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Academic Perceptions of Cook's Role in the Opening of the Pacific


At the opening of a Cook exhibition at the Victoria State Library during the CCSU gathering in Australia last year a talk was given by Professor Bernard Smith, Professor of History at Melbourne University, concerning the current academic perception of Cook's role in opening the Pacific.

Professor Smith first got interested in the Art of Cook when Beaglehole asked him to do some research on this many years ago.

Here is his address:-

The evil that men do lives after them, The good is oft interred with their bones.

That's one way to start isn't it, but in Cook's case it misses the point rather badly. Because his bones were not properly interred, they were carried around for over forty years in a reliquary bundle at Hawaii (at the carnival time of the god Lono, the time of the god's harvest festival) as a sign that the god had returned, and a sign perhaps too that the god was now an Englishman.

In Cook's case both the good and evil aspects of his admittedly astounding achievements have been keenly debated since his death, and it looks as though the debate will go on indefinitely.

Mr Martin, the local Australian co-ordinator of your Captain Cook Study Unit, recently asked me "where properly does the history of Captain Cook begin and end".

I could give him no satisfactory answer. Because unlike the alleged discovery of eastern Australia by the Portuguese which (even if it did occur) had no real consequences either for Australia or the Pacific and is of interest only to historians for whom history is a kind of cross-word puzzle game - unlike the alleged Portuguese discovery of Australia, Cook's voyages had immense consequences for the modern world.

It is just because his three Pacific voyages changed the world so radically that their good and evil consequences continue to be debated so fervently - particularly by the historians of the new nations now emerging in the Pacific. Indeed discussing Cook's achievements tends to turn into a discussion as to whether modern industrial society is a blessing or a curse.

And to that question, surely, there is no simple answer: we enjoy the benefits even as we become increasingly apprehensive as to the costs. So it is with assessing Cook's achievements. It is like passing a judgement on the modern world, for he was unquestionably one of the great formative agents in the creation of the modern world.

All this means that for the serious students of history the time is now long past when Captain James Cook R.N. can be regarded simple-mindedly as a hero of Empire and a discoverer of new lands.

Admidst the collapse of the colonial empires, living as we do amid mounting criticism of the cultural consequences of high technology, it is highly important that Cook and his achievements be seen and judged in a less Eurocentric fashion than they have been. We might have to admit, for example, that Cook discovered little in the way of new lands, that wherever he came he found people already settled for centuries, that his discoveries could even be described as a useful eighteenth-century English legal fiction.

The peoples he encountered in the Pacific provided him, through trading, with the provisions essential for the successful prosecution of his ventures.

The discovery of the world is really a subject for prehistorians. Cook was not a discoverer of new lands in any fundamental sense of the word. He was the highly successful and highly efficient leader of three well-balanced, scientific research teams, a communications man, instrumental in bringing a mixed bag of goods, ironware and syphilis, written language and centralised government, and much more, to the Pacific.

It could be said, indeed, of Cook that more than anyone else he helped to make the world one world, not an harmonious world as the men of the Enlightenment - and he was one of the greatest of the sons of the Enlightenment - had so rashly hoped, but at least a more interdependent world. His ships, you might say, began the process of making the world a global village.

Nor must Cook be viewed as an innocent agent of history. Already by the Second Voyage he was well aware that he was bringing evils as well as benefits to the Pacific. He became aware how the Polynesian desire for iron tools and nails, for example, was beginning to break down their traditional moral values - he grasped the connection between trading and syphilis.

He did what he could to minimise such evils but, as he knew, it was beyond him. Sometimes he could behave with great brutality - as when his boats were at risk, sometimes, as in the annexation of New Zealand and Australia, his desire for patriotic achievement may possibly have exceeded the precise words of his instructions.

Yet when his actions in the Pacific are assessed in both human and moral terms it can still be said that he behaved better than any who came from Europe before him and better than most who came after him to convert, trade and conquer.

There is an increasing awareness these days among historians to see Cook not as hero and discoverer, but as a vital agent in the process of Euro-Pacific cultural contact. There is also an increasing awareness that he was the leader of at least two remarkably able and successful scientific teams.

So far the men who worked with him have not yet gained their full recognition. Until recently, for example, the remarkable scientific work of Johann Reinhold Forster and his son George, has gone largely unrecognised. Or Michael Hoare with his important book on the senior Forster, "The Tactless Philosopher" (Hawthorn Press, Melbourne, 1976), and his editing of J.R. Forster's "Resolution Journal" for The Hakluyt Society (1982), has gone far to redress that situation.

Or take the case of the young Scot, Sydney Parkinson, who travelled as natural-history draughtsman for Banks, on the Endeavour voyage, and died out of Batavia on the last stretch of the voyage; Parkinson, as you will know, made the first drawings of a large number of the Australian aboriginals. He also collected vocabularies more extensively than anyone else on the Endeavour and compiled an invaluable journal.

But Parkinson has never to my knowledge ever been honoured by any Australian agency: no stamp designed in his honour, no place, no street, has ever been named after him. For Australians it is as if Parkinson had never existed.

One eighteenth-century eulogist of Cook pointed out that the light that blazes from the reputations of heroes blinds us all to the achievements of their companions. So it has been with Cook; so it was with Parkinson. Banks, his employer, clearly wanted his name expunged from the historical record and it is quite surprising how successful, in the end, he was.

But things are changing. Professor Denis Carr's book on Parkinson (Australian National University and British Museum of Natural History, 1984) has done much to redeem his reputation, particularly in the area of natural history. Yet still more needs to be done before we can fully assess his contribution to Cook's Endeavour voyage.

I have been engaged, intermittently, over the past 35 years, in tracking down the original drawings of Pacific peoples, landscapes and artefacts, made by the artists and others who travelled with Cook. The results of this work will be published as "The Art of Captain Cook's Voyages" (R. Jopien and B. Smith), by Oxford University Press, Melbourne in 3 volumes. We expect the first two volumes to appear early in 1985. Eventually it is to be hoped that it will be possible to publish all the visual material associated with Cook's three voyages. It will thus serve as an indispensable complement to the late Professor J.C. Beaglehole's admirable Hakluyt edition of Cook's journals.

What then is particularly interesting to Cook historians today is this question of culture contact and the contributions that Cook's companions made to his voyages.

Admittedly that isn't the kind of history that can be readily symbolised in commemorative stamp design. Yet there many be a place one day, when our old imperial pretensions and conventions have withered on the vine, for stamps that commemorate not only Cook and Sir Joseph Banks, but Cook's scientists, such as the Forsters, and the professional artists who travelled with him, Parkinson, Hodges and Webber.

For it was these men who provided Europe with its first intellectual and visual conceptions of the Pacific, world. Furthermore it was these artists and scientists who were the first to realise that the problems and the significance of culture-contact would in the end become of Greater importance than the imperial ambitions of possession and occupancy.

Cooks voyages, to put it another way, began to pose sharply the problems of living in a multi-cultural world. He did what he could to face the daunting problems of living in such a world. To day we are still learning to face the kinds of problems he had to face daily in the Pacific over two hundred years ago.

Bernard Smith

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 344, volume 8, number 2 (1985).

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