British Empire Article

by Taylor Benson

James Cook
When we think of European explorers we imagine vicious brutes that exploit more than explore. We imagine Christopher Columbus in 1492 enslaving Arawak natives. We picture flags being thrust into the earth and claimed for the king, while piles of dead natives build up.

Initially colonisation was a brutal business but over the years it became more refined. Once the destructive phase was over civility could and did return as the conquerors claimed complete domination and invested time and effort in attaining and developing new acquisitions. We know this from British India and how our imported infrastructure helped push India from third world to developing.

Before a land can be colonised it must first be discovered and explored. One of Britain’s greatest explorers was Captain James Cook. He started life as a farmer’s son and after receiving an education went to work on coal ships running between the mines near Newcastle and the coal hungry population of London.

During the mid-Eighteenth Century, the Royal Naval was eager to recruit new sailors. War with France was escalating into what would be known as the Seven Years War. The British Royal Navy used impressment to obtain an adequate amount of sailors. This involved asking for volunteers who were mostly seaman by trade. If they declined however they sometimes whacked them on the back of the head and they’d wake up on board a frigate. The most common technique was to press men from inbound merchant ships, which meant James Cook was at risk of this. At first James tried to avoid impressment by stealth, “Afraid of being pressed, resolved, if possible, to conceal himself; but afterwards reflecting on the difficulty of this course, he adopted the resolution of entering as a volunteer in the Royal Navy”.James cook probably heard all these stories about the press gangs and signed himself up for service. This way he avoided an undignified forced entry. The most severe punishment for refusing impressment was hanging.

He first severed in the navy on a ship called The Eagle here he impressed his superiors. He put his name forward to become a ship’s master. This role was basically a navigator for the ship, it was a naval officer's rank. His master position fell through twice before he fell under the command of Sir Charles Saunders who in conjunction with General Wolfe was laying siege to French Quebec.

Canada was where he really caught the Royal Navy’s eye. He was asked to obtain the soundings (Basically a river map) of the St Lawrence river. This aided in the decimation of French influence in Canada and British domination.

In 1759 he was appointed Master of the Northumbria which went back and forth between Britain and Newfoundland. During long winters based in Halifax, Canada,he spent his time reading books and acquiring more knowledge to better his position. Many trans-Atlantic crossings later in 1768 he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. The first ship he Captained was his most famous, the Endeavour. His first mission as Captain James Cook was to witness the transit of Venus. His on board astronomer would plot the movement of Venus across the sun. This will determine the Earth’s distance from the sun.

The ideal location for that particular transit was Tahiti or at the time known as Otaheite. They set off from Plymouth On 26 August 1768. They stopped at Madeira then on to Rio de Janeiro and all the way down the east coast of South America, going through the strait of Le Mare. One long sea voyage later they arrived at Port Royal, Tahiti on 13th April 1769.

The locals having already met Europeans seemed to have a good opinion of them. Upon their arrival many locals gathered on the shore to witness their landing. Some of them came out in canoes to trade and barter with the sailors. Captain Cook and a party of armed sailors (they didn’t fully know what to expect) landed and their greeting couldn’t have been better. One local even crawled on his hands and knees offering a branch of a tree, like many of the others. This was a gesture of goodwill and peace. The Britons welcomed this with great satisfaction. Friendly locals allow a much easier time to get on with the mission.

The Tahitians were very curious about these new people and they often snatched their possessions without knowing much about them at all. The first case was a stolen opera glass, I am sure they would have found a use for it eventually! The owner was a Dr Daniel Solander he was the ship’s botanist. He asked the chief of the village to find it for him but the chief offered “As much new cloth as should be thought equal to its value” as compensation if he had no luck. Being impatient another member of the party struck their musket hard on the ground, creating a loud thud! The locals all of a sudden rushed around like headless chickens at this sign of intimidation and minutes later the chief appeared with the stolen opera glass.

Fort Venus
Fort Venus
To secure a foothold on the island they began constructing a fort which they later flown the Union flag from and claimed the island for King George III. During the construction a group of natives stole two muskets from the sailors and were consequently shot at. The ringleader was pursued and shot dead, the others suffered bullet wounds. This action was sanctioned by a midshipman in charge of the sailors. He was scolded by Captain Cook and his deputies for using excessive force. It’s not as if they locals were going to fire back at them, it was probably their first touch of a musket.

The way that Captain Cook as well as his deputies felt about the humane treatment of these people was very progressive for his time. He was a stern but compassionate leader who only wanted fairness, justice and peace.

There is a fascinating passage from a book titled ‘The Voyages Of Captain Cook’ that demonstrates Captain Cook’s leadership as well as the peaceable nature of the natives. “The ship’s butcher had threatened to cut his wife’s throat (The wife of Tubora Tumaida, a Tahitian native) , upon her refusing to sell him a stone hatchet, which he had taken a fancy to, for a nail. It clearly appeared he had been culpable, and he was flogged on board, in sight of several Indians. As soon as the first stroke was given they interfered, and earnestly entreated that he might be untied. This being refused, they burst into tears, and showed great concern”

It was good that the British sailors were punished this way in front of the natives as it helped to deter further theft (sometimes).

To conclude, there are so many examples to give of Cook’s leadership skills and his diplomacy but it would require at least a full book to do so. Some people would argue “but the British were invading” in Captain Cook’s case this was not true and he believed in treating others a you would like to be treated. He gave equal punishments to his sailors as he did to any natives who wrongly crossed him. He gave a good name to British exploration for the sheer amount of islands he discovered, the quality of his surveys, his good nature and his high intelligence. Cook also had an enlightened attitude to prevent scurvy on board and looked after the welfare of his crew with remarkable skill. He was a true British hero.

map of British Empire
Cook's First Voyage Map
BBC's In Our Time: Voyages of James Cook
James Cook’s 1769 transit of Venus expedition to Tahiti


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