area:
I saw not a woman with a head dress of any kind, they had all long black hair a part of which was tied up in a bunch over the forehead….though the lips of all were not slit, yet all were bored, especially the women and even the young girls; to these holes and slits they fix pieces of bone of this size and shape, placed side by side in the inside of the lip; a thread is run through them to keep them together…This Ornament is a very great impediment to the Speech.
(Cook, Journals III, I, 350

On 28th June 1778 a young Aleut native, Yermusk, was taken aboard the Resolution after his canoe capsized. This portrait by John Webber is probably of this man. Cook recorded the people of the area and their dress:
These people are rather low of Stature, but plump and well shaped, with rather short necks, swarthy chubby faces, black eyes, small beards, and straight long black hair…Their dress…both, Man and Womens are made alike, the only difference is in the Materials, the Womans frock is made of Seal skin and the Mens of birds skin and both reach below the knee…some of them wear boots and all of them a kind of oval snouted Cap made of Wood with a rim to admet the head…
(Cook, Journals III, I, 459-60)

Samwell wrote about the people of Unalaska:
We met several Indians…a very beautiful young Woman accompanied by her Husband…Mr.Webber was willing to have a sketch of her, and as we had time enough on our Hands we sat down together and he made a drawing of her; we were all charmed with the good nature & affability with which she complied with our Whishes in staying to have her picture drawn….She was withal very communicative & intelligent & its was from her I learnt that the Name of the Harbour where the Ships lie is Samgoonoodha.
(Cook, Journals III, 2, 1124)

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