Voyages of Captain Cook

In Our Time: Series 18, Episode 10

Mrs Elizabeth Cook (1830)

Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

Ulysses, Tennyson

I admire Captain Cook.  He’s not a man who should be put in the same bracket as other “historical British people we are ashamed of”.  The reason I feel this way is almost entirely down to Anne Salmond.

It was Anne Salmond who changed my understanding of early New Zealand history (when I say New Zealand history I mean just that, not the history of the land and the people before it was labelled New Zealand).  Her books, Two Worlds, Between Worlds and The Trial of the Cannibal Dog made Cook’s expeditions through the South Pacific and New Zealand come to life as places of incredibly rich, and complex cultural contacts.

Salmond’s real gift in these books is in making the indigenous cultures as alive, vivid and in motion as the visiting Europeans, and in making the Europeans alien, and uncomfortable.  The old approach made the Europeans seem to be “just like us”, and the indigenous cultures appear to be static, naive and simplistic; as if they were sitting waiting for the forward moving light of Britishness to sail into their sandy bay.  Salmond almost reverses this.  Captain Cooks’ arrivals in Salmond’s accounts are sometimes  more like someone slipping in the back door of a party already happening.

This raising up of the indigenous position in these stories doesn’t diminish Cook.  In fact it makes me appreciate him more as an explorer, and a leader, but nothing I have read has really brought me closer to understanding him as a person.  What was he like, for example, as a husband and a father, and what was it like to be his wife or child?


Cook married a woman called Elizabeth Batts in 1762 and they had six children. Elizabeth would outlive not only her husband, but all her children by decades.

From August of 1768 on-wards Cook was more away than at home, undertaking the three Pacific voyages for which he is famous.  When he left on the first of those three voyages in 1768 he and his wife had three children aged five, four, and one, and Elizabeth was pregnant with their fourth child.  Cook returned again in 1771 to learn that his daughter – the one year old – and the child Elizabeth had been pregnant with when he had left, had both died. Cook stayed home for one year, and then left again this time from 1772 until 1775.

For his two oldest children  he can’t have been much of a father.  James (jnr) and Nathaniel were five and four when their father left on his first voyage, and saw their dad again for one year when they were nine and eight, and then again for one year when they were twelve and eleven.  James and Elizabeth’s last child would have no memory of his father, being born the year Cook left on his final journey.

One year after losing her husband in 1779 Elizabeth lost her second born, Nathaniel, at 16 years of age.  Then in 1793 and 1794 she lost the last of her children.  In 1794 Elizabeth was 52, the widow of James Cook, and mother of six children deceased.

After his second Pacific voyage James Cook was retired, and had a secure position, great acclaim and a good income.  Why would he set off again in 1776?

Three weeks after arriving back in England after his second voyage he wrote this to a friend:

…a few months ago the whole Southern Hemisphere was hardly big enough for me, and now I am going to be confined within the limits of Greenwich Hospital [where he had a job], which are far too small for an active mind like mine… whether I can bring myself to like ease and retirement time will show.

I feel like I can’t be the first person to see in this master captain’s pull back to the sea Tennyson’s Ulysses,

Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honor’d of them all…

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

In that poem too are Penelope, Ulysses’ wife, and Telemachus, his son, who he damns with faint praise.  If there was real love and affection between James and Elizabeth, and let’s assume that there was, there must also have been large doses of pragmatism.  In the end, even once he had great financial security, it was the horizon that would win over domesticity every time with Cook.

If Cook is enigmatic, then history seems to have even less to reveal about his wife and children and their thoughts and feelings.  I suppose that the life of a sailor’s wife was a bit like this with husband’s away at sea, but the periods of absence were especially prolonged for Elizabeth.

In the end there is a curious anti-legacy to Cook.  James never returns from his final journey, and his body is dismembered and dropped bit by macabre bit back into the sea as it is recovered from the tribes on Hawaii.  His possessions are auctioned off among the crew.  His children all die without marrying or having children themselves.

By 1830 when Elizabeth sat for her portrait to be painted it might have seemed to her that she had never been married, and had children.  Like it was all a dream that had seemed real at the time, but disappeared on waking touch.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

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