Daily Archives: September 24, 2012

Off the Charts

Where Captain Cook died — Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii

“George Washington slept here.”  That claim is made by the owners of countless inns and houses (and their realtors) on the east coast of the United States.  Some of those claims might even be true; after all, General Washington had to sleep somewhere while he was on the move.

In London, a similar assertion is made about many pubs:  “Charles Dickens drank here.”  He probably did, too, since writing is an activity that can make one very thirsty.

Although he traveled far more extensively than Washington or Dickens, James Cook’s exploits didn’t spawn that kind of slogan, even though they are facts.  In an astonishing number of places in the world — particularly around the Pacific Ocean — it can be said, “Captain Cook was here.”

For instance, there is Cook’s Strait, the passage between New Zealand’s North and South Islands.  James Cook was there, 1769.  (He drew the first nautical charts of New Zealand, too.)

In 1770 he came upon Australia and charted its eastern side.  There’s a place called Cooktown where his ship, the Endeavour, was beached for repairs after a close encounter with the Great Barrier Reef.

There are the Cook Islands in the South Pacific.  As you probably guessed, they weren’t known as the Cook Islands before he arrived in the 1770s.

Much farther north is Cook Inlet.  It’s near present-day Anchorage, in the Gulf of Alaska.  The Captain charted that area in 1778.  Earlier in his naval career, young James Cook had drawn charts on the other side of the North American continent, surveying the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, and a little later, Newfoundland.

Basically, the Royal Navy dispatched Cook to places for which no navigational charts existed, and even to places that no one was sure were actual places.  He was sent off to the unknown, and came back with lots of useful knowledge.

Another of Captain Cook’s remarkable accomplishments was that when his ships returned to England after years-long voyages, none of his men had died of scurvy.  That just didn’t happen back then — that particular debilitating illness was an occupational hazard for seamen, more than drowning or cannonballs.  Consider this:  During the 18th century, more British sailors died from scurvy than from enemy action.

We now know that scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin C, but fruit smoothies weren’t part of sailors’ diets back then; they mostly consumed some combination of biscuits, beer, beef and bugs.  Captain Cook didn’t impose doses of lime juice on his sailors, as the story sometimes goes, but he did insist on high standards of cleanliness aboard ship, and laid in fresh provisions as often as possible — which apparently included fruits and vegetables.

The Captain was occasionally annoyed by Tahitian and Hawaiian attitudes about sharing property.  Specifically, they tended to want some of his stuff and he didn’t always want to let them have it.  In a dispute over a small boat that technically belonged to the Royal Navy but had been appropriated by locals, Captain Cook was killed at Kealakekua Bay on Hawaii’s Big Island in 1779.  He was fifty years old.

With that unfortunate exception, Cook had, as the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it, “peacefully changed the map of the world more than any other single man in history.” The down side, in terms of his reputation, is that he didn’t spend enough time in London for any pub owners to claim that Captain Cook was a regular.