Simanaitis Says

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WE LEFT Captain James Cook in yesterday’s Part 1 during his first exploration of the Pacific, 1768–1771, the success of which depended heavily upon consummate skills of Polynesian navigator Tupaia, who joined Cook’s H.M.S. Endeavour in Tahiti.

The routes of Captain James Cook’s three Pacific voyages. The first is shown in red; the second in green; and the third in blue. The dashed line shows his crew’s route after his death in Hawaii (of which more anon). Image by Jon Platek.

Tupaia had already visited many of Cook’s “discoveries.” And, indeed, Australia was already known as New Holland, honoring the earlier achievements of Dutch explorer Abel Tasman (c.f. Tasmania).

Also, according to Wikipedia, “Cook re-wrote his journal on his arrival in Batavia (Jakarta) when he was confronted with the news that the Frenchman Louis Bougainville [another familiar Pacific locale] had sailed across the Pacific the previous year.”

James Cook, 1728–1779, British explorer, navigator, cartographer, and captain in the Royal Navy. Portrait by William Hodges, who accompanied Cook on his second voyage.

Cook’s Second Voyage, 1772-1774. Apart from fathering six kids, Cook wasn’t much of a home body: He arrived back from his first voyage in August 1771; he left on his second quest for the global-balancing Terra Australis only five days after the birth of his son George in 1772. This time around, he commanded H.M.S. Resolution, in company with H.M.S. Adventure captained by Tobias Furneaux.

Reaching the South Pacific, the two ships were separated in an Antarctic fog. Later, after antagonizing Māoris and getting the worse of it, Furneaux opted to cut his losses and sail Adventure back to Britain.

Mai, aka Omai. Cook returned to Tahiti and, wouldn’t you know, he picked up another Polynesian navigator, this one named Omai. Wikipedia says Omai “proved to be somewhat less knowledgeable about the Pacific than Tupaia had been on Cook’s first voyage.”

Mai, c. 1751–1780, mistakenly known as Omai. Portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

On the other hand, Omai became only the second Pacific Islander to visit Europe, after Ahu-toru who was brought to Paris by Bougainville in 1768. “Renowned for his charm, quick wit and exotic good looks,” Wikipedia notes, “he quickly became a favourite of the aristocratic elite.”

One of Omai’s portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds sold in 2001 and fetched, according to Antiques Trade Gazette, “the second highest price ever paid for a British picture.”

Tupaia, a much superior navigator, you’ll recall, seemed never to sit still enough for a portrait of any kind.

Omai returned to Tahiti on Cook’s third voyage, 1776–1779, settled in a European-style home, with a vineyard and a pair of Māori servants. He died about two and a half years after Cook’s departure in 1777.

Yuquot Trading. On this third voyage, Cook visited the Western coast of North America, including what is now Vancouver. Wikipedia notes, “Relations between Cook’s crew and the people of Yuquot [indigenous Canadian Americans] were cordial but sometimes strained. In trading, the people of the Yuquot demanded much more valuable items than the usual trinkets that had worked in Hawaii. Metal objects were much desired, but the lead, pewter, and tin traded at first soon fell into disrepute.”

Cook’s Death. Cook sailed the Resolution back to Hawaii in 1779. There, animosity arose on both sides, complicated by a group of Hawaiians stealing one of the small support boats of the Resolution.

This prompted Cook to kidnap King Kalani’ōpu’u and hold him for ransom. Accounts suggest that the king misunderstood Cook’s motive and was ready to go willingly. However, one of the king’s wives and two of his chiefs objected, a crowd formed, and Cook was clubbed by another chief and stabbed by a king’s attendant.

The Death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779, an unfinished painting by Johan Zoffany, c. 1795.

Was Cook subsequently eaten?

No. These people weren’t cannibals. In fact, Wikipedia writes, “The esteem which the islanders nevertheless held for Cook caused them to retain his body. Following their practices of the time, they prepared his body with funerary rituals usually preserved for the chiefs and highest elders of the society.”

Among other rituals, “the bones were carefully cleaned for preservation as religious objects in a fashion reminiscent of the treatment of European saints in the Middle Ages.”

A Polynesian Coda. In “Aloha,” The New York Times Book Review, May 19, 2019, Simon Winchester notes that eventually, “… the millions of square miles of what had been free and open ocean had been effectively closed off by invisible colonial boundaries. A Polynesian navigator could once sail the South Seas as he liked. No longer… without having both permission and, more ludicrously, a passport.”

I wonder what Tupaia would think of all this? ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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