Open book with image of Captain James Cook on left and on right the front page printed. The words say A voyage Toward the South Pole and Round the World
James Cook A voyage Toward the South Pole and Round the World

Shifting Meaning in the Voyage Publications

In his journal from the Resolution, Cook writes about his sailors’ practice of engaging in sexual relations with the women of the communities they visited. Academic Nicholas Thomas brings attention to the following entry in his book, Discoveries. [1]

Here is a passage from the Resolution journal:

“The women of this country I always looked upon to be more chaste than the generality of Indian women, whatever favours a few of them might have granted to the crew of the Endeavour, it was generally done in a private manner and without the men seeming to interest themselves in it, but now we find that the men are the chief promoters of this Vice, and for a spike nail or any other thing they value will oblige their wives and daughters to prostitute themselves whether they will or no and not with the privacy decency seems to require, such are the consequences of a commerce with Europeans and what is still more to our shame civilized Christians, we debauch their morals already […] prone to vice and we interduce amongst them wants and perhaps diseases which they never before knew and which serves only to disturb their happy tranquillity they and their fore fathers had injoy’d. If anyone denies the truth of this assertion let him tell me what the Natives of the whole extent of America have gained by the commerce they have had with Europeans.”

Let’s focus on this section:

“The women of this country I always looked upon to be more chaste than the generality of Indian women, whatever favours a few of them might have granted to the crew of the Endeavour, it was generally done in a private manner and without the men seeming to interest themselves in it, but now we find that the men are the chief promoters of this Vice, and for a spike nail or any other thing they value will oblige their wives and daughters to prostitute themselves whether they will or no and not with the privacy decency seems to require”

Based on this observation, is impossible today to completely unravel the nature of each of these encounters and to what extent consent, coercion, obligation, fear, financial or societal pressures, status, or pleasure, played a part in women submitting themselves to the sailors.

Nails were valued in the Pacific as useful tools; the sailors took advantage of this, using nails to purchase sexual relations with the local women.

Again, Cook reflects on this, stating:

“such are the consequences of a commerce with Europeans and what is still more to our shame civilized Christians, we debauch their morals already to prone to vice and we interduce amongst them wants and perhaps diseases which they never before knew and which serves only to disturb their happy tranquillity they and their fore fathers had injoy’d.”

Here, Cook passes a moral judgement on this sexual engagement between Europeans and the people of the Pacific, and condemns European culpability for the introduction of sexually transmitted diseases to the Pacific.

It is a reoccurring theme in Cook’s journals that he insisted on his crew being checked for signs of infection before being allowed ashore. In a later journal entry he acknowledges that the disease could be passed even when the ship’s surgeon could not see physical symptoms [2]. It is documented [3] that Cook severely punished those who were caught spreading disease.

In his final reflection from the above passage, Cook states:

“If anyone denies the truth of this assertion let him tell me what the Natives of the whole extent of America have gained by the commerce they have had with Europeans.”

This statement is perhaps the most surprising. Here Cook acknowledges that he believes that the arrival of Europeans brought no benefit to indigenous Americans, and sees a parallel situation in the Pacific. It suggests that Cook is aware that European actions in the Pacific and elsewhere in the world have been morally questionable, and perhaps, identifies the voyages to the Pacific with earlier expansionist and colonial voyages to the Americas.

What is interesting for us when considering how Cook is remembered and trying to understand his actions and motivations is that despite this moral quandary, Cook chose to command a third voyage to the Pacific.

Editing

Cook’s manuscript was edited by a man named John Douglas, the Canon of Windsor. Cook and Douglas communicated about the manuscript before Cook left on the Resolution/Discovery voyage.

“Cook asked for Douglas’s assistance on producing a book that would be acceptable to “the nicest readers”: “My desire is that nothing indecent might appear in the whole book and you cannot oblige me more than by pointing out whatever may appear to you as such.”[4]

The passage that we have just investigated was presented differently in the final publication. The changes to the original are highlighted below in italics.

“I had always looked upon the females of New Zealand to be more chaste than the generality of Indian women. Whatever favours a few of them might have granted to the crew of the Endeavour, it was generally done in a private manner and without the men seeming to interest themselves much in it. But now, I was told, they were the chief promoters of a shameful traffic, and that, for a spike nail or any other thing they value, they would oblige women to prostitute themselves, whether they will or no; and even without the privacy which decency required.” (James Cook, A Voyage Toward the South Pole and Round the World V1, 130)

See the image below: printed text of a page of John Douglas Voyage AccountsJohn Douglas Voyage Accounts

Note that the second half of the passage from Cook’s original has been omitted altogether.

Cheaper editions

In 1784 George William Anderson published a cheaper account of the voyages: A new authentic and Complete Collection of Voyages Round the World…Containing a new, authentic, entertaining, instructive, full, and complete historical account of Captain Cook’s first, second, third and last voyages.

printed front page saying new and complete collection of voyages around the world undertaken and performed by royal authority, Captain Cook's first, second, third and last voyages undertaken by   order of his present majestyGeorge William Anderson edition of voyage accounts

“it was published in fortnightly parts priced at sixpence each, and made the voyages accessible to a broad public, but was neither new, nor authentic, nor complete” [5]

In this less expensive edition, the passage was omitted completely. The cheapest edition would likely have had the widest readership. That the entire passage has been omitted represents a censoring of Cook’s observations and introspections from a mass audience.

Who might have read the different editions?

How might the various omissions have affected contemporary readers’ understandings of the voyages?

References

  1. (Thomas 2018) pxxx -xxxi
  2. Samwell’s Journals, Beaglehole III vol 2. 1083
  3. Beaglehole 1.511fn
  4. (Fowkes Tobin 2004) p157

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Confronting Captain Cook: Memorialisation in museums and public spaces

National Maritime Museum