Cruel Justice and Equality

James Barnett’s Captain George Vancouver in Alaska and the North Pacific is notable not for the writing, but for the use of primary sources.

The book documents the 18th Century exploits of George Vancouver’s quest for the Northwest Passage, a shortcut between Europe and Asia, so that everyone could buy and sell more efficiently. This era of exploration and imperialism was much celebrated in the 18th-20th centuries as a time of map-making and discovery, but is now coming to be understood as a toxic, devastating period in modern history.

As Barnett writes, Vancouver’s British crew took possession of the Alaskan shores “by displaying the flag, turning the turf, burying a bottle with some coins and papers, and drinking port to the health of the king.” Barnett adds, “About a dozen natives were present and behaved very friendly but had no idea what we were doing.”

Another ceremony, taking possession of Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest, mentions that “all hands were served a good dinner as well as a double allowance of grog to drink to the King’s health”. More cruelly and to the point, George Vancouver had three native men apprehended when he was in Hawaii and, with little evidence in relation to a murder of a crew member, had them “promptly executed”.

These superficial and cruel moments in history are by no means unique. Consider America’s systematic slaughter of the American Native population, as conveyed in Dee Brown’s devastating Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or the ongoing news of systemic violence against black people of this nation.

It is stories such as these that are guiding us to understand that justice and equality damn Western Civilization. As much as we have celebrated these ideas throughout our history, they don’t actually exist in this society beyond the childish understanding of playing an awful game by our rules.

Travel Thursday: The Rise and Fall of Captain James Cook

Martin Dugard’s book chronicles the three circumnavigations captained by James Cook in 1769-1780. On the first of these adventures, he is credited with circumnavigating New Zealand, mapping the eastern coast of Australia and discovering the Great Barrier Reef.

Endeavour slammed hard into a coral reef and ground to a violent halt. A mighty surf pounded against the beleaguered ship, wedging her wooden hull tightly onto the reef. All hands were immediately summoned on deck by a mate’s frantic cry of “Up every soul nimbly, for God’s sake, or we all perish.”

The crew took their cue from Cook and remained calm throughout, pumping the hold in fifteen-minute shifts. Cook ordered everything expendable of great heft heaved overboard. Six of the twelve cannons were dumped, twenty-five tons of fresh water, tons of rocks and ballast. “Casks, hoops, staves, oil jars, decayed stores,” wrote Cook of other items surrendered to the Pacific. And still she stuck fast.

This was an alarming and terrible circumstance. However when high tide arrived, “At 20 minutes past ten we hove her into deep water”. Soon Endeavour was out of danger and heading for land. Cook and the People removed their personal belongings from the ship and prepared to camp on shore. They were startled to find a large chuck of coral had pierced the hull but held fast without pressing all the way through. If that had happened, the ship most surely would have sunk.

For two months, the crew got a taste of what life would have been like marooned in this hostile land. They seined fish, ate kangaroo and sea turtle, marveled at flying fox. They fought the local Aborigines, who set fire to the brush surrounding Endeavour‘s campsite in one memorable skirmish. Cook himself shot an Aborigine for trying to steal sea turtle meat.

Finally, it is interesting note that James Cook is considered the inspiration for both Captain Hook (J.M. Barre’s Peter Pan) and James Kirk (Gene Roddenbury’s Star Trek.