To have an enquiring mind and an interest in anything that happens in the natural world is my definition of a Naturalist or Natural Historian. And then by default a conservationist.
Today’s heroes are Olympic swimmers, accomplished cricketers, footballers and television personalities. But there was a time when it meant something else; and back in the latter half of the 18th century there was such a person. His observations and notes on nature were overshadowed by his other achievements and those of another man who became a lifelong friend and sparked his interest into becoming an amateur naturalist and anthropologist.
Few people realise that First Lieutenant* James Cook (‘Captain’ of the ship Endeavour) was a genius and one of the world’s greatest (at the time) scientists; and the world’s greatest Seaman/Navigator of all time. He was also a keen and accomplished Naturalist. Few people realise that he never attained the rank of Captain and at the time of his death had progressed only to that of Post-Captain.
It would not have mattered how long he lived, he would, in those days, never be a full Captain. You see his father was a farm labourer, by the name of James Cook and his mother’s name was Grace. Not Sir James and Lady Grace Cook!! And it is not until one realises the full implications of this bias and prejudice of the time can you begin to appreciate just how much this man achieved.
To start life (in 1728) at the very bottom of society’s rung, and then, at the time of your death, have the countries of the entire Western World (friend or foe) mourn your death…! Even President Kennedy had thousands of people cheering when he died. Except for the Hawaiians that killed Cook (who were later ashamed and also grieved) almost the entire known world wept with England and King George III, at the news of his death.
There are about two hundred or more monuments and memorials all around the world; with a submerged plate on the actual spot he was killed, being a place of pilgrimage. His cottage was relocated to Melbourne, as a gift to the people of Victoria. I am unaware of anybody else who has attained that sort of achievement and acclaim. And one doesn’t get it by just being very good at what you do.
The current popular misconceptions about James Cook run into quite a list. Due to space restrictions I’m reluctantly forced to be brief rather than descriptive. On Cook’s second voyage**, he had been promoted to Commander. On board his ship ‘Resolution’, he took several chronometers (precision made time keepers). Once again most people think this gave Cook advantages over other previous navigators. But in fact the ‘Board of Longitude’ wanted Cook to use them to test their suitability on board a ship. And in fact, during a stopover at the Cape of Good Hope, Cook calculated that the best one was 9 1/2 minutes out!
To be a ‘Commissioned Officer’ in the Royal Navy of the time, one had to be born from a family of ‘substance’, and seamanship came second. At the moment of Cook’s promotion to First Lieutenant, he became the only commissioned officer who was collectively a competent navigator, astronomer, surveyor, cartographer and mathematician in the Navy.*** One of only a few people in the world capable of computing accurately, the time, from sightings through a sextant of the moon or
stars and using a complex set of equations. Although others knew the process, the mathematics was so complex it was extremely difficult to get an accurate answer and hence a true fix on one’s longitude. And therefore Cook was the only commissioned officer qualified to test the new chronometers!
The ‘Lords of the Admiralty’ knew this and in recognising Cook’s genius were prepared to ‘swallow their pride’ and promote a Warrant Officer of common birth for the sake of England’s reputation as the ‘greatest seafaring Nation’. This point quashes the idea that having the chronometers gave Cook an advantage over other previous navigators. He gave the future navigators an advantage by calculating which was the best type of chronometer and its accuracy!
Now to the misconception of Captain Cook discovering Australia. And I was shocked to hear from some people that they learnt this at school, of all places! On his first voyage, after observing the transit of Venus on Tahiti, Cook opened his sealed orders. He was to sail south to latitude 40°S and search for Terra Australis Incognita, the supposed great southern land. Modern Australia was referred to in those days as New Holland; and all the European countries had known of its existence for over 150 years. Australia (New Holland) was not and is not the Great Southern Continent Cook or anybody else was looking for!! Everybody knew of Australia (New Holland).
If Cook didn’t find land at or below 40°S, he was to proceed to New Zealand (seen by Tasman, who was lost 125 years earlier). Cook’s orders were to establish if it was an island or a peninsula of the supposed Southern Continent. In either case the Admiralty wanted the coastline to be charted. The orders then allowed Cook to use his own discretion in returning home.
The sails and rigging were becoming rotten and too risky for the storms around Cape Horn, so it was decided to sail west from New Zealand with the aim of reaching Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), at the point where Tasman had left it. Then turn north and chart the coast of New Holland from there on. However, due to a storm, the island was missed and the first sighting of New Holland was at Cape Everard (Victoria). So Cook did discover the east coast of (modern day) Australia. That last sentence alone sets James Cook apart from almost all the other ‘Ship’s Captains’ and therefore their Masters (navigators) of the time. Cook didn’t just find places, he accurately marked their position and mapped their coastlines as well!!
Now getting back to his second great voyage as a ‘Ship’s Captain’. Commander Cook in the ‘Resolution’, was sent specifically to search for the ‘Great Southern Continent’, below New Holland. In doing so he was the first man to cross the Antarctic Circle at latitude 66° 35’ S, on 17 January 1773.
He did this three times and on his third attempt reached latitude 71° 10’ S before solid packice blocked the ship off. On each attempt the sails froze to stiff boards. The rigging went stiff with ice and the pulley blocks were choked and frozen stiff. So he was forced to turn back and the icebergs were so thick below latitude 60° S that the circumnavigation of the South Pole was made generally around or north of this latitude. But he was still the first navigator to achieve it. Antarctica has an area of 5,300,000 square miles, (compared to Australia’s area of 2,971,081 square miles} and could therefore qualify as the ‘Great Southern Land’. So paradoxically, had Cook been able to at least get close enough to see dry land, it could have been said that he had discovered it too. Could those huge icebergs, seen through the fog, be a mountain range? Or were they just more icebergs?
When Post-Captain James Cook (Captain of the ‘Resolution’) died, while searching for the North-West Passage; he had explored more of the earth’s surface than any other person, before or since. He discovered and mapped more than anyone else; and all this was done in a little wooden tub, barely longer or heavier than some modern ‘blue water’ racing yachts. But without the back-up rescue teams, and in a vast unknown area of the world! Weaving through dense packs of icebergs or coral reefs without a back-up auxiliary motor. And without any hope of rescue if it all went wrong. There was no television crew to witness his death, when it did come, just a few desperate shipmates wondering if they were going to be next!!
Given the knowledge, technology, instruments and equipment of the times; any one of the three voyages was an achievement exceeding that of sending a man to the moon! And one also has to take into account the discoveries as a navigator or Ship’s Master. So it’s no wonder that people barely take notice of his informative notes and observations on Natural History. And in a way that is sad, because he was amazed at the number and varieties of species to be seen at the time. But among his notes are predictions of the destruction and demise of nearly everything he observed. And his predictions proved to be correct. His notes are heavily tinged with regrets, as though he could already foresee the slaughter of the whales and seals, the total collapse of the Polynesian and Aboriginal cultures along with the vegetation and wildlife. It’s almost as if he knew what was to follow in the wake of his discoveries and regretted making them.
For over 200 years we took no notice of this accomplished Naturalist; and even mixed up a good part of his life history as well. Now look where that has got us!
I think by default that makes Captain James Cook arguably the world’s first Conservationist.
* Lieutenant – for the correct English and Australian pronunciation, phonetic spelling is Lef-ten-ant. Americans pronounce it as it is spelt.
** As a ship’s Master (ship’s Navigator) Cook had already made quite notable discoveries and achievements; prior to his three famous voyages.
*** Navigation was done by the Ship’s Master ( or Warrant Officer) a non commissioned officer; and good navigators were therefore not promoted as their skills were then lost.