The truth about Captain Cook’s final voyage – and the cannibals

Mai (left, painted by Joshua Reynolds) accompanied Cook (right, painted by Nathaniel Dance) on his final voyage
Mai (left, painted by Joshua Reynolds) accompanied Cook (right, painted by Nathaniel Dance) on his final voyage - Alamy

A few weeks ago, the library of Cambridge’s Trinity College (home of the recently defaced Lord Balfour portrait) exhibited four ­Australian fishing spears. They are all that remain from a collection of 40-50 stolen by James Cook and the crew of HMB Endeavour in 1770 – during the first landing by Europeans at Botany Bay. Cook’s arrival wasn’t a peaceful affair: two members of the indigenous Gweagal people resisted the British landing, and one was shot as a result. Now, 254 years after their departure from Australia, the four spears are about to be returned to the Gweagal.

This all coincides with the release of Hampton Sides’s The Wide Wide Sea, which tackles the third voyage (and inglorious end) of one of ­Britain’s most renowned explorers. It reconsiders a figure who has long enjoyed a reputation for “humane leadership, dedication to science and respect for ­indigenous ­societies” that has come under recent scrutiny as a part of the wider reckoning with Britain’s past. Sides brings in the ­commentary of ­anthropologists and historians at the right times, but is mainly focused on telling a lively, accurate story that skips deftly over moral oubliettes. It makes for a rollicking good read, with a tone that reminds me of David Grann’s recent tale of the 1741 Wager shipwreck.

Accompanying Cook as far as his Polynesian homeland was Mai, the first Pacific Islander to set foot on English shores (immortalised in Joshua Reynolds’s portrait). Mai’s efforts to reintegrate into ­Polynesian society make up the bulk of the narrative, as he had been wholly changed by his encounters with the English – ­having mixed with London’s beau monde, from Samuel Johnson to George III, during his two years in the country. Cook attempts to ­support him, providing him with goods and security, but this comes with drastic consequences for the islanders (who had, until then, not worried about European notions of wealth or private property).

A watercolour of Cook's ship HMS Resolution, painted by Midshipman Henry Roberts, a member of the ship's company
A watercolour of Cook's ship HMS Resolution, painted by Midshipman Henry Roberts, a member of the ship's company - Alamy

There’s also a detective story en route, as Cook searches for the truth about a grisly episode ­concerning his second voyage’s sister-ship, the Adventure, where 10 crew members were killed and eaten in New ­Zealand. This was seemingly part of a “whāngai hau” ceremony – where Māori absorbed their enemies’ souls and those of their ancestors. Later in Tahiti we bear witness to another piece of ritualised human sacrifice, here in order to gain the favour of the gods before a military excursion against a neighbouring island. Cook offends the chieftain, To’ofa, by explaining (with Mai’s help) that the ceremony would be illegal in ­England. Both parties ­collapse into bafflement, the ­English leaving the Tahitians with “as great a contempt for our ­customs as we could possibly have of theirs”. Ship’s surgeon ­William Anderson had a less patient view of all this, writing of the ­“horrid” ­ceremony that reflected “the ­grossest ignorance and ­superstition”.

By this final voyage, something seemed to have changed about Cook. His fastidious demand for cleanliness would send him into rages, and he was suffering from intensifying bouts of sciatica and ill health. Nevertheless he weathered the trans-Pacific voyage, dropping off Mai and turning towards the secret mission given to him by the crown before his departure: the discovery of the Northwest Passage, the fabled sea route over the top of the Americas. The final chapters see Cook moving up past Nootka Sound, and through the Bering Strait, before turning back to winter in the warmer waters of Hawaii.

Interactions with the Hawaiians were immediately tense. When Cook’s ships had stopped the ­previous year, his sailors had left behind a cocktail of venereal ­diseases, now ravaging the islands. He resupplied and left as quickly as possible, but was forced to turn back by a split foremast. Here, Cook met his end – stabbed while attempting to take the Hawaiian king hostage in order to secure the return of some stolen small-boats. Sides barely goes into detail about the remainder of the expedition, which made some small effort to head northwards again but quickly turned back after the death of new commander Charles Clerke. A quote from Goethe rings out over Cook’s wild ambition and ­seemingly inevitable fall: “A man who is ­deified cannot live longer, and must not live longer, for his own and for other people’s sake.”

The Wide Wide Sea is published by Michael Joseph at £25. To order your copy for £19.99, call 0808 196 6794 or visit Telegraph Books