Monday, February 14, 2011

February 14, 1779 – James Cook Makes Landfall at Midway

In one of his last discoveries in a monumental career, James Cook set foot upon a small atoll in the northern Pacific that he dubbed “Bligh Island” after a junior officer on the expedition, though it would ultimately be renamed “Midway.” The small island was nearly missed as the flagship HMS Resolution had cracked its foremast, which a full break would have prompted a return to the recently discovered Sandwich Islands for repairs. Instead, Cook set forth continually northwest, pressing again to discover the elusive Northwest Passage. Again, the Bering Strait proved impassable, and he begrudgingly ordered a return to London for his crews on the verge of mutiny. They sailed past Nippon, attempting trade but being shooed by the Sakoku policy, and successfully traded with the Chinese, Javanese, and Africans around the Cape of Good Hope.

Upon his return up the Thames, Cook was lauded as a hero. His was an impressive climb from being the second child of a farm laborer in northern Yorkshire. Cook had become an apprentice in the merchant navy as a young man and learned the skills of navigation that would make him famous. During the arms race leading to the Seven Years’ War, Cook volunteered for the Royal Navy and served as Mate aboard HMS Eagle. After successful battles with the French, Cook continued to climb the ranks and was sent to the New World, where his skills in navigation proved also to include cartography. Recognized for his maps of the Saint Lawrence River and Newfoundland, Cook was given a position by the Royal Society to command an expedition to the Pacific for charting the transit of Venus across the Sun in 1766. Along with his astronomical records, Cook would also explore New Zealand and put Britain into contact with the Aborigines of Terra Australis. Cook lost several crewmen to native diseases such as malaria but not a single one to scurvy. His techniques of scurvy prevention would become a model for ships throughout the Navy.

Arriving back to much acclaim in 1771, he left again in 1772 to explore more of the South Pacific. Although what would become known as Australia was located, many members of the Royal Society believed a much larger (and wealthier) continent must lie even further south. Cook explored nearly reached Antarctica, but he turned north again for need of supplies. Instead of a great continent, he discovered numerous small islands in Polynesia such as Easter Island, New Caledonia, and Vanuatu as well as explorations in the southern Atlantic. Again hailed as a hero upon his return in 1775, he set out to explore the North Pacific the next year. There he would discover the Sandwich Islands, explore much of the northwest coast of North America, and travel north through the Bering Strait. When they came upon a twelve foot wall of ice across the whole horizon, the expedition was forced to turn south with the Northwest Passage proven a myth. They explored the eastern coast of Russia before wintering in the Sandwiches, where they had once been welcomed and Cook practically venerated as the god Lono. As the festival season of Lono had now passed, however, the Hawaiians were increasingly hostile, and Cook left, deciding even not to return despite his damaged foremast.

Cook pursued a Northwest Passage across Russia, but the Arctic proved too icy for wooden ships. He returned to London in 1780, finding the world turned upside-down by the riotous Americans. After serving for three years as admiral until the end of the war, Cook retired from his life at sea and set upon a new life’s project to restore Britain’s glory. The American revolt had left them without a great deal of wealth and possibilities for westward expansion, but the whole of the Pacific lay beyond practically unconquered. While Captain Arthur Phillip led the colonization of Australia, Cook campaigned for small outposts on every island available, conquering the sea lanes for Britain. Using his own fortune from the sales of his popular journals, he funded missionaries, farmers, and merchants alike to form small colonies that would meet with varying luck.

As the Industrial Revolution took hold, however, each of these colonies suddenly sprang to life as coaling stations. Needed by the Royal Navy as well as the vast merchant fleet of Britain, the Pacific colonies became key bases and transformed international trade. Tahiti, which would later be contested by the French, became a key British station. Gradually, native populations that were devastated by plagues would come under British rule and become colonies themselves, such as the Royal House of Hawaiians, who would be taken in as part of British aristocracy.

In the Second World War, the powerful Japanese Navy would sweep out over the British Pacific, conquering millions of square miles as the stretched Royal Navy struggled to fight back. The Japanese sneak-attack at Luzon in the Philippines would bring the United States into the war, and intensive island-hopping campaigns would go for years as dug-in Japanese were rooted out by Allied Marines. After the war, Britain would decolonize many of the islands into the Commonwealth, while others such as Hawaii and Tahiti would gain independence.

In reality, Captain Cook was killed in an altercation with the Hawai’ian natives after returning to repair the Resolution’s foremast. Natives had taken one of the expedition’s small boats, and he had attempted to capture King Kalani’ōpu’u as a hostage to get it back. His men were beaten back by the Hawaiians, and Cook was killed when he was hit with a rock and natives rushed into the surf to stab him. His body was captured and honored by the Hawaiians, prepared as if he were a chief. His crew appealed for the return of Cook’s body, which was granted, and he would be buried at sea.

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