Cancel Captain Cook? You might as well cancel maps, science or humanity itself: As courageous explorer becomes latest British hero to be condemned by the historically ignorant woke mob, DOMINIC SANDBROOK hits back
He was a self-made Yorkshireman who redrew the map of the planet, a pioneering explorer who set foot on lands no European had ever seen, a compassionate captain who spared no effort to look after his men, a national hero whose courage and patriotism inspired millions.
Yet now, poor Captain James Cook is about to be cancelled. To ‘woke’ activists, the great 18th-century sea captain has become a symbol of supposed colonial oppression, his memorials daubed with vicious graffiti.
‘Across New Zealand, Australia and Hawaii,’ reported yesterday’s Guardian, ‘statues of Cook have been defaced. Strutting across a pedestal in his breeches, telescope in hand, a defaced Cook wears a spray-painted bikini; around the neck of another Cook hangs a large, canvas sign that reads, simply: “Sorry”.’
The Guardian’s gloating tone — it sneers at the ‘myth of Captain Cook’ and boasts the ‘heroes of empire will fall’ — is no accident.
To the preening prigs of the bien-pensant Left, a patriotic hero like Cook is an affront.
The irony, by the way, is that the Guardian’s assault on Captain Cook is actually a heavily edited extract from a book on a somewhat different subject.
Accidental Gods, by Anna Della Subin, is a serious study of human leaders who’ve been worshipped as gods. How revealing, then, that the Guardian interpreted it in a way to promote its own peculiar agenda.
To cast Cook as a villain, though, is sheer historical illiteracy. As Professor Robert Tombs, one of our most eminent historians, has observed, Cook embodied the Age of Enlightenment. Each time you look at a map of the Pacific, you are looking at Cook’s creation. What kind of fool would want to cancel that?
Matt Young (pictured), who played explorer, navigator and cartographer Captain James Cook in a TV documentary
A painting of Captain Cook taking possession of Australia from ‘Australia, New Zealand and Oceania in Pictures’
Cook’s origins could scarcely have been more modest. The son of a Scottish farm labourer, he was born on October 27, 1728, in Marton, Yorkshire, now a suburb of Middlesbrough.
Leaving school after just five years, he found work in a grocer’s shop in the fishing village of Staithes. Here he fell in love with the sea, and aged 17 was apprenticed to a ship owner and became a sailor.
Despite his lack of education, the teenage Cook worked tirelessly to better himself. He taught himself not just navigation and astronomy, but algebra, geometry and trigonometry.
Crucially, he learned how to draw accurate maps — a skill that would make his name.
For the next decade, he served on a succession of North Sea merchant ships. But in 1755 he enlisted in the Royal Navy as an able seaman, calculating that he would gain promotion more quickly if he served his country’s colours.
Just a year later, the Seven Years’ War broke out with France and Spain. Plunged into action in Canada, Cook put his map-making skills to good use.
By surveying the entrance to the St Lawrence River, he enabled General James Wolfe to land there and so win victory over the French on the Plains of Abraham.
The maps he prepared were little short of revolutionary. His charts of Newfoundland, for example, are regarded as the first truly scientific coastal surveys, and were still being used well into the 20th century.
In 1768, Cook won his first great commission: commanding an expedition to the Pacific.
This was supposedly a scientific voyage, designed by the Royal Society to record the transit of Venus across the Sun.
Captain Cook, played by Matt Young, engages in a traditional Maori greeting during a documentary on his life
A portrait painting of Captain James Cook by Nathaniel Dance
But in reality, Cook was carrying secret orders from the Admiralty, with instructions to open them when he reached Tahiti.
On August 26, 1768, HMS Endeavour left Plymouth and headed south. Aboard were 73 sailors and 12 Royal Marines, as well as the astronomer Charles Green, the botanist Joseph Banks and the 40-year-old Cook. Ahead lay a voyage into history.
By the autumn of 1769 Endeavour had reached Tahiti, in the great emptiness of the Pacific. This was the limit of European understanding. Beyond, all was uncertain.
Now Cook opened his secret orders. They revealed that the Admiralty wanted him to locate Terra Australis Incognita, an undiscovered land believed to lie somewhere to the south of all known countries.
What followed was one of the most thrilling voyages of discovery in history. First Cook struck south towards the 40th parallel, but found no sign of Terra Australis.
Next he turned west. By October 6, 1769, he was approaching New Zealand’s North Island, and early the following afternoon he spotted land.
Two days later, on October 9, Cook’s men became the first Europeans to set foot on New Zealand since the Dutchman Abel Tasman, more than a century earlier.
It’s worth emphasising that Cook arrived as an explorer, not a conqueror. Indeed, the President of the Royal Society, Lord Morton, had specifically told Cook that he should treat all Pacific islanders as ‘human creatures, the work of the same omnipotent Author, equally under his care with the most polished European’.
As Morton put it: ‘No European nation has the right to occupy any part of their country . . . without their voluntary consent.’
Sadly, Cook’s first encounters with the Maoris did not go entirely swimmingly. ‘We made them every one presents, but this did not satisfy them,’ he wrote in his journal.
‘They wanted everything we had about us, particularly our arms, and made several attempts to snatch them out of our hands.’
Alarmed at the Maoris’ aggression, Cook told his men to fire warning shots over their heads. Eventually, in desperation, his men opened fire, killing four of them.
A Captain Cook statue in Hyde Park in Sydney, Australia, pictured in June 2020
In his journal, Cook recorded his sadness at the incident, but insisted that he had had no choice. ‘I am aware most humane men who have not experienced things of this nature will censure me,’ he wrote.
‘But I was not to suffer myself or those with me to be knocked on the head.’
Cook left New Zealand in the spring of 1770, having sailed around the North and South Islands. After almost running aground on the Great Barrier Reef, he struggled towards the Australian coast.
Here, he and his men landed at Botany Bay, named after the extraordinary specimens collected by Joseph Banks. Some Aborigines threw spears at them, but Cook avoided bloodshed and left gifts of beads with local children.
It was not until July 12, 1771, that Cook returned home. His voyage had changed the course of history. But perhaps his greatest achievement was the fact that in three years he had not lost a single man to scurvy.
The condition was the curse of naval expeditions then, and Cook was obsessed with preventing it. He always took on fresh fruit and water, and never left home without barrels of sauerkraut, rich in vitamin C.
That was typical of the man. Perhaps because his own background had been so humble, he prided himself on putting his sailors’ wellbeing first. And to them he seemed an unalloyed hero.
Cook’s second great voyage, which left in 1772, was less successful. Many geographers were convinced the real Terra Australis lay further south of what is now called Australia. So he agreed to circumnavigate the globe at a lower latitude, sailing the Antarctic in his new ship Resolution.
Once again, he did not lose a single man to scurvy, and was able to claim South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands for Britain. But, he reported on his return, the mythical Terra Australis simply did not exist.
Cook’s third voyage, which left in 1776, was the most daring. Determined to find the Northwest Passage, which would link the Atlantic and Pacific through the Arctic, he took his ships north, following the freezing shores of Canada and Alaska.
Again, Cook’s achievements were extraordinary. Working with his usual meticulous care, he charted much of the north-western coastline of the American continent.
But this time the conditions were horrendous, with blinding blizzards, freezing fogs and potentially deadly ice floes.
To cap it all, Cook was now suffering from severe stomach trouble, which made him more bad-tempered than usual.
Turning south in the autumn of 1778, Cook made for Hawaii, hoping for sunnier weather.
He had already landed on the island earlier in the year, the first European ever to do so. The Hawaiians had never seen white men before, let alone sailing ships.
When he returned in January 1779, they were celebrating a harvest festival in honour of the god Lono. Some seemed to believe that Cook himself was an incarnation of the god, though it’s impossible to know exactly what they were thinking.
On February 6 Cook set off again. But after just five days he was back, his mainmast having been badly damaged in a storm.
The mood on Hawaii now was subtly different, heavy with tension. The harvest festival was over; the god was not supposed to have returned.
As one of Cook’s men wrote, it was ‘evident from the looks of the natives as well as every other appearance that our friendship was now at an end’.
The HM Bark Endeavour pictured as it sails on the Pacific Ocean in 1999. The tall ship is a replica of explorer Captain Cook’s 18th century sailing vessel
What followed was very confusing, even to those involved. While the Resolution was anchored in Kealakekua Bay, Cook’s men accused the Hawaiians of stealing one of their cutters.
At the same time, Cook tried to take some of the wood the Hawaiians were using to fence their sacred burial ground. Tempers frayed and, for once, Cook’s judgment betrayed him.
On the morning of February 14, he decided to take the Hawaiian king Kalaniopuu as a hostage. But by the time he and his men reached the beach with their captive, hundreds of Hawaiians were pouring on to the sands, alarmed and angry.
In the chaos, something went terribly wrong. A scuffle broke out. One of the Hawaiian chiefs pushed Cook to the sand. And then, suddenly, another chief pulled out a knife and plunged it into Cook.
As Cook fell forward into the water, blood gushing from the wound, fighting broke out around him. More blows rained down, the islanders striking again and again with knives and rocks. He did not stand a chance.
Afterwards, as Cook’s men retreated to their ships, the islanders treated his body with the honour due to a great chief.
They cut off his hands to preserve them in salt, disembowelled him and baked his carcass in a pit, before cleaning his bones to preserve them as religious relics.
That, then, was the end of Captain James Cook. So how should we remember him?
To anybody familiar with the facts, the idea that he was a villain is simply absurd.
He was not motivated by plunder, conquest or aggression, but by the wonder of discovery, the thrill of adventure and the sheer joy of scientific exploration.
Cook was well aware of the dangers of expansion, warning that Europeans might introduce the Pacific islanders to ‘wants and perhaps diseases which they never knew before and which serve only to destroy the happy tranquillity their forefathers enjoyed’.
But activists who claim that he single-handedly brought disease, discrimination and exploitation are living in a fantasy world.
Because of their technological superiority, European expansion into the Pacific was inevitable.
In any case, Cook came as a friend. He personally disliked violence, and it’s almost impossible to imagine any other European explorer behaving with such consideration and self-restraint.
Should we cancel Cook, then? Nonsense. You might as well cancel maps, science or humanity itself.
For that, in the final analysis, is what Captain Cook stood for. He embodied the thirst for knowledge, the love of adventure, the thrill of discovery that lie at the very heart of the human spirit.
Just not, it seems, at the Guardian.