Cook’s Dark Paradise
When the world’s greatest navigator needed a break from the rigours of exploring, he headed to New Zealand’s lush South Island. But his idyllic sanctuary held a dark and terrifying secret that struck mortal fear into his men.
The land of the long white cloud was little more than a figment of the cartographers’ imagination when Lieutenant James Cook sailed into the eastern coastline on his way home from Tahiti in October 1769. Seizing the opportunity to further expand his realm of exploration, Cook spent the next seven months circumnavigating the two islands and created charts so accurate, it took the advent of satellite mapping to improve upon them.
In January, Cook had completed his charting of the western coast of the North Island and, whilst sailing due south, discovered what he mistook for a large harbour. In a rare moment of self-aggrandisement, Cook named the strait after himself, but the ferocious seas soon had him looking for shelter. He aimed Endeavour into a small inlet and was quickly overwhelmed by the stunning topography of the seemingly endless narrow waterways.
Eager to go ashore and doubtlessly urged on by botanists Banks and Solander, Cook pushed his tired ship into a cove for rest, resupply and repairs. While the scientists frolicked amongst the giant ferns, Cook set out to explore on foot and was soon climbing the nearest hill for a better look of his new found paradise. All around him was lush forest replete with giant trees ideal for a ship’s mast. Fresh water and edible greens were plentiful and fat fish virtually jumped on the hook. Taking stock of his wonderful surroundings, Cook named the area Queen Charlotte Sound after his king’s consort and the little bay where his ship was anchored, Endeavour Cove.
So impressed with his find, Cook would come back again and again to rest his People (crew), his ships and himself in this cove on his next two monumental voyages. His much envied record of keeping a healthy crew, free from scurvy is due in large part to his judicious use of layovers such as Queen Charlotte Sound.
But this otherwise perfect retreat had a sinister dark side. Cook was one of the few early world explorers to cultivate relatively healthy and mutually beneficial relations with the local people he encountered. Although directly descended from his friends in Otaheite (Tahiti), the Maori were five hundred years apart and much more fearsome and warlike. Typically, in their brazen displays of indifference, they would paddle out in a long canoe and pelt Endeavour with volleys of rocks and sharp stones. On one occasion, Cook weakened and retaliated, killing three warriors in the process. He never forgave himself for this lapse and wrote in his journal “I can by no means justify my conduct for attacking and killing the people.”
His men, however, were far less sentimental about the welfare of the ‘savages’, especially after the unsettling discovery of human remains in one of the Maori camps. To drive the point home, one of the inhabitants grabbed a fresh femur and proceeded to chomp voraciously on it for his guests’ entertainment. That event alone sowed seeds of horror and dismay amongst his crew. They literally trembled in their bunks at the thought of becoming a Maori main course.
During his landmark second voyage aboard Resolution (1772-1775), Cook became separated from his escorting ship, Adventure. Captain Furneaux of Adventure, although impressively credentialed, was no Cook. Stubborn and narrow-minded, he kept a poor ship and his crew suffered badly from scurvy despite Cook’s emphatic advice about diet.
During the homeward leg, Furneaux was beset by a storm and forced to return to Queen Charlotte Sound. Eager to leave, but short on supplies of scurvy grass, Furneaux sent a crew of nine to gather the life-saving antiscorbutic plant. The crew failed to return and a second boat, under Lt. Burney, was sent to find them the next day. The scene that Burney witnessed was one of total horror. Shoes, fragments of oars and baskets of roasted flesh lay strewn on the beach. A tattooed hand, complete with the owner’s initials was another grisly find and irrefutable evidence of the event.
An enraged Burney and his men spent the next few hours vainly chasing the scattered Maori, firing shots and destroying the few canoes they had left behind before finally retreating at dusk and returning to Adventure with the “melancholy news”.
The “Grass Cove Massacre” as it became known, was later investigated by Cook on his return in 1777. Despite the apprehension of a likely culprit, Chief Kahura, and something of a show trial, the matter was allowed to drop in favour of continued relations with the Maori and the implied belief that the English were not altogether blameless having “perhaps contributed to their own demise.”
Was Cook guilty of a political cover-up? Or did he seek to erase or excuse the event in order to preserve his own cherished memories of this Eden of the South?