Perhaps, there is one impressive way, to start this piece...or, perhaps not? A beautiful, well phrased literary quote from Shakespeare will make the difference:
'The evil that men do, lives after them
The good is oft interr'd within their bones'. --Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2
However, in Captain Cook's case, I believe this message has missed the point...very badly. Because, his bones were not properly interred; they were carried around for over forty years, in a casket 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 none, other an Englishman!
In Cook's case, both the good and evil aspects of his astounding achievements have been keenly debated since his death. Cook's three Pacific voyages had immense consequences because they changed the world, so radically that their good and evil consequences have continued to be debated over time.
And, now the big issue: is modern day industrial society, a blessing or an unavoidable curse? We have continued to enjoy the benefits, even as we became increasingly apprehensive, in reference to the costs. I strongly feel that Cook was unquestionably a great 'formative' agent, in the creation of this modern world.
Amidst the collapse of the colonial empires, it is highly significant that Cook and his achievements be seen and judged in a less Eurocentric fashion. The erstwhile Captain Cook discovered little in the way of new lands; that whichever territories he came; he had found people already settled there for centuries. His discoveries could even be described as a useful eighteenth-century English, legal 'fiction'. The people he had encountered in the Pacific had 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 pre-historians. Contrary to a mistaken image, we have carried in mind, Cook was not a discoverer of new lands, in any fundamental sense. He was the highly successful and also a highly efficient leader of three 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.
Cook had helped to make this world, one world --not an harmonious world, as the men of the Enlightenment had so rashly hoped, but at least a more interdependent world. His ships began the process of making the world, a global village.
We must not allow Cook to 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 certainly had grasped, the connection between trading and syphilis.
He did what he could, to minimise such evils but, as he knew, it was beyond his capacity. Sometimes, he could behave with great brutality -- as and when, his boats were at risk, and also sometimes, as in the annexation of New Zealand and Australia, his desire for patriotic achievement may have exceeded his jurisdictions!
Although his actions in the Pacific are assessed in both human, and moral terms, it can still be said that he behaved better than any seafaring Captain, who came from Europe before him....and better than most who came after him to convert, trade and conquer; he was the leader.....of remarkably able, and successful scientific teams.
It was really these men, who had provided Europe with its first intellectual and visual conceptions of the Pacific world. Furthermore, these were the artists and scientists who had been ordained to be 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.
The obvious fallout was that Cook's voyages had posed 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. Today we are still learning to face the kinds of problems, he had to face every day in the Pacific.
At this juncture, I am greatly inclined to quote Alexander Pope's famous line:
'The proper study of Mankind is Man'
When I commenced writing this piece, I had humbly quoted Shakespeare's eulogy for Emperor Caesar -the ultimate challenge to historians: to see beyond the constraints of our own cultural and political prejudices, that requires an attempt at self-awareness. Furthermore, we can apply different lenses (and mirrors) to examine the Human Conditions of the past and present, in order to think about hierarchies, 'intrinsic' to notions of culture, race and political systems.
Despite what has earlier been stated by the illustrious Professor Smith, about the notion of 'god' being an Englishman, Cook's father was a Scottish farm laborer in Yorkshire (thus, Cook had a chip on each shoulder). His father's employer paid for Cook's primary education, but thereafter, Cook had worn the hat of an ''autodidact', a scholar without formal education, determined to better himself, despite the obstacles of class and wealth.
By his diligent perseverance, Cook rose in the hierarchies of both Merchant and Royal Navies....to be appointed leader of these global expeditions. Cook had cared for his men, as evidenced by absence of Vadillo or deaths from scurvy, the plague of seafaring. The leader had perhaps, 'tricked' his crew, into eating the anti-scorbutic Sauerkraut by saying it was reserved for the officers and gentlemen, implying that it was extremely good for the sailors.
Generally speaking, Cook respected other cultures and their hierarchies; however, his draconian judgment, obsessive materialism and cultural insensibility (whether exacerbated by his physical or mental condition) had obviously, led to his death. Before Hawaii, Cook had taken to punishing petty theft, with the wanton destruction of canoes and homes, incarceration, flogging and the removal of ears. His attempt to take a king hostage, against the return of one of the ship's boats, led to the fatal confrontation on Kealakukea beach (February 14 of 1779).
Cook's crew had responded by shooting some twenty Hawaiians. The more lasting damage to the people of this volcanic island was from the dreaded syphilis introduced by subsequent European contacts, which (according to G W Bates' 1854 estimate) had reduced the population from 500,000 in 1779 to around 90,000 residents. We need to remind ourselves that Leprosy had also gained a powerful foothold, in the 1830's.
Cook's 'discovery' of Australia, has further provided Britain another dumping ground for unwanted petty criminals. Charles Dickens had pointed to this judicial process, in his famous novel 'Great Expectations'. It was the convict (and a Benefactor), condemned to the Australian shores, who had left a 'windfall' for the hero Phillip (or, Pip in that novel). Those first settlers had looked down upon the Aboriginal population (who had preceded them by some 65,000 years) and wiped-out, the Tasmanian aborigine.
When sugar plantations had required cheap labour, aborigines were duly enslaved and people-trafficking (Black birding), became a profitable business throughout the Pacific. Perhaps, in the context of recent migration attempt, same notions of racial superiority and entitlement, which has permitted such atrocities.
It still drives the current Australian Foreign Policy to imprison refugees from Western Wars, in offshore concentration camps, oblivious to international law. Pacific Islands have suffered the worst of colonial exploitation and their subsequent use as military bases or nuclear weapons testing grounds has but remained an abomination. Perhaps there were two sides to Captain Cook's character, which is indeed an all-too Human trait. Robert Burns' memorable lines need to be referred:
'Man's Inhumanity to Man,
Makes countless thousands mourn!"
This was written in 1784, just two years before he had almost embarked upon a position on a Jamaican plantation. Can we not listen to those better angels of our nature? A God's gift, there is one such loving angel, who hails from Hawaii and wishes to bring the spirit of Aloha and respect for Mankind: Tulsi Gabbard is running for US Presidency in 2020, but her pacifism may well lead to her destruction by the media.....all of which owned by the masters of our global destiny!
Good luck, till we meet again.
The writer is a former educator
based in Chicago
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