In the year 1741 a lad was apprenticed to a haberdasher in a small town
near Whitby in Yorkshire. His name was James Cook, and he was from
the first an example of the square peg in the round hole. So loose
was the fit that the peg presently fell out and rolled away. In other
words, young Cook, not being cut out for a haberdasher, got himself
apprenticed aboard a collier. His ability to hand, reef and steer was
so much greater than his aptitude for wielding a yardstick that, as
soon as his time was out, he was raised to the position of mate.
In 1755, before he was twenty-seven, this remarkable youth joined the
King’s navy as an ordinary seaman. Observe what he accomplished before
ten years were out by his own industry.
Strictly attentive to duty, he rose rapidly, and thrice in succession
was master on a sloop of war, the last occasion being when Quebec was
wrested from the French. That done, he surveyed and charted the St.
Lawrence from Quebec to the sea, although “up to that time” he had
“scarcely ever used a pencil, and had no knowledge of drawing.” But
he had “read Euclid” ever since he joined the navy, and for recreation
enjoyed “the study of astronomy and kindred sciences.” Think of it–the
haberdasher’s boy, the collier’s mate!
The ten years are not yet past. Our hero helped in 1762 to recapture
Newfoundland from the French, and before 1763 was out he was back in
those cold seas, surveying the coasts. Another twelvemonth saw him
appointed Marine Surveyor of Newfoundland and Labrador, under the
orders of his old captain, Sir Hugh Palliser.
Mr. Cook’s astronomical studies now began to bear fruit, and he
received in 1768 his commission as lieutenant and the command of an
expedition to the South Seas to observe the transit of Venus. With
this and other ends in view, Cook, now forty-one, left England in the
_Endeavour_, accompanied by the great botanist, Joseph Banks, and other
men of science.
The narrative of the voyages of this famous circumnavigator is so
easily accessible to all who care to follow “our rough island story,”
that there is no need to epitomise it here. It is sufficient to say
that Cook disproved all which had been previously held proved with
regard to the “polar continent,” and in so doing came into direct and
notable relation with the country whose history we are tracing.
It was the 6th of October, 1769, when the lookout on the _Endeavour_
sighted the bluff of Kuri–North Island–now known as “Young Nick’s
Head.” Supposing the land to be part of that “Terra Australis
Incognita” which he had come to investigate, Cook cast anchor two days
later in the Bay of Turanga, or, as he saw fit to designate it owing to
the inhospitality of the natives, “Poverty Bay.”
At Otaheite, where he had observed the transit of Venus, Cook had
shipped a chief named Tupia, who on many occasions proved of the
greatest use. He had already voyaged hundreds of miles in the great
canoes of the Tahitians, and his father had been an even more intrepid
sailor. It was Tupia who pointed the way to this island and that,
and who, owing to the limitations of his own knowledge, related his
father’s experiences to Cook, assuring him that land lay still farther
to the south.
It was Tupia, too, who landed with his leader on the shore at Turanga,
and addressed the natives in Tahitian, a language which proved
sufficiently like their own to enable them to understand most of what
But though Cook offered presents, and though Tupia charmed never so
wisely with his Tahitian tongue, the Maori would have none of the
Pakeha. They no doubt feared these white visitors. Te Tanewha, a chief
who was a boy when Cook paid his first visit, described many years
later the astonishment of the Maori at the approach of what they
took to be “a whale with wings.” Then, as the _Endeavour’s_ boats
were pulled ashore, the bewilderment of the natives deepened; for it
appeared to them that the Pakeha had eyes in the back of their heads.
This, of course, was due to the position of the rowers, which was
exactly the reverse of that assumed by the Maori in propelling their
The appearance of the natives became threatening, and some of them
tried to make off with one of the calves of the “whale with wings,”
that is, with the ship’s pinnace. Tupia warned them that they ran the
risk of being severely dealt with, but the words of a man of their own
colour moved them not at all. Their hostile demonstrations continued,
and Cook–who was determined to pursue his researches–very reluctantly
drove them back with violence.
Cook was so kindly, so humane, so unused to oppress another merely
because his skin was coloured, that his action caused comment even in
his own day. That the great navigator himself regretted the impulse
which had led him to depart from his usual magnanimous methods, is
evident from the excuses he afterwards put forward in explanation of
During the next six months Cook circumnavigated the islands,
discovering the strait which bears his name between the North and the
Middle Island. Stewart Island he presumed to be the southern extremity
of the Middle Island and, as regards the country, this was one of the
very few errors he made.
Fully alive to the warlike disposition of the Maori, Captain Cook yet
recognised their generosity, their agreeable behaviour to strangers who
did not presume too far, and the unusual gentleness of their attitude
towards their women. “The Englishman who marries a Maori,” he tells us,
“must first obtain the consent of her parents and, this done, … is
obliged to treat her with at least as much delicacy as in England.”
In many passages Cook shows how clearly he perceived the superiority
of these “Indians” over ordinary savages. Moreover, despite certain
pronounced faults, and the prevalence of one odious custom, he readily
admits their chivalrous nature.
Yet he occasionally fell into the common error of crediting the race
with the disposition of the individual, so that, if one lied or
thieved, the natives in that particular part are set down as “lying and
thievish.” But, though they opposed his efforts to explore the interior
of the country, and so disappointed him, Captain Cook’s experience
among the Maori left him little to complain of; while the failings they
displayed might well have been recognised as, first, the faults of
their age and race, and second, the faults common to all men, white,
brown, yellow, or black.
Still, for all his criticisms, Captain Cook was never personally harsh
in his dealings with the Maori, and it would have been well had his
subordinates imitated more exactly his fine magnanimity. The following
account of an Englishman’s hasty temper, and the cool judgment, not to
say generosity, of the Maori chiefs, is very instructive.
On one occasion, when a party of Maori visitors were leaving the
ship, Lieutenant Gore missed a piece of calico, which he was possibly
endeavouring to exchange for native articles. Confident that a certain
Maori had stolen the stuff, Gore deliberately fired at the man as he
sat in the canoe, and killed him. The lieutenant was right in his
belief, for, when the canoe reached the shore, the blood-stained
calico was found beneath the dead man; but his action was that of a
savage–worse, since he, no doubt, claimed a higher order of mind. The
only excuse that can be offered for Gore is that he lived at a time
when even children were hanged for stealing trifles, and he may have
believed himself entitled to mete out this rough-and-ready justice.
What followed? The Maori–admittedly savages–did not at once return
and clamour for revenge; though an eye for an eye and blood for blood
was one of the strongest articles in their creed. No; the chiefs took
the matter in hand, calmly and dispassionately judged the dead man and
found him guilty of theft. Therefore, they determined that _utu_ should
not be exacted on account of the killing of their tribesman. That
they were perfectly sincere, and did not seek to disguise sentiments
of hatred and desire for revenge under a mask of forgiveness, is
entirely proved by the fact that Captain Cook landed after this unhappy
occurrence and went about among them just as if nothing had happened.
It is right to say that Captain Cook was no party to his subordinate’s
impetuous action, for violence was foreign to his methods. Says one of
his biographers–“It was impossible for any one to excel Captain Cook
in kindness of disposition, as is evident from the whole tenor of his
behaviour, both to his own men and to the many savage tribes with whom
he had occasion to interfere.”
So convinced was Captain Cook of the advantage this beautiful country
must some day prove to Britain, that he took nominal possession of
the islands in the name of King George the Third. Yet it was not
until 1787, eight years after the death of Cook, that New Zealand
was included by royal commission within the British dominions, while
another quarter of a century elapsed before Europe, at the Peace of
1814, recognised Great Britain’s claim.
How good a use Captain Cook made of the six months he spent in New
Zealand before he sailed to gather fresh laurels in Australia, any one
may read for himself in the story of his voyages. On each occasion
he introduced useful plants and animals into the islands, and it was
due to him that the animal food which the Maori had always lacked,
became so readily procurable in the shape of pigs, which soon after
their introduction ran wild and multiplied. The sweet potato was there
already; but it is to Cook that New Zealand owes the ordinary potato,
the turnip, cabbage, and other vegetables and fruit.
Te Tanewha described Captain Cook as a reserved man who “constantly
walked apart, swinging his right arm from side to side.” This has been
held to mean that, whenever Captain Cook landed, he scattered the seeds
of useful plants, in the hope that they would grow and fructify.
There were further misunderstandings when Cook revisited the Islands
in 1779, the worst of them being wholly due to the wicked action of
an English sailor who first robbed and then shot a Maori. With the
slaughter of the natives which followed Cook had nothing to do; more,
the great navigator, who was as true and generous a gentleman as ever
stepped, completely absolved the Maori from blame.
This was happily the last difficulty; for Cook arrived at a better
understanding with the Maori and a clearer conception of the fine
character which underlay their faults. The natives, too, showed
an ever-increasing confidence in their famous visitor, whom they
affectionately styled “Cookie.” Notwithstanding their regard, they
never allowed him to penetrate far inland.
Had Cook not been the just and temperate man he was, he might have
pierced the interior with an armed force, composed of his own men and
aborigines, and depopulated the land.
During the period of Captain Cook’s visits the Maori were constantly at
war, and the unwillingness of the coast tribes to allow him to proceed
inland was probably due to their fear that he would aid the chiefs
there, return, and exterminate them. So they first obstructed the
progress of the explorer, and then made certain grim, but exceedingly
practical, proposals to him.
These in effect were that Captain Cook should join forces with this
tribe or that, proceed inland, and duly exterminate–everybody. This
excellent scheme, properly carried through, would have left certain of
the coast tribes supreme until civil strife began again to divide them.
But what if Cook had turned upon them in their turn?
Fortunately this was not Captain Cook’s way; but that he recognised
what was at the bottom of all these requests for help is clear from his
“Had I acted as some members of almost every tribe with whom we had
dealings would have had me act, I might have extirpated the entire New
Could any words more distinctly show the good disposition of Captain
Cook, and at the same time prove how plagued the Maori were with
The day came at length when this great and good man, who did so much
for Britain, must say a last farewell to the country towards which he
seemed so singularly drawn. For it was written that he should never
again see the Waters of Greenstone or the land of his birth, but should
fall a victim to his own humanity at the hands of savages whom he was
endeavouring to protect.
Such was the admiration which this great navigator and good man
inspired that, when war was declared between England and France in
1779, the French Minister of Marine issued orders to the navy that, if
encountered at sea, the ship of Captain Cook was to be treated with
courtesy. “For,” said he, “honour, reason, and even interest, dictate
this act of respect for humanity; nor should we treat as an enemy the
common benefactor of every European nation.” The Americans, then at
the height of their struggle for freedom, had already anticipated this
generous action by the mouth of their famous citizen, Benjamin Franklin.
Captain Cook was dead before knowledge of this splendid tribute to his
services and to his virtues could reach him; but, being dead, he was
not forgotten, for the whole world mourned his loss and honoured his
memory, as it has done ever since.
When Captain Cook died Britain was just awaking to a realisation of
the evils of slavery, and beginning to recognise and endeavour to
obviate the fact that, when and wherever the white man appeared among
the coloured races, the latter invariably suffered. How intensely
Captain Cook realised this, how earnestly he set himself to afford a
good example to those who should come after him, and how his countrymen
appreciated his aims and his success, these lines from Hannah More’s
poem on “Slavery” show:–
Had those advent’rous spirits who explore,
Thro’ ocean’s trackless wastes, the far-sought shore,
Whether of wealth insatiate, or of power,
Conquerors who waste, or ruffians who devour;
Had these possessed, O Cook, thy gentle mind,
Thy love of arts, thy love of human-kind;
Had these pursu’d thy mild and gentle plan,
DISCOVERERS had not been a curse to man!