Cook’s Ark: The animals that sailed with James Cook. Alison Sutherland. 2019

Cook’s Ark: The animals that sailed with James Cook. Alison Sutherland. 2019

Sutherland, Alison. 
Cook’s Ark: The animals that sailed with James Cook
Published by the author. 
ISBN 978-0-473-49316-5.  
180 pages.

Cook’s Log readers will be aware that James Cook was the son of a farm labourer, so as a boy, would have helped out on farms in both Marton and Great Ayton.  And that a life on the farm, and behind the shop counter at Staithes for that matter, was evidently too dreary a prospect.  The young man escaped to the open sea, embarking on his life of high adventure, famously going “as far as possible… for any man to go”.  Despite this, at the peak of his illustrious career, Cook ironically, was once again charged with caring for farm animals, a truly remarkable number and variety during his last voyage, and ordered by no less than King George III (“farmer George”) to transport them safely half-way around the planet.


Animals, of course, were normally carried on ships in the 18th century, but as “sea stock” to supplement a ship’s victuals with fresh meat, eggs and, even, milk so long as they lasted, which wasn’t normally long.


As J.C. Beaglehole observed of Cook, “a country bred boy, in his after career he had a good eye for the land as well as the sea”.1  We could add that he doubtless also had a good eye for livestock, which eventually must have proved useful even as far from a farm as any boy could get.  Ensuring the wellbeing and safe delivery of a large number of animals across the great Southern Ocean, within the confines of an already overcrowded ship, one imagines would have furnished just one more set of worries among the many for Cook, especially during that fateful final voyage.


Cook’s Ark focuses on the menagerie of the animals that sailed with Cook, presenting a novel, previously neglected aspect of Cook’s epic voyages.


The background to Sutherland’s interest in James Cook and his voyages of discovery is itself rather novel.  Sutherland is an unabashed animal lover and a leading supporter of the protection of a herd of goats on Arapawa Island in the Marlborough Sounds of New Zealand.  As part of the successful campaign to save the goats from eradication by conservation authorities seeking to protect the island’s remnant native forest from their browsing, she established the New Zealand Arapawa Goat Association, the “Arapawa Goat Family”, to whom she has dedicated this book.


Arapawa Island happens to be an important place in the Cook saga.  The 13km long sheltering island helps form Queen Charlotte Sound, wherein lies Endeavour Inlet and Ship Cove, where Cook called and anchored a remarkable five times, and Tobias Furneaux anchored twice.  But rather than just a geographical feature and attractive scenic backdrop, it is a stage for action.  It was where, for instance, the dreadful Grass Cove massacre of some of Furneaux’s men took place.  Cook went ashore several times in Queen Charlotte Sound, and used a highpoint as a lookout.  He and his men also made a number of livestock introductions, including pigs and goats.


Sutherland’s interest, as she explains, was stimulated by the “urban legend” that the present-day goats on Arapawa Island are descended from a pair released there by Cook during his Second Voyage, and were, therefore, the last of a now extinct “Old English” breed.  It was Sutherland’s attempt to confirm the authenticity of this informa­tion that set her on the road of historical research, leading her to the Cook journals.  Unfortunately, for the goat enthusiasts, as she reports, the ancestry of the Arapawa goats cannot be directly genetically linked to the Old English variety or to any existing European breed.  But Sutherland’s quest did lead her to write this book.


As she relates
I began studying the history of the goats, reading old manuscripts, including the journals of James Cook.  The stories that unfolded were so different from the history taught at school.  Inspired by the delightful story of a ten-year-old Māori boy and an Old English goat, I wrote and published a children’s illustrated book, Old Will, in 2013.


In 2016, she wrote and published a second book, No Ordinary Goat,2 written for adults, as part of the Arapawa goat campaign.


Cook’s Ark is based on these earlier books and the research that went into them.  Sutherland’s “Ark” theme is woven into a three-part summary of each of Cook’s three Pacific voyages.  The soft-cover production is tightly edited, Sutherland’s narrative is crisply written, engaging the reader with fascinating anecdotes, the font is easy to read and the book generously illustrated, perhaps lavishly so, with old and new images.


It should be noted that the islands of Oceania had evolved for tens of millions of years without land mammals.  When people reached these islands, they brought with them dogs, rats and pigs.  New Zealand had no land mammals until the arrival of the Polynesian ancestors of the Māori, bringing dogs and the rats, about 1280 AD, some 500 years before Cook.3  Domestic pigs evidently did not survive the voyage to New Zealand.  It is also worth noting, though not within the ambit of Cook’s Ark, that the arrival of man and his mammals had a devastating impact on the large flightless birds, reptiles and invertebrates that had until then dominated New Zealand.


A second wave of mammalian introductions to New Zealand began with Cook’s Second and Third Voyages, and reached its peak in the mid 19th century with European settlement, transforming New Zealand into an agricultural country.  Interest­ingly, as Sutherland notes, Cook was not the first European explorer to introduce exotic livestock to New Zealand.  Instead it was a French contemporary of Cook’s, Jean-Francois-Marie de Surville, captain of St Jean Baptiste.  He presented Doubtless Bay Māori with a pair of pigs and bantam chickens in December 1769.4  Cook and Endeavour were at that time not far away.5  Cook introduced livestock, domestic animals and vegetables to New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.  In regard to the early French visits to New Zealand, Sutherland, perhaps not wanting to overlook the mention of any animal, unfortunately quotes a journal entry of Jean Roux of the Marion Dufresne expedition of 1772, who reportedly found “a skeleton of an ass” in a village inland from Spirits Bay.  This she sourced to a book by McNab,6 but this phrase has long since been discredited as a simple translation error.  As the scholar Isabel Ollivier ascertained, the correct translation was “the form of a trough”.7 


Though an obviously diligent researcher with an impressive knowledge and empathy for domestic animals, especially heritage breeds, Sutherland is not a trained biologist.  This might explain the omission from citation of Carolyn King’s seminal work, The Handbook of New Zealand Mammals.8  Familiarity with it would have rescued Sutherland from the presumption that the common rat species on board Cook’s ships was the black rat or ship rat (Rattus rattus) when it was in fact the Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus).  As the distinguished ecologist Ian Atkinson explained in 1985
At some time after 1700 - but probably no later than 1716 - an ecological event occurred in Europe that changed the whole trend of rat spread to oceanic islands.  This was the movement of R. norvegicus from the region north of the Caspian Sea into western Europe, where it largely displaced R. rattus… The displacement of European R. rattus by R. norvegicus during the 1700s resulted in dominance by R. norvegicus at ports…  As a result, R. norvegicus replaced R. rattus as the common rat aboard European and American sailing ships, so for a century or more after 1700 rat invasions of oceanic islands involved mainly R. norvegicus.  The spread of R. rattus was curtailed from approximately 1700 to 1830 and probably 1850 in some parts of the world.9


Multiple livestock introductions to New Zealand and the Pacific Islands were made by Cook as gift offerings, sometimes at the request of local chiefs.  In New Zealand, on occasion breeding pairs were secreted ashore by Cook (and by Furneaux), and released in remote areas in the hope they might survive the immediate attentions, and appetites, of the local people.  Of these animal introductions to New Zealand only pigs, notably the ancestors of the feral “Captain Cookers” are generally considered to be descended from animals released by Cook.  Sutherland believes her Arapawa goats are also descended from a pair that Cook gave to an importunate local chief immediately before sailing from New Zealand for the last time in 1777.  She believes the Arapawa goats are genetically related to South African breeds, a place where Cook purchased goats on his last voyage.  If so, it is ironic as, in this instance, Cook gave up the goats only reluctantly being very anxious to clear the ship of visitors.  None of this linkage has been scientifically proven but Sutherland’s conclusions are well argued and, given the extraordinary trouble Cook went to with his introductions, most people would hope she is right.


Sutherland is at her enthusiastic best in her description of the rather amazing event at Ship Cove, New Zealand, during Cook’s last visit, where, rather like the Biblical Noah, Cook disembarked from Resolution a veritable herd of livestock, though probably not two-by-two.  An “Ark” indeed.  Horses, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, peacocks, turkeys, geese and ducks, most of which were bound for Tonga, Huahine and Tahiti, were allowed a few days on the land.  She writes
Animals too large for the men to handle in the small boats were pushed over the side.  Men with prods were arranged in the water to create a channel to the beach.  The terrified animals were coaxed to swim to the shore…  When the saturated animals scrambled to the safety of the beach, men were positioned to herd them into purpose-built enclosures.  Some like the cats, dogs and ships’ goats were free to wander amongst the tents.


It must have been a surreal sight, particularly for the astonished Māori onlookers.


And then we move to the dénouement.  Cook, worn out, irascible, evidently disillusioned, indeed apparently belatedly disturbed by the dreadful implications of the Grass Cove massacre at the hands of people he had always thought of as his friends, seems a changed man.  Now a martinet, he appears to vent his anger on the people of Mo`orea, rampag­ing around the island in pursuit of a stolen goat, destroying canoes, and attempting to discharge his ships’ pestilent rats onto the island.  Having finally safely delivered the last of the animals, as per the king’s orders, it was time to sail to the remote North Pacific to undertake an even more onerous mission, finding the Northwest Passage.  On the way he makes the fateful discovery of the islands of Hawai`i.


Cook’s Ark comes with an endorsement on its jacket from John Robson, President of the Captain Cook Society, to whom I will leave the last word.  “Alison Sutherland is to be congratulated as yet another gap in the Cook canon has been filled by this most interesting book”.  I agree.


Michael Lee


  1. Beaglehole, J.C. The Life of Captain James Cook. Stanford University Press. 1974. Page 4.
  2. Sutherland, Alison.No Ordinary Goat: the story of New Zealand’s Arapawa Goats. New Zealand Arapawa Goat Association.2016.
  3. Wilmshurst, Janet M., Anderson, Atholl J., Higham, Thomas F.G. and Worthy, Trevor H. “Dating the late prehistoric dispersal of Poly­nesians to New Zealand using the commensal Pacific rat” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.2008. Vol. 105, no. 22. Pages 7676–7680.
  4. Lee, Michael. Navigators & Naturalists: French Exploration of New Zealand and the South Seas (1769-1824). Bateman Books. 2018. Reviewed in Cook’s Log. 2019. Vol. 42, no. 2. Pages 39-42.
  5. Lee, Michael. “Endeavour and St Jean Baptiste” in Cook’s Log. 2018. Vol. 41, no. 4. Pages 48-53.
  6. McNab, Robert. Historical Records of New Zealand.Vol II. Government Printer.1914. Page 365.
  7. Ollivier, Isabel. Early Eyewitness Accounts of Maori Life: Vol. 2.  Extracts from journals relating to the visit to New Zealand in May–July 1772 of the French Ships Mascarin and Marquis de Castries under the command of M.J. Marion du Fresne.Transcription and translation by Isabel Ollivier with an appendix of charts and drawings compiled by Jeremy Spencer. Alexander Turnbull Library Endowment Trust with Indosuez NZ Ltd. 1985. Page 134.
  8. King, Carolyn M. (ed).The Handbook of New Zealand Mammals.Oxford University Press.1990.
  9. Atkinson, I. A. E.“The spread of commensal species of Rattus to oceanic islands and their effects on island avifaunas” in Moors, P. J. (ed). Conservation of island birds. International Council for Bird Preservation.1985.

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 64, volume 43, number 2 (2020).


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