Mercury Bay Museum Musings #4

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Mercury Bay Museum Musings - 24 February 2017

Planning for public events and heritage projects to commemorate the 250th Anniversary of Lieutenant James Cook's arrival in New Zealand in 1769 are gathering momentum. The 2019 remembrance of this formative milestone in our nations history will be a shared Maori and Pakeha experience – celebrating the coming together of two peoples of differing backgrounds and beliefs in which initial misunderstandings were overcome. The burgeoning of mutual respect between Maori and the European interlopers formed the symbolic 'base alloy' on which our multicultural nation was forged. However, in reflecting on the word 'shared' it is interesting to note that the memory of James Cook and his place in our nations history is not just a New Zealand thing. The legacy of Cook is shared and celebrated by many other countries. One such country, Canada, has a claim to Cook which predates his arrival in New Zealand waters by some 11 years. The ubiquitous James is revered by Canadians for his surveying of Newfoundland and for his minor but key role in Canada becoming a British rather than French colony following the 'seven year war' waged between 1756 and 1763. Cook earlier served his commercial seagoing apprenticeship on Whitby Cats (colliers) plying the east coast of England and the Baltic sea between 1746 and 1755 and had the chance to become a ship's Master. But, to the consternation of his friends, he turned this down and in 1755 volunteered to join the British navy as a lowly able seaman. After active service in the English Channel and the Atlantic it did not take long for his naval superiors to recognise Cook's talents. Within two years he had passed his Trinity House examinations and qualified as a British naval ship's Master in 1757. (A Ship's master in the Royal Navy being a non-commissioned 'Warrant Officer' rank  accountable directly to the ship's Captain for the sea worthiness of the vessel, the ship's navigation, and many other such responsibilities). Cook was Master of HMS Pembroke when it sailed to the eastern seaboard of Canada with a British navy fleet, arriving in Halifax in May of 1758. The navy promptly went into action in support of the British army in the ongoing conflict with the French over suzerainty of North America –  the Pembroke being engaged in the blockade of French held ports. After the French surrendered the Louisbourg fortress on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia in July, Cook went ashore at Gaberus Bay and by chance made acquaintance with a man seemingly carrying out and recording mathematical observations with the use of a square table and tripod. Cook engaged the man in conversation and the latter introduced himself as Samuel Holland a military surveyor and engineer attached to the staff of British General James Wolfe. He and Cook took an immediate liking to each other and Holland (a Dutchman born in the same year as Cook) explained that his plane table enabled him to make accurate surveys. Cook was fascinated and under the tutelage of Holland he obsessively added surveying and drawing up of charts to his mastery of navigation and hydrography.  After the fall of Louisbourg the British army, and supporting the naval units, in 1758/59 wintered over in Halifax  prior to setting off up the St Lawrence River to capture the main French stronghold of Quebec. Cook's ship assisted with the ferrying of General Wolfe's troops and charting of the St Lawrence River in preparation for the assault on Quebec. The town fell to the British in September 1759, with Wolfe being wounded and later dying on the battlefield. The French commander, Marquis Louis-Joseph Montcalm, was also wounded and died on the following day. The legend that Cook personally surveyed the St Lawrence river over the winter of 1758/59 and made an accurate chart of its entire length is pure myth – the river was iced over. What he did do with the assistance of Holland was collate every scrap of information in chart form available and the data assembled was of inestimable value. Cook materially contributed to the British victory and to the French eventually withdrawing from the North America.

Cook talents as a surveyor and a map maker had come the notice of the British Admiral in command of the fleet and he remained in Canada as part of a small detachment for the next two years. In October 1762 Cook returned to England and married Elizabeth Batts in Barking. Cook then went back to Canada for the next five years, surveying the coast of Newfoundland during the summer periods and returning to England in the winter. He finally completed his full survey and returned to London in 1767. It was during his service on the eastern seaboard of Canada that Cook honed his navigational, surveying and hydrography skills that were to eventually establish his reputation for all time. Cook's good friend, surveying mentor and collaborator, Royal Engineer Samuel Holland, went on to become the first Surveyor General of British North America. He outlived Cook and died in Quebec, Lower Canada, in 1801.