Captain Cook on Meeting a Sticky End

The British explorer reveals all about plunder, marital life, and getting baked – part of an ongoing series in which the great colonialists justify themselves

‘The Death of Captain Cook’, illustration by Léon Benett and Paul Philippoteaux, from Jules Verne’s The Great Navigators of the Eighteenth Century (1880, Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington)

You see, I was escorting a particularly insolent local bigwig – Terreeoboo, King of Owhyhee, to be precise – to the Resolution for a quiet chat (and possibly some disciplining) with regard to a missing cutter. And just as I’m bundling him into a launch, there, on the shore, is a wizened old native holding a coconut and mumbling. On account of his posturing I surmised that he was some sort of witch doctor. Naturally I presumed the coconut was a form of offering. Why wouldn’t I? I’m practically a god around here. Here meaning the Pacific – and more specifically Owhyhee (but I’d be able to say the same were I on the other side of the Ocean too). I invented it after all: the Ocean and the things on both sides of it. Anyhow, back to Owhyhee: there I am, waiting to receive a coconut when, would you believe it, they bashed me on my coconut, left me half-drowning in the surf while they stabbed me (repeatedly, I might add, while my wretched crew watched from the ship via telescopy – utterly humiliating, like some antique prototype of that I’m A Celebrity thing you people are now obsessed by, but more real, more violent and, obviously, more Celebrity) and then carted me off to the village, where they disembowelled me and then baked me. PACIFICO MY ARSE! If I wasn’t dead, I’d do something about THAT maritime misnomer. Thanks for NOTHING Senhor Magellan! I named BOTANY Bay after my colleagues found lots of PLANT specimens there. Mount DROMEDARY because it looked like a hunchbacked UNGULATE. Point UPRIGHT on account of its PERPENDICULAR clifts. Point HICKS because that’s how I assumed Lieutenant HICKES spelled his name. (I mean, what kind of Englishman has silent vowels in his name? It’s a damn’d dishonest Continental practice.) In any case, the lesson is this: NEVER trust a Portuguese to do an Englishman’s job. As my good friend BJ is always saying. I hope you voted for him btw. An honest Englishman. But where was I? Aha! OK! I was dead by the time all the butchery and cookery (ha, ha) took place, but somehow I’M the one who ends up with the reputation as a trespasser, killer and a thief! THEY BAKED ME!

But at least they did it properly. Half-baked is the only way to describe Her Majesty’s (in my day you knew where you stood: we only had kings, they were all called George and they all spoke German; that was when Britain was truly Great – indeed, it was the third of the Georges, the one who sat on the throne for most of my lifetime, who invented the greatest version of Great Britain by allowing Ireland to be a part of it) Government’s recent expressions of mild regret, to the descendants of the Māoris I killed, for me having invented New Zealand. I endeavour (he, he) to regret NOTHING. Not that I really have to try. Well, perhaps I do regret, and this really is ridiculous, that the ’ahu’ula
that Terreeoboo gave me the night before his subjects killed me (before the cutter thievery, when we were still on good terms) is now in the Australian Museum in Sydney. It’s Owhyheean not Australian! The only connection between Australians and skirts is me (even though I barely had time to try it on)! Who’s the THIEF now?

The first time I travelled to the so-called Pacific was when I set out to record the Transit of Venus. After I’d done that (yawn) was when I first discovered the inhabitants of New Holland: I was, I wrote at the time, ‘so near the Shore as to distinguish several people upon the Sea beach they appear’d to be of a very dark or black Colour but whether this was the real colour of their skins or the Clothes they might have on I know not’. By the time I had hooked up with the Gwiyagal it became clear that they weren’t wearing clothes. Although the Gwiyagal themselves used to cover themselves in a white clay. Which was confusing. Did I mention that when I first met the Gwiyagal I had to shoot one of their warriors – Cooman I think he was called – in the leg in order to remind them that we meant them no harm? He dropped his shield at that point, I think as a kind of offering again, so I took it with me and gave it to the British Museum. Apparently Cooman’s great, great, great, great, great, great grandson has been pestering the museum because he wants it back. Can you BELIEVE that he claims that it is ‘the most significant and potent symbol of imperial aggression – and subsequent Indigenous self-protection and resistance – in existence’? Finders keepers, buddy! It was a gift in any case.

Talking of finding and keeping, I should mention the real Venus in my life, Elizabeth Batts. I married her and stayed married to her for 17 years, until I got as ‘cooked’ as she was (boom, boom). And even though I only actually spent about four years with her, she gave me five sons and a daughter. Which just goes to show that I was as productive at home as I was abroad. Elizabeth was the daughter of Batts the elder who used to run a pub called the Bell Inn in Wapping. He was a mentor of sorts: the even elder Batts, Richard, had been a mariner. Although not a mariner in the sense that I was: there are parts of the world in which I invented marinering. When I wasn’t inventing parts of the world that is. Or the world itself. Did I tell you it was me who calculated the distance of the Earth from the Sun? Unless it was the Sun from the Earth. I was never quite sure which (but I had help of course). That’s why they kept naming space shuttles and command modules after the ships in which I did MY discovering I guess. In any case, NASA loves me. I’m definitely a god to them.

Anyhow, the funny thing was, despite all the mentoring from Batts the elder, I never actually managed to run a pub of my own. But interestingly there’s a 25 square-foot strip of Hawaiian beach that’s mine, although they gave it to me after the stabbing and baking. Well, really they gave it to the British crown, but I like to think that l’état c’est moi and all that. I mean, literally it is in my case. L’océan Pacifique c’est moi as I always used to say, mainly to the natives. In English of course. I think they regretted killing me. Later they made a coin with my face on it. To commemorate me, not the killing of me. I think. Like I said, I think they regretted it.

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