James Cook: Naturalist

Portrait of Captain James Cook by Nathaniel Dance-Holland, 1776

I was cleaning my room earlier this week when I came across a stack of paper covered in my own messy writing. Intrigued, I sat down to read. Turns out they were my notes and speculations from reading the accounts of James Cook, leader of 3 hugely influential voyages to explore the Pacific and southern oceans in the late 18th century.

The reading room in the Cullman Library in NMNH. I spent many afternoons here in 2015...

A bit of background first: A few years ago, I was an intern at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. While I was there, I had the opportunity to access some of the books in the Cullman Library, where they store old and rare books about natural history, anthropology, and zoology. Some of those books hold the first records of natural places and species. In this library, they had copies of the official published reports from James Cook’s three voyages, massive volumes of text and illustrations  – and they let me read them! Of course I had to do it in a guarded entry room, with foam supports and special book weights, and if I wanted to unfold a map or drawing, I had to get help from the librarians. But it was amazing, reading Cook’s own words and stepping into the past – especially when he included jokes and sarcastic comments. Almost every afternoon for months, I read about discovery, adventure, betrayal, friendship, curiosity... And sometimes I took notes. (What can I say? I’m a nerd.)

Cook's chart of the Southern Hemisphere, sans Antarctica because Cook never reached it. Aside from the missing continent, the map is quite accurate.

Cook started his career in Britain’s Royal Navy in the 1750s, and steadily moved up the ranks. His main skill was cartography – during the Seven Years’ War, he mapped the coast of Newfoundland and the surrounding islands with such accuracy that his charts were used to navigate the area until GPS systems became common on boats. It was partially due to this skill that Cook was promoted to lieutenant and appointed to lead a voyage (the first of 3) to the southern Pacific. The primary purpose of the voyage was to observe and record the transit of Venus across the sun, and to help find the most accurate and reliable way to measure longitude. The region was not well-known to the western world though, so a skilled navigator and cartographer was needed.

Cook, Banks, and Solander had a difficult time describing Australian wildlife.

On that first voyage, from 1768-71, Cook commanded the Endeavour from England, around Cape Horn, to Tahiti for the transit of Venus, to New Zealand and eastern Australia, to Indonesia (then known as Batavia), and finally to St. Helena and then home to England. Along the way, Cook and the onboard naturalists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander made the first western records of a number of animals and plants unique to Australasia. I read several pages in the account where they were not-very-successfully attempting to describe some of Australia’s native fauna – for example, one animal was described as a cross between a greyhound and a jerboa, which was revealed to be a kangaroo or wallaby in an illustration. And Botany Bay was named because of the astonishing number of new plants that the explorers found there.

In the far south, the explorers encountered strange creatures like these "sea horses".

Cook’s second voyage, from 1772-75, was commissioned to locate and map the theoretical “great southern continent”. Cook made two attempts to reach what we now know is Antarctica during the warmer months of December and January, but was unable to reach the mainland due to filthy weather, pack ice, and frostbite (Cook wrote about the miserable cold for several pages, and finished by stating, “Such was the summer weather we enjoyed.”). In between these attempts, Cook revisited NZ and Tahiti, and also explored and mapped dozens of southern Pacific islands, including the Friendly Islands, New Caledonia, and Easter Island. While down south in the sub-Antarctic seas, Cook described unusual birds, including skua, petrels, and creatures that “seem to be a middle species between bird and fish” – a.k.a. penguins.

Cook's landscape profiles of the Sandwich Islands, also known as Hawaii

On the third voyage, 1776-79, Cook went farther than ever before, but didn’t make it back home. Not only did he return to the South Pacific to return a native Tahitian named Omai to his home, but he also made the first European contact with the Sandwich Island (now known as Hawaii), and explored the northwest coast of North America, finishing the outline of the continent on world maps. He passed through the Bering Sea and continued north until blocked by pack ice, at which point he turned around, and after a stop in eastern Russia, returned to Hawaii. A series of disagreements and tense encounters with the local native Hawaiians led to a fight at Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island, on February 14, 1779. During the brawl, Cook was hit in the head and stabbed several times. The few remains that his crew got back from the Hawaiians were buried at sea. The expedition, now under the command of Captain Charles Clerke and John Gore, left Hawaii and made one more attempt to venture north of Alaska before returning to England in 1780.

Cook's 3 voyages. The first one in red, second one in green, and the third in blue (with the dotted line showing the voyage after Cook's death in Hawaii). Image by Jon Platek.

Near the beginning of the third voyage, Cook spent an extended period of time in New Zealand, studying the flora and fauna. I was especially interested in this bit (although at the time I read it, I had only been to NZ once on vacation). From the start, Cook knew NZ was special, and he often wrote about the “healthiness of the place”. When the Endeavour was first exploring what’s now Fiordland on NZ’s South Island in January of 1770, Cook wrote about being “awakened by the singing of birds: the number was incredible, and they seemed to strain their throats in emulation of each other. This wild melody was infinitely superior to any that we had ever heard of the same kind; it seemed to be like small bells, most exquisitely tuned.” On that third voyage, Cook finally had the opportunity to see bellbirds, as well as tui, kākā, kererū, kākāriki, weka, fantails, native ducks, more penguins, and “two sorts of cuckoos” with descriptions I didn’t recognize – possibly species that are now extinct? He also documented dense forests, dotted with red-flowered trees that were probably rātā or pōhutukawa, and wrote about the “troublesome” sand flies that still plague visitors to NZ’s west coast.

NZ flax flowers

Cook called it a poe/poi bird, but we know this bird as the tui.

I enjoyed reading the accounts, but I have mixed feelings about the legacy of the voyages. Cook got to see a lot of animals and plants that I never will, not just in NZ but all over the world. His voyages were instrumental in starting to destroy biodiversity in some of Earth’s most unique ecosystems. But he also revealed the wonders of Australasia, the sub-Antarctic region, and the Pacific Ocean to the western world. Either way you look at it, you have to respect Cook’s enormous contributions to natural history, geography, anthropology, and globalization.

If you’re interested in learning more about Cook and his voyages, I strongly recommend the book Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz.