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Written perspectives

Much has been written about Captain James Cook over the years, both in print and online. We’ve put together a selection of quotations looking at different interpretations of James Cook.

Anne Salmond expresses another view in her book, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog:

Without doubt, Captain James Cook was one of the world’s great explorers. … At the same time, Captain Cook has become an icon of imperial history. His voyages epitomise the European conquest of nature, fixing the location of coastlines by the use of instruments and mathematical calculations, classifying and collecting plants, animals, insects and people. As the edges of the known world were pushed out, wild nature – including the ‘savages’ and ‘barbarians’ at the margins of humanity – was brought under the calm, controlling gaze of Enlightenment science, long before colonial domination was attempted.’ (Salmond, 2003) [4]

Tina Ngata, a Māori educator, comments on Cook’s death by stating:

Well there goes another February 14th … as indigenous folks send their thanks out to the Hawaiian cousins that took care of business, and finally put an end to the diseased, kidnapping, murderous, thieving invader called Captain James Cook…February 14th is indeed the date that Captain Cook met his untimely demise, in Kealakekua Bay, Hawai’i, at the hands of the locals, who, to this day, don’t regret it one bit, and in fact are pretty dang proud of it. They like to remind us cousins here in Aotearoa that it was them who took care of business, and us who failed to halt the man who would travel from island to island, kidnapping people to get what he wanted, killing them if they resisted, stealing whatever he liked, and knowingly spreading devastating STDs.’ (Ngata, 2018) [1]

In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on James Cook, Andrew C.F. David states:

His legacy lies in his contributions to exploration and science. In his three voyages to the Pacific, Cook disproved the existence of a great southern continent, completed the outlines of Australia and New Zealand, charted the Society Islands, the New Hebrides, New Caledonia, and the Hawaiian Islands, and depicted accurately for the first time the north-west coast of America, leaving no major discoveries for his successors.’ (C. F. David, 2008) [3]

Stan Grant, an Indigenous Australian broadcaster, states:

Surely we need no longer maintain the fiction that he “discovered” this country. It dishonours the people who reached this continent 60,000 years before Cook….This was not an empty land.’ (Grant, 2017) [2]

Editor and Cook scholar, John Beaglehole, writes:

He makes most of the politicians seem rather poor creatures, and the more I dig among the writers, and the artists, and the natural scientists, and the soldiers and the sailors and the scholars, the more I am convinced of the stature of his genius.’ (Beaglehole, 1956) [5]

What do you think about these views on James Cook?


  1. Ngata, T. (2018). GUEST BLOG: Tina Ngata – A Crook By Any Other Name: Celebrating Cook « The Daily Blog. [online] Thedailyblog.co.nz. Available at: https://thedailyblog.co.nz/2017/02/20/guest-blog-tina-ngata-a-crook-by-any-other-name-celebrating-cook/ [Accessed 16 Nov. 2018].

  2. Grant, S. (2017) https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/nitv-news/article/2017/08/22/correct-captain-cook-history-says-stan-grant [Accessed 14 March.2019]

  3. C. F. David, A. (2008). Cook, James (1728–1779), explorer, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. [online] Oxforddnb.com. Available at: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-6140?rskey=17Jrbf&result=3 [Accessed 16 Nov. 2018].

  4. Salmond, A. (2004). The trial of the cannibal dog. London: Penguin. Approximately seventy-nine (79) words from THE TRIAL OF THE CANNIBAL DOG by Anne Salmond (Penguin Books, 2004). Copyright © Anne Salmond, 2004

  5. Beaglehole, J. (1956). On the Character of Captain James Cook. The Geographical Journal, [online] 122(4), p.417. Available at: http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-BeaChar-t1-body1.html [Accessed 12 Dec. 2018].

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This article is from the free online course:

Confronting Captain Cook: Memorialisation in museums and public spaces

National Maritime Museum