Captain Cook: explorer standing the test of time

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The Independent Online

On January 11, 1780, the London Gazette reported the death of Captain Cook, "on the island of O'Why'he .

.. in an affray with a numerous and tumultuous Body of Natives."

Eighteenth century communications were such that it had taken 11 months for this "melancholy account" to get back from Hawaii, as we now call it, but Britain still took the news of the death of its greatest ever explorer to heart.

On three epic voyages, Cook, an expert cartographer, did more to chart the vast and largely unexplored Pacific Ocean than any other, bringing back tales of island paradises inhabited by strange peoples and outlandish flora and fauna.

Eulogies were written, plays depicting his voyages were performed in London and Paris, and King George III "shed tears," according to the London Gazette.

In the 20th century, Cook's legacy took a battering amid accusations that his "discoveries" led to colonialism and the devastation of the traditional societies he came into contact with.

But as an exhibition now on in Bonn, Germany, shows, Cook's exploits still stand the test of time, showing the key role he played in a movement that fundamentally changed the way Europe saw the world: the Enlightenment.

This would see the superstitions and traditions of the past begin to be rolled back and replaced with reason, science and a belief in the power of progress that would fire the world-changing Industrial Revolution.

"His voyages were a product of the Enlightenment, and at the same time they greatly inspired the Enlightenment itself," Henriette Pleiger, one of the curators of the exhibition, told AFP.

Cook took with him a troop of hugely talented artists, botanists and other scientists who would document, draw and paint all that the crew came across in their many years at sea.

They also stuffed the ships with a wealth of botanical and zoological findings as well as an extensive collection of curiosities obtained from lands they visited, hauls that would wow Europe and make Cook a household name.

Everything brought back was subsequently scattered throughout the world, with the largest collection in Germany, and the Bonn exhibition reunites 550 of them for the first time in more than two centuries.

These include beautifully-carved wooden weapons, Pacific island chiefs' ceremonial headdresses and warriors' breast ornaments from pearl oyster and shark teeth, as well as a boomerang and a sketch of a kangaroo.

"We had the Tongan Princess Frederica (Lupe'uluiva Fatafehi-o-Lapaha Tuita) here for the opening, and she was really weeping when she saw this, because these old techniques don't exist any more," Pleiger said.

Nothing underlines more clearly the scale of Cook's achievements more than two globes made just 19 years apart.

The first, from 1764, four years before Cook's maiden trip, shows only the northern part of Australia, New Zealand is absent, while a huge land mass, "Terra Australis Incognita", covers the base.

Although others chipped away at this mythical land, it was Cook who dispelled it once and for all, circumnavigating the globe as far south as he could safely go, dodging icebergs and braving treacherous storms.

The result is plain to see on the second globe, made in 1783, with the mythical continent wiped off the map, Australia and New Zealand complete and the Pacific resembling much more how we know it today.

Helping Cook was the quantum leap achieved in marine navigation at the time, notably a breakthrough in cracking the holy grail of 18th century mariners: longitude.

The key was knowing what the local time was at a given reference point - Greenwich - and on his second voyage he was able to properly test for the first time a copy of the "sea watch" of fellow Yorkshireman John Harrison.

Taking the watch on board, along with 27 tonnes of ship's biscuit and 19,000 litres of beer, Cook noted in his logbook - on show in Bonn - that his "trusty friend ... exceeded the expectations of its most Zealous advocate."

- How do you do? -

But his voyages were also about radically different cultures coming face to face for the first time, mostly peaceful meetings sparking mutual fascination that Pleiger calls "the beginning of ethnographic study."

Cook was greatly helped by the fact that on his first voyage a Tahitian high priest came with them who was able to communicate with other Polynesians thanks to shared language and ancestry.

"Without Tupaia, the Maori believe that Cook's first footsteps on Aotearoa (New Zealand) in 1769 would have been his last," according to historian Paul Tapsell.

They were in awe of Tupaia, and apparently commanding a crew of strange-looking white men only heightened his prestige. Today his name lives on in Maori oral tradition, in place names and even children's names.

In Australia, where Cook and his crew landed at what is now Botany Bay on April 28, 1770, Tupaia was unable to communicate with the locals and contact was limited.

"All they seem'd to want was for us to be gone," Cook noted.

After charting the east coast, taking possession of it and calling it New South Wales, and very nearly coming a cropper on the Great Barrier Reef, he would never return to Australia.

He would also visit the Tonga archipelago, named the Friendly Islands for the warm reception, Easter Island, New Caledonia and Vanuatu, as well as the western coast of North America from California to the Bering Strait.

But in Hawaii on his third voyage, which took him in search of the famed Northwest Passage, Cook's luck ran out when a series of misunderstandings ended in a skirmish and his death.

His widow Elizabeth would live for another 56 years.

The exhibition runs at Bonn's Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany until February 28, 2010.

It is at Vienna's Museum of Ethnology from May to September 2010, and Bern's Historisches Museum from October 2010 to February 2011. Talks are also at an advanced stage for it to move then to London's Natural History Museum.

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