James Cook FRS, Captain, 1728 – 1779
To begin at the end, with his body, much hacked
and mutilated by the islanders that took him.
As a god, the Hawaiians disembowel him, and cook
his flesh, such is their reverence, seeking his clean
immortal bones. Some they enshrine, that what
they loved they do not lose. Others they return –
his shipmates bury them at sea, where all mariners’ souls
inhabit. To take a king as hostage against a stolen boat
had been a final fatal error, or one beyond.
And he thought he knew the human heart,
was careful not to kill when Maoris took a life from his own crew.
He knew misunderstandings when he saw them,
as well he knew his oceans. And he knew the sea, knew,
when Endeavour struck the Great Barrier Reef,
then uncharted and unnamed, throw cannon
overboard and she’d float. And she did, leaking
prodigiously. This point he charts with care, then beaches
and careens the ship, and seals the hull. His map
in hand, divers find and bring a cannon home
in later times. Amongst the eco epics, it stands guard
in Wellington’s Te Papa, ignored by narratives and screens.
When he arrives the Maori have already cleared
the land of many names: moa, flightless birds
with thighs as big as cattle, adze-bills, and the rest –
No chance for them. Bones from their rubbish pits.
Cook brings only names for bays and coasts to flourish
in their stead. He also brings the light of maths,
the secret slavery of time. And traders follow
to unwrap the gift, with settlements to open up
its veins. The Maori having no sense of property
swap land for rifles, and introduce themselves to war.
Ideas march and fight, old things perish and succumb.
You could condemn. “Oh, that those lands might
have stayed, darkened and untouched.” You could
also stand with Cook. Feel the timbers creak and spring,
the slap of wind and water in your face. You could
cruise his waters, read his name in places and in signs.
In Poverty Bay the Maori took his vessel as a bird,
and came to worship. Believing this to be attack,
shots took lives, and Endeavour sailed away,
her food and water unrefreshed. And thus the name.
He’s now established here, life-sized, in bronze.
Next to the timber ships that take away
the latest harvest from a land unlocked.
What’s left? A modest Yorkshireman, [half Scot]
and loving solitude. A self-taught navigator,
A restless mind, a maker, mapsmith and a navy man,
brought up to ferry Whitby coal, who is with Wolfe
and plumbs the depths of war beneath Quebec.
His 3 voyages make safe uncharted corners
of The Earth. In less days than in a year, sound out
New Zealand’s coastal intimacies – her passages,
her deepest fathoms, plotted and still good for use.
It is a long journey of discovery, in only 50 years.
His god flourished on the metaphors of sacrifice,
but he condemned the sacramental eating of ones
enemies. And he fell, perhaps remembering.
There’s clamour to remove him from the scene –
downgrade him as another white who stole and robbed,
and cleanse the routes of history of his blood.
So read his life and story while you can.
He also sought the path of Venus as it crossed the sun –
this may be all that destiny allows his name.