Two Very Different Experts: Cook and Banks on the First Endeavour Voyage
In The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the South Pacific, Gananath Obeyesekere names Captain James Cook ‘a great discoverer and one of the first anthropologists’, a man seen by Polynesians as one ‘with “a real feeling for human rights and decencies”.¹ This is perhaps the way that we modern readers view the Captain, but, as Obeyesekere also highlights, Cook was not always the scientific figure that is now attributed to him. This famous seafarer only ‘began his apprenticeship as an ethnographer’ during that first voyage in Pacific, a role ‘he developed more fully in the second and third voyages’; a fact that led to the delegation of his first voyage as one belonging to the botanist and ethnographer Joseph Banks. It seems, then, that the later posthumous declaration that the first voyage was “Cook’s” may not live up to his abilities as an ethnographer at that time. This essay, through a comparison of Cook and Banks on their visit to Tahiti, will attempt to construct a case study, or close reading, that will evaluate their differing roles in the narrative, illustrating the conditions that led to Bank’s holding the primary role in this voyage. These accounts, throughout the investigation, will begin to show these expert’s differing talents, goals and accomplishments,and how these carve out separate identities in their texts.
To begin, I would like to introduce James Cook for the man he was before his acclaim as a writer; that being, when he was fore-mostly a servant of the British Empire, touring the seas for what was, in the eyes of the King, an act of increasing the command of British people. In Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti, she describes how:
‘this isolated male figure, personified by his ship, imposed his “absolute” and “undisputed” “power of command” on a sea that is “there is to be ruled,” and how the sea captain provided a powerful collective vision and symbol of how Englishmen should behave and interact with others,’²
This powerful role in the extension of British power would not have been something unknown to Cook, and it is easy to see how Cook can be equally compared to other famous examples of naval captains. In ‘The Hero and the Sea: Sea Captains and Their Discontents’,³ Claire Jowitt analyses the ‘heroic power’ seen in ‘sea captains from England’s imperial and colonial past’, and shows that such writers as Francis Drake and Richard Hakluyt show ‘the emergence of the ideology of the absolute “power of command” of English sea captains’, alongside a new era of political thought which ‘prioritized the activities of merchants, rather than aristocrats’, and therefore were ‘the sort of seamen most likely to progress England’s overseas enterprise’. It is easy to see how Cook’s own attention to navigation, authority, and empire warp the focus of his narrative on Tahiti to these themes. From his first arrival, the movement and maintenance of the ship are Cook’s main areas of interest. The opening entries into his journal detail location, with lines such as ’32 minutes East. Wind South-East to East’ and ‘distance 122 miles; latitude 19 degrees 7 minutes south’ (April 1)⁴ in imposing tables before any other detail; whilst at the same time the ship and the islands discovered are posed in their distance ‘West from the meridian of Greenwich’ (April 5), the centre-point of imperial navigation. Just like Francis Drake and Richard Hakluyt, Cook is an agent of imperial power and his training, unlike his gentlemanly contemporary, is focused primarily on his function as the ship’s maintainer and navigator.
This attention to elements of navigation, and of the ship as a centre of colonial power, extends throughout the narrative and commands what elements of Tahitian geography and culture Cook focuses on. On his first arrival, the Captain relays that ‘my design was to see if there was not a more commodious harbour’ (April 13), and that, upon finding such a place, Cook dedicated his crew ‘and moored her in such a manner as to command all the shore of the North-East part of the bay’ (April 16). The need to have a secure location for the HMS Endeavour, and the importance of that location having particular command upon its surroundings, shows us the duties of Cook that has him see Tahiti through the navigator’s lens. In the moments that the Captain does look upon the Tahitians and their neighbours, he is more likely to focus on such things as the ‘Reefs that lay along the Shore between this and the Isthmus, where Shipping can lay in perfect security’, or a ‘large, safe, and Commodious Harbour, inferior to none on the whole island’ (June 27). Later on is more of the same, where we hear that he ‘next passed through a Harbour’ with ’11 and 12 fathoms of water and good Anchorage’. In Cook’s narrative it ‘will be found sufficient to point out the Situations of the different bay and Harbours’ inhabiting the island, rather than various people and their cultures. As only a beginner in the world of ethnography, Cook appears to delegate his narrative to those things which fit best his role and perspective on the journey. Unlike Banks, who will be shown to take on a much more anthropological study of the islands.
The figure of Cook as the ship captain further emphasises the distance between him, the Tahitians, and elements of culture within the narrative. Generally, Cook’s purpose on the voyage is to maintain control over their ship, the territory of their small temporary colony (the fort), and the well-being of the crew. In his narrative, the Captain often pays attention to his enforcing of law and order onto his environment. When first trading with the native people of Tahiti, Cook relays ‘that some order should be observed in Trafficking with the Natives’, from which a set of codes are established:
‘Rules to be observed by every person in or belonging to His Majesty’s Bark the Endeavour for the better Establishing a regular uniform Trade for Provision, etc., with the Inhabitants of George’s Island’ (April 13)
The creation of a particular order in the name of ‘His Majesty’ is something that hearkens to both Canetti’s image of the ship captain as an extension of imperial power and Cowitt’s proving that such power was manifested in a spirit which put trade above the aristocracy. Cook, in wanting to maintain order in his “colony”, defines the narrative with the actions that do so. The ‘6 swivels’ mounted at the fort which ‘struck the natives with some fear’ (April 22), and the keeping in ‘custody’ of ‘Obariea, Toobouratomita, and 2 other chiefs’ because it ‘would have more weight with the Natives’ (July 13) show us a Cook whose narrative embodies less the values of the scientist and more the commander. When the Captain says that ‘Our Traffick with this people was carried on with as much Order as in the best regulated Market in Europe’ (July 13) on leaving Tahiti, he expresses his desire for his relationship with these people at the periphery to replicate the colonial centre and its power.
It is also important to note that even Bank’s narrative, as it is written by a passenger on the Endeavor, is controlled by the movements demanded by Cook. The purpose of the voyage, which was to record the transit of Venus, involves the Captain delegating the scientists but not sitting among them. We hear how he ‘sent Lieutenant Gore in the Long boat to York Island with Dr. Monkhouse and Mr. Sporing’ (June 1), but not how he records such events himself. This generally extends into Cook’s manner of not recording things, and not taking too great of an interest in doing so. We do see some description, of course, such as the women putting ‘the Victuals into his [the chief’s] Mouth’ (May 1), or the ‘young Fellow above 6 feet high’ who supposedly ‘made love to a little Girl about 10 or 12 years old’ (May 14) but most of what disrupts the narrative is only due to something Banks has taken part in. Cook records on one occasion that ‘Mr. Banks was as usual at the gate of the Fort trading with people’, and at one time had women who gifted him cloth and ‘Embraced him’ (May 12), and on another that ‘Mr. banks’ had ‘bought a Basket of Fruit in which was the Thigh of a Dog’ (June 20). In one line that greatly summarises this Cook says:
‘The Music and Singing was so much of a piece that I was very glad when it was over.’ (May 28)
Cook’s ambivalence to matters of social and linguistic interest in the South Pacific, at this time in his writing, meets its opposite in Banks. However, just like the Captain, Banks’ role on this first voyage can also be traced back to a particular historical figure; that being, the image of the gentleman scientist that Cook developed in his later voyages. In ‘Missionary Position: Romantic European Polynesias From Cook to Stevenson’, Sarah Johnson analysis the vein of classical knowledge which contributed to paradisaical views of the South Pacific at this time. Johnson asserts that Banks ‘had been educated’, unlike the sea captain, ‘in the classic and in the primitivist philosophy of Rousseau’, which, through the form of travel writing, ‘thus brought to the South Seas a set of cultural assumptions’⁵ representing the islands through the philosophies of empire. This particular trend amongst the “gentlemen scientists” of scientific writings, can be found within the narrative of Banks, whose various perspectives and tangents on Tahitian culture reflect these historical values.
A first read of Banks’ journals of Tahiti shows a stark contrast with the straightforward narrative of Cook, whose sequence of events is unlikely to take tangents into personal interest and opinions. For the scientist, however, his journal article is littered with moments that show a genuine intrigue for Tahitian culture in a way that mimics the sentiments that Johnson presented. Often enough Bank’s description of the Tahitians or their neighbours idealises them beyond reason, where they are either described as living in the ‘the trest picture of arcadia of which we were going to be kings’ (April 13), or pictured as people ‘at least equal to any we had seen in civilizd countries’ despite their lack of ‘any advantage’ or ‘natural instinct uninstructed by the example of any civilized countrey.’ (April 14). Just as general Tahitian culture has here been compared in value to the west, so are various Tahitian individuals compared to the “western values” which Banks believes they exhibit. The chief they name Lycurgus, for example, is complimented for how ‘he imitates our manner in every instance, already holding a knife and fork more handily’ (April 20) than his European counterparts. This is a similar, though less descriptive, treatment given to Bank’s friend and guide Tupia, who is told to be ‘a most proper man, well born’, with ‘knowledge of the Islands in these seas’ (July 12). Along with the clear connotations of the “Noble Savage”, Banks is clearly representing what Johnson also calls ‘descriptive strategies derived from pre-existing ideas’, a combined philosophy of scientific writers expressed in his narrative.
During the course of Banks’ narrative it also becomes clear that his skills as an ethnographer outstrip those of Cook, with the course of events being often disrupted by Banks’ more scientific mind. His greater interest in social and linguistic matters often shows through; for example, when first contact has been made and he tells of the islanders ‘laying our hands on our breasts and saying Taio, which I imagine signifies freind’ (April 14), or later, when discovering the names the Tahitians have for the Captain and the other scientists ‘when they attempt to pronounce them’:
‘I give the List: Captn Cooke Toote, Dr Solander Torano, Mr Hicks Hete, Mr Gore Toarro, Mr Molineux Boba from his Christian name Robert, Mr Monkhouse Mato, and myself Tapáne.’ (May 10)
These details are almost completely absent from Cook’s narrative, who for the most part ignores any matter of linguistic interest. Banks, however, as the gentleman scientist sent to record the island’s culture, is much more anthropological in his description of it. Firstly, the names of the people and their settlements are often coined by Banks with diacritics to aid the reader’s understanding. When finding out the Tahitians’ proper names, he presents them in such a manner a ‘Tübourai tamaide’, ‘Tomío’, ‘Terarü’ (April 27); and similarly, later in their discoveries, labels districts and chiefs such as ‘Annuúhé’ and ‘Maraitátá’ (June 27). Banks’ attention to the island’s people and their social-system is important, but more so, in the terms of this narrative, is his attention to linguistic presentation within this text. Using diacritics to present an accurate reading of the local language, alongside his general interest in matter of language and culture, is what distinctly separates the narratives of both Cook and Banks and defines their roles as the ship Captain and the scientist respectively.
On top of this, Banks substitutes Cook’s more commandeering distance with a desire for cross-cultural exchange to expand his own knowledge of the island. In one moment that encapsulates this dynamic, Banks relates that ‘Captn Cooke proposd that divine service should be celebrated’, for it being Sunday, and that he [Banks] ‘resolvd however that some should be present that they might see our behaviour’. Banks’ recording how they ‘imitated’ his motions by ‘standing setting or kneeling as they saw me do’ (May 14), in a scene which is not at all touched upon in Cook’s journal, shows the difference in their intent and role when it comes to the Tahitian people. More elaborate than this; however, is the example of the ‘Heiva no Meduah or funeral ceremony’, also not written about by Cook, in which Banks participated. We hear how he was ‘prepard by stripping off my European cloths’, ‘smut … with charcoal and water’ and ‘scrubbed … till it was dark before the blacking would come off’, all of these ritualistic moments, through which Banks ‘had no pretensions to be ashamed of my nakedness’ (June 10) show a desire for cultural exchange that Cook doesn’t achieve on the island. Even cultural traditions that are often famously associated with the island are not considered worthy of Cook in his narrative. This includes, most forthrightly, tattooing. Banks mentions it on multiple occasions, once with the ‘Basket work’ with ‘skin and black to represent hair and tattow’ (June 29), and again with ‘the operation of Tattowing the buttocks performd upon a girl of about 12 years old’ (July 5). These descriptions of traditional practises are what defines Banks’ narrative for the reader, a complete juxtaposition to Cook’s focus on the ship, the fort, and keeping command of the people.
This greater overall connection with the Tahitians and their culture is, for Banks, a way of extending his knowledge as well as his standing back in the metropolis. Just as Cook, through being the Captain and maintaining order, extends maritime power; Banks, through his travel writing and ethnography, extends the empire’s intellectual power. We can see, throughout his narrative, where Banks records things due to his ‘airy dreams of entertaining my freinds in England’ (April 17), likening things to being ‘strange’ (April 28) in their actions, and setting up contact as part of an ‘experiment’ (June 20). Even Tupia, his guide and supposed friend, is likened to a ‘curiosity, as well as some of my neighbours do lions or tygers’ (July 12). There is something overall more malicious in these words, and all of them do indeed match the figure of the gentleman scientist in colonial Britain, alongside a culture of exploration that had ‘intense public interest, and a source of some of the most powerful ideational and ideological apparatuses’ connecting the metropolis to the outside world. Banks’ ethnography, which controls his narrative, is functionally a part of his identity and purpose.
To conclude, both James Cook and Joseph Banks have written in a time of scientific discovery and control during the imperial era. Tahiti, just like most of the South Pacific, was (as named by Mary Louise Pratt), a ‘contact zone’, a place ‘where disparate cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other’. The Captain and the ethnographer here are ‘central agents’ of a world power, but both write about this area of contrasting cultures in greatly different ways. Cook is the ‘seafarer’, the bringing of maritime domination. His narrative, through a focus on maintaining order, delivers a structured and simple account of his time on the island. Banks, who is much more the ‘“herborizer”, armed with nothing more than a collectors bay, a notebook, and some specimen bottles’, is the force of intellectual control following a tradition of European gentlemen who wished to codify and often sentimentalise their experiences in the periphery. His narrative, in contrast, is controlled by cultural descriptions, social traditions, and ideological opinions. His work is what we would later associate with colonial travel writing, and in this first voyage is an example of what Captain Cook would later become. This reading of their works on Tahiti has shown, from an early perspective, the differences between Cook and Banks, and how different figures who are both imperial agents can construct various perspectives on their periphery subjects.
 Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes, Travel Writing and Transculturation, (London: Routledge, 1992), p.4.
 Jowitt, Claire ‘The Hero and the Sea: Sea Captains and Their Discontents’, L’Empire, 74 (2017).Claire Jowitt, ‘The Hero and the Sea: Sea Captains and Their Discontents’, L’Empire, 74 (2017).
 Gananath Obeyesekere, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), p.3.
 James Cook, ‘The Journals of James Cook’s First Pacific Voyage’, in South Seas Voyaging Accounts.
 Sarah Johnson, ‘Missionary Positions: Romantic European Polynesias from Cook to Stevenson’, in Travel Writing in the Nineteenth Century, ed. by Tim Youngs, (London: Anthem Press, 2006), pp.179–86.