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Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds During cook’s voyages to the Pacific, hostages were taken on various occasions. And I think this reflects a very particular strategy by Cook. Because taking a hostage gives him advantage over the community that the hostage has been taken from. So in one respect, hostage taking actually reflects Cook’s relative weakness in the Pacific. It’s very easy to think of him as being the almighty explorer. And indeed, to some respects, on the ship he is, because he has a huge technological advantage over most of the peoples he is encountering. But on land, Cook’s advantages begin to disappear.

Skip to 0 minutes and 55 seconds The relatively rudimentary weaponry he’s got, which might allow him to fire once and then require reloading, means that in unfamiliar terrain, his technological advantage is pretty short-lived. So Cook will use the taking of a hostage as a way of increasing his relative power. It also opens up access to networks that Cook doesn’t have. He doesn’t necessarily have the language skills or the local knowledge to get what he wants. He needs local islander help to get that, but he doesn’t have much power of persuasion. And the taking of a hostage, of course, gives him that short-lived advantage and allows him to get what he wants.

Skip to 1 minute and 46 seconds Quite often it will be the return of a piece of equipment, a small boat or something. Or perhaps members of Cook’s crew have deserted, and he wants to maintain Naval discipline. So he will take a hostage and then get the local community either to return the object they may have taken or return the sailors who have run away. So Cook is hardly unique in employing hostage-taking as a tactic to try and achieve your particular ends. And it is common around the world at this time. Of course, it still happens today. And so for example, the British in India frequently took hostages in order to try and increase their power over a particular kingdom.

Skip to 2 minutes and 35 seconds And also, Europeans were frequently taken hostage as indigenous peoples tried to redress the balance of power in their relationship with the Europeans as well. So the hostage-taking on Cook’s voyages fits into a global pattern of activity that was common at the time.


In this video Robert Blyth, curator, discusses hostage-taking as a well-known strategy, and how it was used by James Cook during the voyages to the Pacific.

Robert mentions that Cook used hostage-taking as a way of exerting power. It is possible that hostage taking was considered a non-violent way of exerting power. However, it seems that the emotional trauma of the being taken hostage, on the person and ontheir community, was not understood or recognised.

Can we understand hostage taking as an interpretation of either set of instructions given to Cook by the Royal Society and the Admiralty?

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This video is from the free online course:

Confronting Captain Cook: Memorialisation in museums and public spaces

National Maritime Museum