Captain Cook’s legacy


Antonio Hualde

Attorney and analyst of the Fundación José Ortega y Gasset-Gregorio Marañón


One of the most important episodes of the Seven Years’ War, in which half of Europe came face to face with the other half, was the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, back in 1759. In that battle, the British Army of General James Wolfe crossed the St Lawrence River and besieged Quebec, in what would be the beginning of the end of France in Canada. They were able to do so thanks to the accurate cartographic knowledge they had of the aforementioned river, whose navigability then was extremely complicated. Its architect was one of England’s most famous marines: James Cook.


He was of humble origins –son of Scottish immigrants that worked in a farm- and he started his life in the sea as a cabin boy in a ship that transported coal. He was gradually climbing ranks in the merchant marine, until he had the opportunity to join the Royal Navy. Not being of noble birth, and despite his experience, he had to work as an able seaman, although it did not take him long to climb the ladder again. He participated in the siege of Quebec, although his contribution to the conflict was more scientific than warlike, since it was there where he revealed his real talent. He was an excellent cartographer, topographer and seafarer; he always knew how to be surrounded by the best figures of his time: astronomers such as Charles Green, naturalists such as Sir Joseph Banks or botanists such as Daniel Solander. Mapping the peninsula of Newfoundland was what helped him get hired by the Royal Society to go on the first of his three trips.


He did not discover Australia -although he did discover New Caledonia and the Sandwich Islands among others-, but he did shed light on the arcane concept of Terra Australis, an imaginary continent between the Indian and Pacific Oceans that included almost all the oceanic territories. He contributed a word to the dictionary that in the language of an Australian aboriginal tribe meant “I do not understand you”, gangaroo. The term was used to designate a strange animal that none of them had ever seen before: a kangaroo. Maps, drawings and biological samples of his trips can be contemplated today at the Natural History Museum of London; it is worth it. The three oceans, Antarctica, Cape Horn and Good Hope or the Bering Strait were not a secret for Cook throughout his eleven years of exploration. However, not everything was idyllic. He had to face the hostility of the Maori of New Zealand and other Australian and Hawaiian tribes; in fact, he died in a fight against the latter.


Naturally, he was buried in the Westminster Abbey, along with personalities such as those of the stature of Isaac Newton, David Livingstone or Charles Darwin. As an interesting fact, it is worth mentioning that NASA baptised the space shuttle Endeavour in honour of his first ship. One of the members of the crew, the pilot William Bligh, became vice-admiral, although before that he had to bear one of the most famous mutinies in history that was taken to the big screen on more than one occasion, that of HMS Bounty.


21/04/2017. © All rights reserved.



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