Cook's home tour

7th February 1997 at 00:00
Get set to meet a new celebrity. Whitby's own Captain James Cook, 18th-century navigator and explorer, is about to be rediscovered as a British hero for today.

Next month the replica ship Endeavour ties up at Greenwich pier, near the National Maritime Museum. Built and sailed from Australia, were Cook is a major historical figure, the vessel is a modern reconstruction of the ship he used for his first circumnavigation in 1768-71. After London comes a circuit of Britain, including Cook's home port of Whitby, before the worldwide promotional tour continues via America.

"I think he is an undiscovered hero," says Gillian Hutchinson, project leader for the National

Maritime Museum, which is handling the UK liaison for the ship's visit and is hosting a major Cook exhibition this summer. "Working somewhere like here (the NMM), one tends to assume everybody knows about Cook, which is not true - but by the end of this year a much greater proportion of the UK population will know about him," she says.

Peter Towned, chairman of Whitby's Captain Cook Memorial Museum, a charitable trust which saved the house where Cook was apprenticed, agrees: "I think our national appreciation of Cook is increasing. History was not important to Whitby until recently and at one stage there was a plan to knock this historic building down in order to extend a car park - but now people's attitudes are changing. I think there will be a considerable response when the new Endeavour sails in here - already the interest is building up."

Harry Collett, tourism promoter and Whitby historian, is equally keen to see Cook better valued by the public. "Cook is not a hero in the same way as Nelson, because Nelson can be associated with particular battles, whereas Cook's achievements are less obvious because his was a political and scientific agenda," he says.

What Cook did do was to circumnavigate the world twice, in two great voyages of British exploration of the Southern and Pacific Oceans, before he was murdered by hostile natives on a Hawaii beach during his third voyage.

Born in North Yorkshire in 1728, James Cook, the son of a farm labourer, took apprenticeship with Quaker ship owner John Walker of Whitby and lodged along with the other boys in the attic of the harbourside house, now preserved as a museum.

Whitby was then a ship-building port of national importance and the locally designed vessels, the snub-nosed, flat-bottomed "Whitby cats" were small, seaworthy and proven in the arduous conditions of the North Sea. In eight years in the merchant trade, James Cook soon showed extraordinary talent for navigation and seamanship.

By 1775 he was offered command of one of Walker's ships, but he chose to sign on as able seaman with the Royal Navy. At the age of 27, it seemed an inexplicable move, but his talents were recognised and he was quickly promoted, showing great skill as a surveyor and navigator in a war against the French in Canada.

Meanwhile, the British were engaged in the battle for world trade and the economic benefits to be gained from scientific advances. An expedition was proposed, ostensibly to make important astronomical observations of a predicted Transit of Venus from the island of Tahiti, the measurements needed to aid new methods of longitude computation. The covert purpose was to search for the existence of an antarctic continent, which it was assumed existed in the lower hemisphere in order to balance the globe. Cook's proven reputation as a navigator and surveyor led to his appointment as expedition leader, promoted to lieutenant and commander of HMS Endeavour, a ship specially converted for the voyage from one of the Whitby cats Cook knew so well.

The scientific party on board included the wealthy and well-connected Joseph Banks, botanist and collector, after whose efforts Cook was later to name "Botany Bay".

Cook successfully took his ship round Cape Horn to Tahiti where the important astronomy exercise was completed. Then, under his secret orders, Cook roamed the Pacific looking for the lost continent - instead he came upon first New Zealand and then the east coast of Australia.

There had been some tentative European exploratio n in the area before, but Cook literally put the islands of New Zealand and the east coast of Australia on the map; completing an exhaustive and survey of the coastlines and returning to England with what were, in effect, new discoveries.

Endeavour's voyage also pushed back other frontiers of science. Cook's attitude to the crew's health and welfare was revolutionary: at sea he ordered the regular washing of the men and ship, stopped the seamen's traditional practice of defecating in the bilges and forced them to eat an improved diet, thus preventing the heavy loss of life through scurvy and infection that was usual on long voyages of the time.

After a second, larger, expedition made in 1772-75, again in a Whitby ship, HMS Resolution, Cook seemed set for honourable retirement as captain of the Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich, a sinecure offered to him in recognition of his distinguished service to the nation.

Rashly, he put himself forward to lead a third voyage; this time to the ice fields of the North Pacific to try and find a sea route through to the North Atlantic. He was already exhausted and aged by the exertions of his earlier circumnavigations and was probably weakened by illness from intestinal worms.

Signs of his declining health are evident from events and the personal accounts of those around him. He began to make navigational mistakes at sea and became irritable. Ashore among the Pacific islands he no longer could deal patiently with with the petty pilfering from the ship by the islanders and so allowed himself to be goaded into some cruel retribution, untypical of his earlier years.

On Hawaii in February 1779, Cook and his party became involved in minor skirmishes with the natives, partly because he seemed to have lost his sure touch in controlling his officers. In a violent confrontation on the beach, Cook was overpowered and he was beaten to death before before he could be rescued.

Gillian Hutchinson says: "Originally, the Endeavour set out on a scientifically planned voyage - Cook was not going for motives of conquest or quick riches as previous explorers had. The first and the later expeditions were carried out to a extremely high standard.

"Cook was entirely self-taught and pushed himself to take on new positions of responsibility. Even though the Navy was slow to offer high-rank, he still, by his own determination, made it to the top; but never really achieved the recognition he deserves."

In Whitby, the preparation s for the replica Endeavour's visit add to the growing Cook industry in the North East - a region which now introduces itself in brochures and guides as "Cook Country".

"People flock to Whitby because it is such a photogenic place - but when they know the Endeavour is going to be coming into the harbour, I think the effect will be tremendous," says Harry Collet, whose dreams include the town building its own replica of Cook's second ship Resolution.

"It's very significant that we have been selected as the major East coast port for this Endeavour Tour - Whitby, with all its Cook associations, has to be the jewel in the crown."

Where and when

Ship visits: The Endeavour replica arrives at Tower Bridge, London, on March 25 and will tour Britain until September, calling at Greenwich (March 28-April 13), Great Yarmouth (Apr 19-28), Boston (May 2-5), Whitby (May 10-18), EdinburghLeith (May 24-June 6), Inverness (June 7-15), Greenock (June 28-July 6), Liverpool (July 11-20), Fishguard (July 26-3 August), Falmouth (Aug 9-17), Plymouth (Aug 23-31), Weymouth (September 6-9), Brighton (Sept 13-21) and St Helier (Sept 27-October 5). Advance enquires to NMM. Tel: 0181 858 4422. Berths are available for paying crew between ports.

Exhibitions: London: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Tel 0181 858 4422. Fax 0181 312 6632. "Cook and the Endeavour", March 24 to September 21.

Whitby: Captain Cook Memorial Museum, Grape Lane. Tel: 01947 601900. School parties by arrangement. See also the Whitby Museum, Pannett Park, tel: 01947 602908. Cook display as part of a major mid-Victorian collection. Teacher's pack available.

Touring: National Geographic Magazine exhibition of photographs about the work of Endeavour's botanist, Joseph Banks. Shows at Boston, Whitby and Edinburgh, details to be confirmed. Tel: 01483 37111.

"Captain Cook Country": the local tourist office produces guides to other Cook locations and associations throughout the North-East. Details from TIC, Langboure Road, Whitby YO21 1YN. Tel: 01947 602674

Books: Captain Cook by Richard Hough, Coronet, #163;6.99 Longitude by Dava Sobel, Fourth Estate, #163;12 - account gives scientific background to Cook's voyages. Captain James Cook, Navigator , NMM #163;4.95

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