Captain Cook in Tahiti and the Northwest

Cook's ships Resolution and Adventure in Matavai Bay

In Aphrodite’s Island, this week’s Times Higher Education Book of the Week, Anne Salmond chronicles the first European voyages to Tahiti, and the ways in which European and Tahitian mythologies intertwined during these encounters.

Among the stories she recounts is that of Captain James Cook, who became a symbolic figure in both English and Tahitian lore. In 1776, Captain Cook embarked on his ship, the Resolution, on a third expedition to the Pacific, accompanied by the ship Discovery. Also on the ship was Ma’i, a young man from the Society Islands who had joined Cook’s ship Adventure on a previous voyage and spent time in England. After exploring islands in the South Pacific, Cook dropped Ma’i off in the Society Islands and then continued north to search for the fabled Northwest Passage. Salmond’s detailed account of their time in the South Pacific illuminates the intersections of culture and mythology as they unfolded through interpersonal encounters, day to day activities, rituals, meals, and exchanges.

Glyn Williams, author of Arctic Labyrinth

Meanwhile, as Glyn Williams chronicles in Arctic Labyrinth, Britain sent ships to Baffin Bay to scour for the eastern entrance to the passage, but all were assailed by ice and turned back. Cook’s Resolution and Discovery sailed along America’s northwest coast, following the siren call of an unreliable map and the 20,000-pound reward promised to the first explorer to find the passage. They sailed north past Vancouver and Alaska and through Bering Strait with high hopes, only to be disappointed by the sudden rise of ice like a mountain out of the polar sea, and the frozen expanse that blocked all further progress and threatened to crush the ships. They turned back, with plans to return the following summer. Cook did not have the chance: he was killed that winter in Hawaii, and though his crews continued the voyage, they were again repelled by ice. “The Northwest Passage had not been found, and Captain Cook was dead”, Glyn writes.

Salmond describes how after his death, Cook became a mythic figure both in England, as a hero-explorer, and in Tahiti, as “Cook, the high chief of Tahiti”. She writes in Aphrodite’s Island: “Whereas in England, a portrait of Cook held up by Britannia had featured in the pantomime about Ma’i, illustrating the apotheosis of this British explorer, in Tahiti, Webber’s portrait was held up during a ritual that activated the generative power of the gods, ensuring the fertility of the island…celebrating imperial and Christian power on the one hand, and the procreative power of the cosmos on the other.”