Two weeks ago I was on the other side of the globe; London to be more specific. It was a long journey. England is ten time zones away from us this time of year. It’s more than seven thousand miles from these islands. The culture, people, street signs, and most certainly the temperature, are very different from Hawaii.
I was wandering the halls of the National Portrait Gallery. The gallery is a gargantuan building right off Trafalgar Square. It houses paintings of significant figures in British history over the centuries.
Sure enough I was face to face with the original painting of someone from our own history: Captain James Cook. The way I learned about Capt. Cook was not all that different from other public school students in the islands.
We all know the story. Hawaiian history typically begins with the migrations of seafaring Polynesians who settled here in waves for centuries. Then came Cook and Western Contact. The start of modern Hawaiian history begins the arrival of the HMS Resolution and the HMS Discovery off Waimea on Kauai.
The English sailors introduced animals, vegetables, and venereal disease while they stayed in the western part of the islands in January and February. From there, they sailed on to find a way into through the frigid waters of the northern Pacific. A storm badly damaged their ships and they came back to the islands.
The first English eyes to see Haleakala was on November 26, 1778 and Capt. Cook landed on the Big Island in early 1779. Relations with the Hawaiians soured and Cook was killed in the waters of Kealakekua Bay on February 14, 1779—Valentine’s Day.
Capt. Cook was mistaken to be a returning deity or high chief so he was worshiped and revered accordingly. He and his crew enjoyed plenty of food, gifts, and women. When they returned they outstayed their welcome and soon it became pretty clear that the Englishmen were just that: men.
The naval ships left with some of the remains of their captain and ultimately returned to England. From our perspective the British navigator charted the Hawaiian Islands and his ships brought word of our existence. So much for him. From there came more and more outsiders and the course of Hawaiian history changed forever.
But in England things are different. I had to smile at seeing him there in the portrait gallery with his countrymen. He was among spectacular paintings of England’s heroes and champions throughout history, including the periods of exploration, empire, and colonialism.
Seeing Cook there was like seeing him on his home turf. James Cook had a humble start. His father was a farm laborer and he had seven brothers and sisters. His father’s employer paid for part of his education at a nearby village school. He started working at the age of 16 as an apprentice for a grocer and a haberdasher, but it never panned out. He lasted only a year and a half before quitting.
He made his way to a fishing village and started a career as a mariner. He started with small ships transporting coal along the east coast of England. He progressed a bit as a merchant naval man, but soon later joined the Royal Navy where he started at the very bottom in rank all over again.
Cook proved to be an exceptional seaman and cut his teeth as a surveyor along the jagged coasts of Newfoundland in Canada. He came back with a masterful map that was still in use into the 20th century.
By the time Capt. Cook reached our neck of the woods he had become a famed navigator. He logged in more than 5,000 miles of previously uncharted coastlines in the Pacific in a single voyage. His contributions to the mapping of Australia, the West Coast, hundreds of islands in Melanesia and Polynesia were immense for Western culture.
Cook literally drew the map for the Western penetration into the Pacific that would follow him in the nineteenth century. From the perspective in London, Capt. Cook is one of their great explorers. He’s still revered in England and her former colonies. Statues depicting the navigator stand in the United Kingdom, Australia, and, of course, Waimea. Islands, mountains, and waterways bear his name. There’s even a crater on the moon named after him in his honor.
Cook once wrote that he wanted to go “farther than any man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go.” Apparently that turned out to be the Big Island, which from our perspective, isn’t that far.