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Cape Maria van Diemen


Cook did not record the names of any Maoris that flocked about Endeavour during the two months along the east coast. The names we have come from Banks, and he gives us only four--the three Poverty Bay boys, and his old man at Mercury Bay. Save for these, the Maoris of the coast are drawn rather like cameo portraits; for the most part they do not emerge as personalities. It is as though Cook were aloof from the life surging about him, as though with grim determination he had but one thought; he had come to chart that coast.

A major goal he had set for himself was to determine the exact position of the northern extremity of the land seen by Tasman in 1643. It is as though the six landings were but six steps of latitude toward that goal. Cook easily could have taken the time to survey the Bay of Islands--his chart would scarcely be complete without doing so--but that would only have delayed him from reaching land's end. Nevertheless, with the ship lying at anchor for thirty-six and a half days, canoes alongside for two months, and Maoris always crowding aboard, inevitably he was caught up in their daily lives. It is as though, with that ineluctable goal before him, he did not realize he was getting to know his Maoris. That Cape was just ahead. He must see what Tasman saw.

It was to have been an easy sail. Endeavour was only thirty-nine miles south of the latitude given by Tasman (34º30'S) for land's end, and less than two degrees east of the correct longitude. That meant that Cook had to sail a trifling sixty miles or so to the northwest. The pace quickened on the quarterdeck when several canoes came under the stern with the welcome news that, not far ahead and at a distance of only three days by canoe, the land turned south at a place called "Moorewhennua." (The Maori name today is Muriwhenua.) Everyone thought of Tasman. That point, all agreed, could only be Cape Maria van Dieman. Endeavour, continuing to tack into the moderate northwest breeze, passed an enticing opening in the coast that Cook named "Doubtless Bay," with a jutting headland he named "Knockle Point." Already halfway to the Cape, he did not pause to look into this obviously safe anchorage. On December 10 the northern extremity came dimly into view, and the next day it was only about eighteen miles ahead.

It was not an easy sail. Endeavour was within a few miles of the cape and only a mile and a half off shore when the winds picked up, turned boisterous, and threw her off course. Never mind, wrote Banks, the wind was "hard hearted," but he had nothing but praise for "our old Collier." During the next thirty days the gales and storms that came out of the west with frequent driving rains were in fact worse at their peak than the gale encountered on the approach to New Zealand. But again and again Cook fought his way close enough to his cape to record no less than sixteen sightings, all taken from a pitching deck, not giving up until he had at last fixed the position to his own satisfaction. On the 14th Endeavour was driven far to the east and out of sight of land, the fore and mizzen topsails had split and a large, rowling swell out of the west meant that she no longer had the protection of the land. Banks was inclined to think "this Cape our Ne plus ultra."39

Early on December 16, Endeavour, in attempt to raise the land, began beating westward against the gale under all the sail she could bear. The gale forced her somewhat northwest, away from the land, so that at noon Cape Maria van Diemen still lay below the horizon, an estimated thirty-three miles to the southwest. But incredibly, Endeavour was not alone. During those daylight hours the unthinkable was happening. Another ship was out there. Sometime around noon, in clear weather, a ship named St. Jean-Baptiste, of 650 tons (Endeavour was 368 tons) and under the command of the French navigator Jean-Francois-Marie de Surville, doubled the cape laboring east, about nine miles offshore. The English and French ships passed each other under clear skies at a distance of only twenty-five or thirty miles, each hull down below the horizon of the other. If a lookout had been looking in the right direction from the masthead of either ship, the other ship might have been seen. But for the gale that kept both ships apart, the two sea captains would have had the surprise of their lives. At daybreak the next morning land was visible from the masthead of Endeavour; the topgallant yards were promptly sent up and a foresail unbent. Then the winds subsided for a time. By 8 A.M. on the 17th, Endeavour, with most of her sails split in the late gale, had worked directly across the previous track of St. Jean-Baptiste to about three or four miles from shore. At 9.15 P.M. the same day Surville dropped anchor in Doubtless Bay near Knuckle Point.40

Surville was a highly competent navigator and without doubt he was as humane and generous as Cook. Fifty years old, he was commanding a privately-financed trading voyage, following the decline of the French India Company, with the intention of discovering the great southern continent and engaging in trade. Carrying a mixed cargo, including valuable cinnamon, cloves, embroidered cloth, grain, and muskets, he had sailed from Pondicherry in India to the Philippines and then had touched at the Solomons. By the time he raised New Zealand, seventeen had died, scurvy was aboard, food supplies were fast dwindling, and he was searching desperately for a landfall in order to succor his surviving 80-odd young sailors. When he found refuge in Doubtless Bay, he sought good relations with the Maoris by giving them a couple of pigs and a bit of wheat. Christmas was bleak aboard the French ship; three more sailors died of scurvy while doubling Cape Maria van Diemen and four died in Doubtless Bay.

Since very little fresh food was found for his sailors and deeply worried about their health, Surville struck out on December 31 for South America, 6,500 miles away, in doing so making the first west to east crossing of the South Pacific. Five more were buried at sea, three of them with scurvy. On April 4, 1770, when his ship anchored off the small town of Chilca on the coast of Peru, the sick aboard were lying in stench and feverish heaps. He decided to go himself to seek help, and was drowned in the surf. Not until Cook reached Cape Town in March of 1775, homebound on the second voyage, did he learn of the Dufresne and Surville tragedies.41 If those two voyages had succeeded, the history of the South Pacific might have taken a different turn; for a time the French lost interest.

By December 19 Cook had made eight determinations of position. He was beginning to think he might have not one, but two capes to contend with at the end of the narrow peninsula, but despite the fearful winds and seas, his reckonings were filling in the puzzle. Naturally he did not do all the work himself. As usual, the astronomer Charles Green was teaching all and sundry how to use the quadrant and sextant; even Monkhouse the surgeon was out in the wind taking altitudes. "I wish they may not grow worse instead of better," wrote Green. They could easily do latitudes, and they were becoming adept at using the new lunar method of calculating longitude. The high-spirited teamwork of those healthy and talented young mariners on that swaying, pitching quarterdeck spelled success, and symbolized the difference between Cook and the gallant Surville. On the 20th Endeavour was three or four miles offshore in another gale with squalls of rain and thunder. Tacking under double-reefed topsails carried her northwest to safe seas out of sight of land.

On the 24th, the weather smiled on the old collier. Banks went out in a boat and brought down several gannets in time for the galley hands to fix a Christmas treat. The second Christmas, like the first, was celebrated according to the yearly tradition on the Cook voyages, and in a manner, Banks recalled, that had a certain precedent. "Our Goose pye was eat with great approbation and in the Evening all hands were as Drunk as our forefathers usd to be upon the like occasion." The next day the weather was still cooperating while the sailors recovered from their party: "This morn all heads achd wih yesterdays debauch."42 Cook, meditating over his calculations, had no time to celebrate or even to notice the commotion.

A fresh gale arrived on the 27th, the sailors having sobered up enough to do some heavy work aloft. "It was a meer hurricane," wrote Cook. He gave the order to wear ship. The main tack, which was the rope holding the main sail in place, gave way, and the sailors set the mizzen staysail and the balanced mizzen; the former was set between the mainmast and mizzenmast like a rudder, the latter presenting the smallest area possible; together they held Endeavour steady before the wind. The storm reached its height. Cook gave the order to wear ship three more times. These maneuvers, by reversing direction, kept the ship from running too far before the wind. On the 30th the cape was in sight again--"the Ship goes boddily to leeward"; the ship herself was acting like a sail--and another position was calculated.

On New Year's Day, 1770, Endeavour was at the latitude of Doubtless Bay, but only about thirty miles away on the other side of the narrow peninsula. Cook was impressed that, in the supposedly milder weather of the southern summer, he had spent five weeks in sailing "10 Leagues to the westward" and "in geting 50 Leagues" from Cape Brett. By then he realized that the peninsula did have two capes, and with a dozen reckonings he had settled on their locations. The northernmost he called "North Cape," the present Muriwhena, and placed it at 34º22'S and 186º18'W, but his calculations were wrong; by today's reckoning, albeit determined on land, his was 4' too far north and 2' too far east! Tasman's Cape Maria van Diemen was a bit west, he found, at 34º30'Sand 187º18'W; again he was wrong by 2' south and 4' or 3.99 miles east.43 But his results, perhaps, were not too bad. Certainly the lunar method of calculating longitude and the new Nautical Almanac on which it was based had proved their value.

Why did Cook subject his crew to a month of high seas just to reckon a position? This was no eccentricity on his part. If he had known the latitude given by Tasman for Cape Maria van Diemen, likely he would have accepted the value as not far from the mark. Obtaining latitude at sea did not present a major problem, even in Tasman's day. In fact, Tasman had also obtained a latitude of 34º30'S, and Cook's reckoning agreed with his to the minute. It was not latitude but longitude that remained a challenge to the eighteenth century. Tasman had done his best. He reckoned his longitude east of Tenerife Island, which was commonly used as the zero meridian in his day, the Greenwich meridian not yet having been universally adopted. Lacking the lunar method, he frequently calculated his longitudes by dead reckoning, with the possibility that error could accumulate. Cook, before determining the position of Cape Maria van Diemen for himself (from Greenwich), would likely have dismissed Tasman's reckoning of 191º9'E (from Tenerife) as way off; indeed it was, by 1º57', or some 116.8 nautical miles too far east.44

Securing an absolutely reliable longitude for land's end, Cook knew, was fundamental to laying down an accurate chart of the New Zealand coastline; doing so moreover would strengthen his reputation as a cartographer and would be a feather in his nautical cap. Since the lunar method of calculating longitude was itself being tested on the voyage of Endeavour, repeated observations of the cape were necessary in order to be confident of the result.

Cook's seamanship was even more extraordinary, if possible, as he sailed south to chart the west coast of North Island. By dead reckoning, on January 2, 1770, he figured he was about forty-eight miles from Cape Maria van Diemen, with no land in sight. He would angle in for a look. "The wind blow'd fresh right on Shore and a high rowling Sea from the same quarter and knowing that there was no harbour that we could put into in case we were caught upon a lee shore." As he edged in south and east, land appeared the next day twenty-four miles away. His problem was the direction of the wind--always from the west--threatening to force him ashore in a pile of wreckage. He had either to sail across the wind and risk landing on the beach or fight against the wind away from shore to safety. But if he chose the latter course, nothing could be learned about that unknown coast--the present ninety-mile beach. On the 4th Endeavour was eighteen miles from land. Utmost vigilance was required, since the square-riggers of the day were awkward to maneuver and required a wide berth to change course. Cook's laconic recitation of gales, reckonings of position, and changes of sail in late December and early January underscored his bravura zeal in laying down a chart of the New Zealand coastline. At nine miles he wrote: "A most desolate and inhospitable aspect, and the great sea which the prevailing westerly winds impell upon the Shore must render this a very dangerous Coast."

But in coming in southeast at an angle, Cook had missed seeing part of that coast. Dangerous or not, he was determined to set eyes on the part he had missed, so he sailed northwest again. Besides, he would have a last look at his Cape Maria van Diemen. On the 7th of January, at the latitude of Doubtless Bay for the second time in a week, the storm was over, Banks was in a boat shooting petrels and pestering the albatrosses resting on the water, and Cook was making his farewell triangulations of his cape.

Land's end symbolized an end and a beginning for Cook: there he achieved a hard-won goal and confirmed his own abilities. He could not know that in Maori tradition, land's end also marked an end and a beginning. At Cape Reinga (near Cape Maria van Diemen) the shadow left the body at death to enter the path of shining light that leads to the spirit world whence none returns.

With Cape Maria van Diemen sinking astern, its position inscribed, Endeavour sailed rather sedately along the coast as Cook and his team continued their running survey. On the 10th a mountaintop suspended above the clouds appeared ahead and became the center of attention as it grew more prominent. When the clouds parted three days later Banks wrote: "It is certainly the noblest hill I have ever seen." Cook named the snow-covered peak "Mount Egmont," after a former First Lord of the Admiralty. The next day Endeavour followed the coast as it curved southeast into the broad, open body of water that had so puzzled Tasman. "Murderers bay," said Banks. No one could see an eastern outlet in the rain. Far to the south, a heavily-wooded shore beckoned, and on January 15 Cook wrote: "At 2 oClock we Anchor'd in a very snug Cove."45

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