Five Visions of Captain Cook #
Captain1 James Cook (1728 – 1779) was a British explorer, navigator, cartographer, and Lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Cook made detailed maps of Newfoundland prior to making three voyages to the Pacific Ocean, during which he achieved the first recorded European contact with the eastern coastline of Australia and the Hawaiian Islands, and the first recorded circumnavigation of New Zealand. There can be no doubt he was an extraordinary navigator honoured internationally, even by the French. Cook is idolised as a demi-god by the simple sailors who are fascinated by his “magic” (he can read, chart maps and navigate by the stars) and place their trust in his ability to protect them from sea monsters (krakens) and ensure their safe voyages across uncharted seas.
Cook is falsely credited as the founder of Australia. The truth is not quite so generous. He certainly was not the first European to discover it, not even the first to land on it. More than a century earlier the Dutch, Portuguese and Indonesians left evidence ot their presence. Cook did however map the east coast. There is no evidence that he ever advocated for the founding of The Great Southern Continent. That credit should go to Sir Joseph Banks, a prosperous botanist and artist who paid to accompany Cook on the trip to the Southern Ocean.
“I suspect it’s because there’s nothing much to Cook’s encounter with Australia. The three voyages themselves, taken together, are a pretty stunning human achievement whatever unpleasantness there was along the way. The Australian stopover? Came, saw, went. Not the Odyssey, nor the Mayflower, nor the legendary voyage of Kupe to found Aotearoa. Just a stop along the way. But Cook is someone the culture warriors default to, as the First Fleet arrival becomes increasingly hard to sell as a moment of enlightenment.”
In fact the view from the shore, by Australia’s first inhabitants is quite contrary. They see him as the mythical bogey man embodying all the destruction caused by 250 years of white settlement. Their ancestors had taken good care of the land for more than 65 thousand years, only for Joseph Banks to declare, " these are the most uncivilised savages of the world because they can’t make proper use of the land".
Cook’s impressions were quite positive. Here is a summary of his observations:
“The natives of New Holland may appear to some to be the most wretched people on the earth, but in reality they are far happier than we Europeans, who are wholly unacquainted with the superficiality of the necessary conveniences so sought after in Europe. They are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a tranquility not disturbed by inequality of condition. The earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life. The care not for magnificent houses or household extravagances. They live in a warm and fine climate and enjoy wholesome air”.
Cook was under strict express orders “to look for signs of occupation and negotiate with any natives they encountered”. he was further ordered “to open dialogue and establish friendship”. *Thomas Morton, President of the Royal Society added:
“any natives you encounter are to be considered natural and legal possessors and no European nation has the right to occupy or settle among them without their consent.
The natives made it quite clear all they wanted is for the White people to be gone and leave them alone. Cook eventually decided to disobey his orders, by declaring the country “terra nullius” allowing him after three months of mapping the coast, planting a British Flag on Possession Island laying claim with his lie, to all of New Holland, renaming it New South Wales. And this man is made a hero?
Exerpts from Cook’s Journal: #
Friday, 20th April 1770
At noon we were sailing about three leagues distance from the shore. (South coast) The weather being clear, gave us a clear view of the country, which has a very pleasing appearance: it is of a moderate height, diversified by hills and vallies, ridges and plains, interspersed with a few lawns of no great extent, but in general covered with wood: the ascent of the hills and ridges is gentle, and the summits are not high… In the afternoon we saw smoke in several places, by which we knew the country was inhabited.
Saturday, 28th April 1770
After dinner the boats were manned, and we set out from the ship… We intended to land where we saw the people, and began to hope that as they had so little regarded the ship’s coming into the bay, they would little regard our coming on shore: in this however, we were disappointed; for as soon as we approached the rocks, two of the men came down upon them to dispute our landing, and the rest ran away.
Each of the two champions was armed with a lance about ten feet long, and a short stick which he seemed to handle as if it were a machine to assist him in managing or throwing the lance; they then called to us in a very loud tone, and in a high dissonant language, of which we understood not a word: they brandished their weapons, and seemed resolved to defend their coast to the uttermost, though they were but two and we were forty.
I could not but admire their courage and being very unwilling that hostilities should commence with such inequality of force between us, I ordered the boat to lie upon her oars; we then parlied by signs for about half an hour, and to bespeak their goodwill, I threw them some nails, beads and other trifles which they took up and seemed to be well pleased with. I then made signs that I wanted water and by all would do them no harm: they now waved to us, and I was willing to interpret it as an invitation; but upon putting the boat in, they came again to oppose us. One appeared to be a youth about 19, the other of middle age: as I had now no other resource I fired a musquet between them. Upon the report, the youngest dropped a bundle of lances upon a rock, but recollecting himself in an instant he snatched them up again with great haste: a stone was then thrown at us, upon which I ordered a musquet to be fired with small shot, which struck the eldest upon the legs, and he immediately ran to one of the houses, which was distant about an hundred yards. I now hoped that our contest was over, and we immediately landed; but we had scarcely left the boat when he returned, and we then perceived that he had only left the rock only to fetch a shield of target for his defence. As soon as we came up, he threw a lance at us, and his comrade another; they fell where we stood thickest, but happily hurt nobody.
A third musquet with small shot was then fired at them upon which one of them threw another lance, and both immediately ran away; if we had pursued, we might probably have taken one of them; but Mr Banks suggesting that the lances might be poisoned, I thought it not prudent to venture into the woods.
Busts and statues of Cook abound – even the French, however recently, several statues in honor of Cook have been defaced in protest. “Take care that a falling statue does not strike you dead!” (Nietzsche) Original inhabitants are demanding a bit of truth in memorialising our foundations.**
Despite this, the Abbott Government, elected in 2014, increased the memorialisation of his chosen few causes, to over $600 million. At the time the government continues to ransack the budget of the most highly trusted public institution, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In 2018, $48 million reduction in the ABC’s budget with a similar amount dedicated to commemorating the 250th Anniversary of Cook’s invasion of country in 1770. The fact that the colonisation of Australia had little to do with Cook; it was Sir Joseph Banks whose influence convinced the government to establish a colonial strategic outpost in the outer reaches of the South Pacific.
In three voyages Cook sailed thousands of miles across largely uncharted areas of the globe. He mapped lands from New Zealand to Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean in greater detail and on a scale not previously achieved. As he progressed on his voyages of discovery he surveyed and named features, and recorded islands and coastlines on European maps for the first time. He displayed a combination of seamanship, superior surveying and cartographic skills, physical courage and an ability to lead men in adverse conditions.
Cook was attacked and killed while attempting to kidnap the native chief of Hawaii during his third exploratory voyage in the Pacific in 1779. He left a legacy of scientific and geographical knowledge which was to influence his successors well into the 20th century, and numerous memorials worldwide have been dedicated to him.
For online copy of poems go to:
This poem is a tribute to the first British sea-faring man to discover Eastern Australia.
Slessor himself describes this
“as a sort of Identikit likeness, made by superimposing a number of aspects of Cook, seen through the eyes of various men who sailed with him, thus approaching perhaps a total portrait.”¹
It was the first of many other treatments of the theme of early sea-explorations. Slessor’s fascination with sea captains is explained by him living near the sea and his relationship through marriage to Captain Francis Bayldon, who lived at Darling Point who had a magnificent nautical library, more than a thousand books about the sea and seamen, logs, journals, learned papers, instruction manuals, maps and charts, many of them exceedingly rare and valuable. “Indeed, all that I have written about Captain Cook I got from Captain Bayldon.”²
Other Australian poets took up the subject gladly, for its historical and rhetorical bearing on Australia’s nationhood, but no one has treated it either with Slessor’s inventive brilliance and lightness, or with his intrinsic melancholy
the vision of Cook’s death,
“with … a knife of English iron,
Forged aboard ship, that had been changed for pigs,
Given back to Cook between his shoulder blades.”
The half-farcical, half-ironical notes makes us recall Slessor’s own disillusion and his denial of the city of humanity. ³
The Structure of Five Visons of Captain Cook: #
The first vision of Cook is by ordinary seaman who manned his ships on the three great voyages. There are two principal themes: the contrast between the old kind of sea captain and the modern kind, and the crucial decision which brought Cook to the coast of Australia. Cook is idolised as a demi-god by the simple sailors who are fascinated by his “magic” and place their trust in his ability to protect them from sea monsters (krakens) and ensure their safe voyages across uncharted seas. The superstitions of the age is revealed by the language; evil eye, warlock, devil’s fists, daemons, magic out, mysteries and half-dreadful sortilege, all supremely controlled by their infallible Captain.
The ship’s captain of the days of sail and “powder” (gun powder) was required to have some working knowledge of such things as mathematics, astronomy, navigation, chart- reading, sight-taking, foreign languages and elementary medicine, attainments which made him seem an almost supernatural being in the eyes of his crew, most of whom were unable to read or write. The simple sailors under his command did what they were bidden, sailed where they were taken, ate and drank what they were given, blindly confident that the magic of their captain (as it must have seemed to them) would preserve their lives from evil spirits, monsters and spells (some of them still believed in sea- serpents) and convey them safely across unmapped seas and unknown lands.
Captains like this were indeed “daemons in wigs”, navigating by signs in the stars which they could read as easily as books, though to ordinary men the sky seemed just a tangle of constellations. They gave their crews medicaments and drugs against disease (in Cook’s case against scurvy), which seemed nonsense to the sailors but which they swallowed with childish faith. The success of such commanders depended above all on their personal qualities, their individual resources of courage, nerve, imagination, shrewdness and self-confidence.³
Modern day captains are disparaged by dismissive pejorative labels such as:
“Cold executives, dividend, cracking, laws of schoolbook steam”
The second contrast is Cook’s decision to turn West near the Coral Sea compared with Abel Tasman and Bougainville ( who recorded that he had heard “the voice of God” advising him to take the safe way home to The north, away from the “dead lee shore”). But Captain Cook, at these crossroads of navigation and history, determined to sail west instead of north, “into the devil’s mouth”, and so came to the coastline of eastern Australia - and so, 160 years later, Slessor and others were able to write poetry.
The second perspective is that of some of the officers who served under him.
The historical facts to which part 2 alludes are verified by the journals, logs, diaries and letters of Cook and many of the people who accompanied him.
“Cook sailed at night.” Usually, in strange waters, particularly in such an area of hidden reefs and unsounded depths, sailing was done in daylight only. But such was Cook’s confidence in his navigation and seamanship that he kept his vessel sailing in darkness as well. No doubt he felt that he had only a limited time for exploration and did not wish to waste a minute.
The third vision is the view of history (denoted by the time-
instruments in Cook’s cabin). Cook took with him two recently invented chronometers, installed by the Admiralty for a trial of the new method of discovering longitude. Thus he was, in effect, a test-pilot trying out new equipment.
Two famous English watchmakers supplied the chronometers for this historic experiment. One was made by John Arnold, a friend of Sir Joseph Banks, the other by Larcum Kendal from a prototype invented by John Harrison. After both had been tested for many months of Cook’s voyage, it was found that Kendal’s chronometer lost time ( minutes, 4g seconds in three years) while Arnold’s gained time. For the purpose of the poem, it is imagined therefore that Kendal lived in the past and Arnold in the future.
The fourth perspective is that of a workaday occasion during his third voyage derived from some verses written by one of the midshipmen aboard, later to become Captain Trevenen. Slessor was able to see a copy of this manuscript among the treasures of Captain Bayldon’s library. The phrase “cats to catch mice” was one of Cook’s favourite admonitions to the lively boys who were his mid shipmen. It is quoted by Trevenen with the explanation that the captain frequently told them that he didn’t mind how much they kicked up their heels provided they did their duties first—.his actual words were “my cats have to catch mice before they get any milk”.
The fifth is the vision of Cook which remained in the memory of one of his companions many years after his death. This account of Cook comes from the manuscript journal kept by Captain Alexander Home. Slessor was fortunate to see a copy of it in Captain Bayldon’s library. Like Captain Trevenen. Alexander Home had been one of Cook’s company on his third voyage.
This passage loses some of its effect because it is long and repetitive. Captain Home returned to England and slowly became blind, ending up retired in a small cottage in Scotland with his wife and six children on a meagre pension of half a crown a day. Slessor seems to suggest that Cook was lucky to die in full battle rather than spend the rest of his life couped up in a cage on a pittance in a Greenwich nursing home. Excerpted from SOME NOTES ON THE POEMS
* From a talk by Kenneth Slessor, given at the University of NSW in 1965., reprinted in Bread and Wine, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1
Language in Five Visons of Captain Cook: #
For a comparison of Slessor’s description of the Great Barrier Reef and an objective prose version try this language exercise.
Evaluation of Five Visons of Captain Cook: #
Five Visions of Captain Cook
it simply happens to deal , in very good poetry, with a man who matters a deal to Australian history
‘...a long poem in a series of vignettes….”
“ It is the impact of the whole which is its final value. ‘Five Visions. has far more weight, continuously cumulatively, in unity and drama than earlier sequences.
It is written in five pieces but the five, in the end. come fairly close to blending into one…”
“A structuralist view of ‘Five Visions.. can be used to relate each part to the whole, showing the different aspects of Cook’s personality- his humanity, his exceptional gifts, his impact on others while he was alive, the importance of his actions for the future after his death.
“… the flatness, weakness or uncertain shifts of tone,… sections ‘, III, and IV are written out of impulses which are too simple to engage the reader’s response in the way that the superbly evocative section V does. As a whole impressive and effective, but not quite as coherent or as dramatic a series of perspectives as Slessor intended it to be.”
Charles Higham has called the poem:
“A harsh statement of fatalism - hedonism’s inevitable aftermath when the pleasures of youth and health have gone.”
Technically he was not a Captain, but a Lieutenant at the time. He only later became a Post Captain. ↩︎