Captain James Cook – England’s greatest ever navigator and explorer – is forever associated with the three extraordinary voyages he undertook to the Pacific between 1768 and 1779.
Over the years, I’ve been following him around the world myself, from his birthplace and early years in northern England to the Hawaiian beach where he met his death. I’ve lived in the town where he learned his trade – Whitby, on the North Yorkshire coast – and walked in his footsteps on the North York Moors. Check out Part 1 of this trail, in an earlier post, for the lowdown on these locations, if you want to see the landscapes and coastal villages that inspired the young James Cook.
He later sailed in the Baltic Sea and mapped Newfoundland, before setting out on three Pacific voyages that would change the way we regard the world.
Here are some of the places I’ve travelled – in those self-same southern seas – on the trail of a Yorkshireman who vowed to go “farther than any man has been before me . . . as far as I think it is possible for a man to go”.
Cook’s voyages stuck to the eastern coast of Australia, so why come to Melbourne? Because, rather oddly, the 18th-century cottage that Cook’s parents lived in in England was sold by its owner in the 1930s, dismantled brick by brick and shipped to Australia, where it was reassembled in Fitzroy Gardens.
Cook’s Cottage is open for visits and, originally built in 1755, it’s basically Australia’s oldest building too. Frankly, I came to Melbourne on the trail of the Neighbours, but Cook’s Cottage seemed like a lucky bonus.
I was, however, curious to see Cooktown in the far north, way beyond Cairns, where Cook’s first ship, the Endeavour, ran aground on the reef and was then cajoled up the local river (now called the Endeaviur River) so that he could make repairs on the beach. The crew stayed 7 weeks, enjoying their first proper – and peaceful – contact with Aboriginal people, before heading home in their patched-up ship via the Torres Strait and Indonesia. In the town that eventually grew up here there are plenty of Cook-related sites, from landing beach and statue to local museum.
Cooktown still has a bit of an end-of-the-line feel – it was a gold-mining town too – though a new inland highway has opened it up for fishing and tourism. But take the coastal backroads instead, which is the way I went – a day’s (250 km) drive from Cairns, 4WD only, across the Daintree ferry and through coastal rainforest, across creeks, and through small villages and Aboriginal communities.
There’s a real sense of arrival if you come this way, and a certain appreciation of the original wilderness that confronted Cook and his men as they first beached the Endeavour, not knowing if they would ever leave.
Cook was the first European to record a sighting of Norfolk Island, an isolated speck in the middle of the Pacific. Its soaring pine trees proved useful as replacement masts and timbers for ships buffeted about in the southern seas, and it was later a brutal penal colony for the ‘worst of the worst’ British convicts. I had a memorable trip out to Norfolk Island, and it was at about this point that I realised my Cook interest was turning into a bit of an obsession.
Big Island, Hawaii
If you follow Captain Cook, you end up ticking off islands, and journey’s end – for me and the Captain both – was Hawaii. More specifically, the Big Island, the largest in the Hawaiian group, where on 14 February 1779, James Cook was killed – clubbed and them stabbed to death, before being ritually disembowelled and flayed.
It’s a typical tale of colonial appropriation, misunderstanding – Cook was first thought to be a Polynesian god on his arrival – and ill-advised skirmishes that led to Cook’s death. His last ship, the Resolution, came home without him.
There’s something very poignant about a death site, even after 250 years. From near the village of Captain Cook – what else? – it’s an hour’s hike down to beautiful Kealakekua Bay, where a simple white stone monument and a nearby plaque in the surf marks the spot (more or less). People come to kayak and snorkel here in the crystal clear waters, but get here early in the morning and you’ll have the place to yourself.
I sat with my feet in the bay, looking out over the shallow waters, keeping a watch for dolphins, before throwing a pebble in the rippling waves for the 18th-century farmboy from Yorkshire who ventured as far as it possible for a man to go.
Sail on Captain.
Cook’s Cottage by Jerry Ray, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Cooktown harbour by Doug Beckers, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Kealakekua Bay, Captain Cook, by Robert Linsdell, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Death of Captain Cook by Wonderlane, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0