Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire by Roger Crowley (2015)

Our Lord has done great things for us, because he wanted us to accomplish a deed so magnificent that it surpasses even what we have prayed for… I have burned the town and killed everyone. For four days without any pause our men have slaughtered… wherever we have been able to get into we haven’t spared the life of a single Muslim. We have herded them into the mosques and set them on fire… We have estimated the number of dead Muslim men and women at six thousand. It was, Sire, a very fine deed. (Afonso de Albuquerque describing the Portuguese capture of Goa on 25 November 1510, p.286)

In 1500 the Indian Ocean was the scene of sophisticated trading networks which had been centuries in the making. Muslim traders from the ‘Swahili Coast’ of Africa traded up the coast to the Red Sea and across land to Cairo, heart of the Muslim world, while other traders crossed the ocean eastwards to the coast of India, where Hindu rajas ran a number of seaports offering hospitality to communities of Muslims and Jews in a complex multi-ethnic web.

The trading routes were well established and the commodities – such as pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – were managed via a familiar set of tariffs and customs. Even if you were caught by one of the many pirates who patrolled the sea, there were well established procedures for handing over a percentage of your cargo and being allowed to continue on your way.

All this was dramatically changed by the sudden arrival in 1497 of the super-violent Portuguese, who had orders from their king and from the pope:

  • to destroy all Muslim bases and ships
  • to establish European forts at all convenient harbours
  • to bully all local rulers into proclaiming complete subservience to the King of Portugal
  • to build churches and convert the heathens to Christianity

This is the story of how an idyllic, essentially peaceful, well ordered and multicultural world was smashed to pieces by the cannons, muskets and unbelievable savagery of barbarian Europeans. This book is a revelation. I had no idea that the Portuguese ‘explorers’ of the ‘Age of Discovery’ were quite such savage sadists.

Massacre of the Miri

Probably the most notorious incident, which epitomises the behaviour and attitudes of the invaders, was the massacre of the Muslim pilgrim ship Miri.

The Portuguese sent their ships to conquer the Indian Ocean in large groups or ‘armadas’.

On September 29, 1502, the fourth great Portuguese Armada spotted a large merchant ship carrying Muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca. The ship, the Miri, was identified as belonging to al-Fanqi, thought to be the commercial agent representing Mecca – and the interests of the Muslim Mamluk dynasty in Cairo – in Calicut, one of the commercial seaports on the west India coast.

Portuguese Captain Matoso cornered the pilgrim ship which surrendered quickly, the captain and passengers imagining they would be able to buy off these ‘pirates’ in the traditional manner. But these were not pirates; they were Christians or, as they would come to be recognised around the Indian Ocean, sadistic, uncivilised barbarian murderers.

Commander of the Armada, Vasco da Gama, ignored all the offers of gold or cargo. His Portuguese crew plundered the ship, stole all its cargo and then made it plain that he planned to burn the ship with all its passengers – men, women and children – on board. As this realisation sank in the civilian passengers desperately attacked the Portuguese with stone and bare hands, but were themselves shot down by muskets and cannon from the Portuguese ships.

On October 3, 1502, having gutted the Miri of all its valuables, the Portuguese locked all the remaining passengers in the hold and the ship was burnt and sunk by artillery. It took several days to go down completely. Portuguese soldiers rowed around the waters on longboats mercilessly spearing survivors.

All in all it was a fine example of:

The honour code of the fidalgos with its rooted hatred of Islam and its unbending belief in retribution and punitive revenge. (p.144)

the honour code which, as Crowley emphasises, inspired the Portuguese voyages of conquest and terror.

The Calicut massacre

It helps to explain this behaviour, and put it in context, if you know about the Calicut Massacre. Back in December 1500 the Second Portuguese India Armada, under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral, had gotten frustrated at the slow pace at which his ships were being filled with spices at Calicut, the largest spice port on the western coast of India, despite having made an agreement with its raja or zamorin.

To hurry things along Cabral ordered the seizure of an Arab merchant ship from Jeddah, then loading up with spices nearby in the harbour. Cabral claimed that, as the Zamorin had promised the Portuguese priority in the spice markets, the cargo was rightfully theirs anyway.

Incensed by this theft, the Arab merchants around the quay started a riot and led the rioters to the ‘factory’ or warehouse which the Portuguese had only just finished building to store their booty. The Portuguese onboard the ships in the harbour watched helplessly while the Calicut mob successfully stormed the ‘factory’, massacring 50 of the Portuguese inhabitants, including some Franciscan friars.

Once the riot had quietened down, Cabral sent to the Zamorin asking for redress. When it wasn’t forthcoming, Cabral seized around ten Arab merchant ships in the harbour, confiscating their cargoes, killing their crews, and burning their ships. Blaming the Zamorin for doing nothing to stop the riot, Cabral then ordered all the guns from his fleet to bombard Calicut indiscriminately for a full day, wreaking immense damage, killing many citizens and starting fires which burnt entire quarters of the town.

Crowley shows us again and again how one bad deed, a bit of impatience or a slight cultural misunderstanding was liable to blow up, in Portuguese hands, into explosions of super-destructive wrath and mass murder.

The crusader mentality

It helps to understand the Portuguese approach a bit more if you realise that the Portuguese kings – John I (1481-1595) and Manuel I (1495-1521) – didn’t send out explorers and scientists – they sent warriors. And that these warriors were still steeped in the aggressive anti-Muslim ideology of the crusades.

Crowley’s narrative sets the tone by going back nearly a century before the Portuguese entered the Indian ocean, to describe the ‘crusade’ of an earlier generation when, in 1415, Portuguese crusaders attacked Ceuta, an enclave of Muslim pirates on the north coast of Africa. The Ceuta pirates had been a pest to Portuguese shipping for generations, and the Portuguese finally had enough, stormed and sacked it.

Having established the sense of antagonism between Muslims and Christians, Cowley leaps forward to the next significant moment, to when the Muslim Ottoman armies took Constantinople in 1453. The fall of Constantinople to the Muslims sent shocks waves throughout Christian Europe.

  • It made Christian kings, and their peoples, all over Europe feel threatened
  • It cut off trade routes to the East, for spices and so on

1. The quest for new routes to the spice trade

In other words the fall of Constantinople provided a keen commercial incentive to navigators, explorers and entrepreneurs to come up with alternative ways of reaching the Spice Islands by sea. While in the 1490s Christopher Columbus was trying to persuade the King of Spain to fund his idea of sailing west, around the world, to reach the Indies, the King of Portugal was persuaded to fund expeditions in the opposite direction – down the coast of Africa with the hope that it would be easier to cruise around Africa and reach the Spice Islands by heading East.

The spices in question included the five ‘glorious spices’ – pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – but also ginger, cardamom, tamarind, balms and aromatics like wormwood, Socotra aloe, galbanum, camphor and myrrh.

Also brought back from India were dyes like lac, indigo and dyewood and precious ornamental objects and materials like ivory, ebony and pearls. All these good fetched up to ten times as much on the quaysides of Lisbon or Venice as they cost to buy in Calicut. But that was when they had been transhipped from warehouses in the ports of the Middle East. The conquest of Constantinople reduced the transhipment trade and led to a more aggressive attitude from Muslim traders, which badly hurt the commercial prosperity of Venice, in particular.

2. Outflanking Islam

But the aim of the explorers was not only to get commercial access to the spice trade. throughout the Middle Ages it had been widely believed that Christianity had been carried by the apostle James and others, deep into Africa, into Arabia, and even as far as India.

So there was a military element to the expeditions. Christian strategists thought that, if the explorers could make contact with the Christian communities which were believed to exist in faraway India, and were able to link up – then together they would be able to surround, the European armies attacking from the west, the newly awakened Indian Christian armies attacking from the East.

In other words, alongside the element of exploration, ran an aggressive continuation of the fierce anti-Muslim, crusading mentality of John and Manuel’s medieval forebears.

This helps to explain the unremitting anti-Muslim hostility of the commanders of all the great Portuguese Armadas to the East. Not only did their kings demand it, not only was it part of their explicit, written instructions (which survive to this day), but their conquering mentality was backed up by the full force of the pope and the Holy Catholic Church.

The whole European apparatus of state power, religious intolerance, and the technology of war – metal armour and huge shipboard cannons – was brought to bear on the inhabitants of the Indian Ocean.

Wage war and total destruction… by all the means you best can by land and sea so that everything possible is destroyed. (The Regimento or instructions given by King Manuel I to Dom Francisco de Almeida in 1505)

Thus it was that warrior-sailors like the Sodré brothers or the du Albuquerque cousins received orders quite simply to destroy all Muslim ships and trade between the Red Sea and Calicut.

Sadism and intimidation were seen as legitimate tactics. The reader loses count of the number of local hostages, ambassadors and civilians who are taken by the Portuguese who, if anything displeases them, proceed to hang their hostages from the yardarms, before dismembering them and returning their scattered body parts to their horrified relatives waiting on shore. This happens lots of times.

When Vicente Sodré intercepted a large Muslim ship carrying a full cargo of treasure, commanded by the wealthy and well-known merchant Mayimama Marakkar, Vicente had Marakkar stripped naked, tied to the mast, whipped and then subjected to the Portuguese practice of merdimboca or ‘shit in the mouth’ – the name says it all – with the added refinement that the Portuguese forced Marakkar – an eminent and pious Muslim – to eat pork and bacon fat (p.141).

Deliberately offensive, determined to rule by Terror, fuelled by genocidal racism, unflinching, unbending and merciless, the Portuguese conquerors, in this telling, seem like the Nazis of their day.

Conquerors

So this is the story which Crowley’s book tells: the story of how tiny Portugal, at the far western tip of Europe, managed in thirty or so years, from the late 1490s to the 1520s, to establish the first global empire in world history – in reality a set of connected outposts dotted along the west and east coasts of Africa, the west coast of India – before moving on to explore the East Indies – all the while pursuing this policy of unremitting intimidation and extreme violence. It’s a harrowing read. Noses are slit and hands chopped off on pretty much every page.

Conquerors is divided into three parts:

  1. Reconnaissance: the Route to the Indies (1483-99)
  2. Contest: Monopolies and Holy War (1500-1510)
  3. Conquest: The Lion of the Sea (1510-1520)

Over and above the narrative of events, we learn a couple of Big Things:

1. How to round the Cape of Good Hope

The navigational breakthrough which allowed all this to happen was the discovery of how to round the Cape at the southernmost tip of Africa. For generations Portuguese ships had hugged the coast of Africa as they tentatively explored south and this meant that they struggled with all kinds of headwinds, shoals and rocks, particularly as they rounded the big bulge and struggled east into the Gulf of Guinea. The net result was that by 1460 they had established maps and stopping points at the Azores, Madeira, but only as far south along the African coast as the river Senegal and Sierra Leone.

The Great Breakthrough was to abandon the coast altogether and give in to the strong north-easterly winds which blew sailing ships south and west out into big Atlantic – and then, half way down the coast of Brazil, to switch direction back east, and let the strong west winds blow you clean back across the Atlantic and under the Cape of Good Hope. See the red line on the map, below. This immensely significant discovery was made in the 1460s.

That’s if things went well. Which they often didn’t – with calamitous results. Crowley reports that of the 5,500 Portuguese men who went to India between 1497 (the date of Vasco de Gama’s first successful rounding of the Cape), 1,800 – 35% – did not return. Most drowned at sea.

All the armadas suffered significant loss of life to shipwreck and drowning.

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

2. The accidental discovery of Brazil

The Second Portuguese India Armada, assembled in 1500 on the order of Manuel I and commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral, followed the strategy of heading west and south into the Atlantic in order to catch easterly winds to blow them round the tip of Africa. But the ships went so far that they sighted a new land in the west, landed and claimed it for Portugal.

It was Brazil, whose history as a western colony begins then, in April 1500, though it was to be some time before anybody made serious attempts to land and chart it, and Crowley makes no further mention of it.

3. Rivalry with Venice

I knew the Portuguese were rivals with the Spanish for the discovery and exploration of new worlds. I hadn’t realised that the creation of a new route to the Spice Islands rocked the basis of Venice’s maritime trade and empire.

Venice had for generations been the end point for the transmission of spices from India, across the Indian Ocean, through the Red Sea to Suez, across land to Cairo, and by ship to Italy. This was all very expensive, especially the transhipment across land. Venice was rocked when the entire supply chain was jeopardised by the new Portuguese sea route, which resulted in huge amounts of spices and other exotic produce ending up on the quays of Lisbon at a fraction of the Venetian price.

With the result that the Venetian authorities sent spies to Lisbon to find out everything they could about the Portuguese navigators, their new routes and discoveries. They also sent emissaries to the Sultan in Cairo, putting pressure on him to either take punitive measures against the Portuguese, or to lower the taxes he charged on the land journey of Venetian spices from Suez to Cairo and on to Alexandria. Or both.

The sultan refused to do either. Venetian fury.

The rivalry of Venice is sown into the narrative like a silver thread, popping up regularly to remind us of the importance of trade and profit and control of the seas 600 years ago, and of the eternally bickering nature of Europe – a seething hotbed of commercial, religious and political rivals, all determined to outdo each other.

Prester John and a new Crusade

Medieval Christendom was awash with myths and legends. One such tale concerned a mythical Christian King who ruled in wealth and splendour somewhere in Africa, named ‘Prester John’.

When King Manuel sent out his conquerors, it was not only to seize the spice trade of the Indian Ocean, but to make contact with Prester John and unite with his – presumably massive and wealthy army – to march on Mecca or Cairo or Jerusalem, or all three, in order to overthrow Islam for good and liberate the Holy Places.

Vasco de Gama had this aim at the back of his mind as he set off to round the Cape, and so did Afonso de Albuquerque who, at the end of his life, was still planning to establish Christian forts on the Red Sea and to locate the mysterious John in a joint crusade against the Muslim sultan of Cairo.

If anyone was Prester John it was the self-styled ’emperor’ of Ethiopia, who some of the Portuguese did travel to meet, although he turned out – despite all his pomp and pageantry – to be completely unprepared to help any kind of European Christian Crusade against his Muslim neighbours, not least because they completely surrounded and outnumbered him.

Still, it is important to remember that the whole point of funding these expensive armadas into the Indian Ocean wasn’t primarily to open up new commercial routes: for the king and his conquerors, that was a happy side aim, but the Key Goal was to link up with the kingdom of Prester John and the imagined Christian kingdoms of the East, in order to exterminate Islam and liberate the Holy Places.

Crowley’s approach – more adventure than analysis

Crowley’s approach is popular and accessible. He prefers anecdote to analysis.

Thus the book’s prologue opens with a giraffe being presented to the Chinese emperor in Beijing in the early 1400s. This had been collected by the Chinese admiral Admiral Zheng He, who led one of the epic voyages which the Yongle Emperor had commissioned, sending vast Chinese junks into the Indian Ocean in the first decades of the 15th century. The flotillas were intended to stun other nations into recognition of China’s mighty pre-eminence and had no colonising or conquering aim.

The Yongle emperor was succeeded in 1424 by the Hongxi emperor who decided the expeditions were a waste of time and so banned further ocean-going trips, a ban which within a few decades extended to even building large ocean-going vessels: small coastal trading vessels were allowed, but the Ming emperors hunkered down behind their Great Wall and closed their minds to the big world beyond.

One way of looking at it, is that the Hongxi emperor handed over the world to be colonised by European nations.

The point is Crowley gets into this important issue via an anecdote about a giraffe, and doesn’t really unpack it as much as he could.

A few pages later, the main text of the book opens with a detailed account of the erection of a commemorative cross on the coast of Africa by Diogo Cao in August 1483. It was one of several he erected on his exploratory voyage down the west African coast.

In both instances Crowley is following the time-honoured technique of starting a chapter with an arresting image and dramatic scene. The problem is that when he proceeds to fill in the background and what led up to each incident, I think his accounts lack depth and detail. For example, my ears pricked up when he mentioned Henry the Navigator, but Henry’s life and career were only fleetingly referenced in order to get back to the ‘now’ of 1483. I had to turn to Wikipedia to get a fuller account of Henry’s life and importance.

Once on Wikipedia, and reading about Henry the Navigator, I quickly discovered that ‘the invention of the caravel was what made Portugal poised to take the lead in transoceanic exploration’, because of the light manoeuvrability of this new design of ship.

A 15th century Portuguese caravel. it had three masts and a lateen or triangular sail which allowed the caravel to sail against the wind.

A 15th century Portuguese caravel. it had three masts and a lateen or triangular sail which allowed the caravel to sail against the wind.

Crowley certainly has some pictures of caravels, and describes them a bit, but doesn’t really give us enough information to ram home why their design was so game-changing.

It may be relevant that Crowley studied Literature not History at university. He is continually drawn to the dramatic and the picturesque, and skimps on the analytical.

To give another example, Crowley periodically namechecks the various popes who blessed the armadas and gave instructions as to the converting of the heathen and fighting the Unbeliever. He briefly mentions the famous Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, whereby Pope Alexander VI brokered the deal deciding which parts of the New World would belong to the rivals Spain and Portugal. But there is nowhere any real analysis of the enormous role the popes and the Catholic Church played in the geopolitics behind all this exploring and conquering.

Instead, Crowley is continually drawn to the most vivid and melodramatic moments: battles are described in terms of who got an arrow in the eye, and strategy is more seen as deriving from the raging impatience of this or that Portuguese commander than from higher-level geopolitical imperatives.

The personal, not the wider geo-political situation, is what interests Crowley in Europe and Indian and Islamic politics.

Crowley’s style

Crowley writes the short staccato sentences of a popular thriller – fine if you’re looking for poolside entertainment, but not enough if you’re looking for something with a little more analysis and insight.

It was time to move on. However, the wind thwarted their departure. The wind turned. They were forced back to the island. The sultan tried to make peace overtures but was rebuffed. Ten nervy days ensued. (p.67)

This is thriller writing, or the prose style of a modern historical romance.

Either Crowley, his editors or his publishers decided that hos book would be best marketed as popular, accessible, hair-raising history. Thrilling, gripping and often quite horrible history.

In the rain, with the continuous gunfire, in a tropical hell, soaking and sweating in their rotting clothes, they were increasingly gripped by morbid terror that they were all going to die. (p.275)

He gives us gripping individual scenes, but not so many real insights, let alone overarching analysis or ideas.

Thus, despite the book being some 360 pages long, and including lengthy end notes, I felt I’d only scratched the surface of these seismic events, had been told about the key dates and events, and seen quite a few hands being cut off – but was left wanting to understand more, a lot more, about the geographical, economic, technological and cultural reasons for the success of Portugal’s cruel and barbarous explorers and empire makers.

This feeling was crystallised when the book ended abruptly and without warning with the death of the bloodthirsty visionary, Afonso de Albuquerque, in 1415.

For sure he was a central figure, who grasped the strategic importance of seizing Goa, who tried to storm Aden, who arranged a native coup at Ormuz, who burned Muslim towns and ships without mercy, who chopped the hands and ears off his hostages by the score. By page 330 he had become the dominant figure of the book, almost as if it the book was at one stage intended to be a biography of just him.

So the book ends with his death in 1515 but … the Portuguese Empire had only just got going. There would be at least another century of colonising effort, in Brazil, on the coast of Africa, and further East, into Malaysia, Japan and China. A century more of adventures, wars and complex politicking.

None of that is here. Crowley briefly refers to all that on the last pages of his book, before a few sententious paragraphs about how it all led to globalisation and modern container ships. But of the real establishment and running of the Portuguese Empire which stretched from Brazil to Japan there is in fact nothing.

The book’s title is therefore a bit misleading. It should be titled something more like The generation which founded the Portuguese empire. That would excuse and explain his relatively narrow focus on de Gama, Cabra and Albuquerque, and on the king who commissioned their exploits, Manuel I. Maybe adding Manuel’s dates – 1495-1521 – would make it even clearer.

In fact, with a bit of rewriting, the book could have become Manuel I and the conquerors who founded the Portuguese Empire: that accurately describes its content.

The current title gives the impression that it will be a complete history of the Portuguese Empire – which is why I bought it – and which is very far indeed from being the truth.


Related links

James Cook – The Voyages @ the British Library

2018 marks 250 years since Captain James Cook set off from Plymouth on the first of his three epoch-making voyages of exploration to the Pacific. In 1768 most of the coastlines and islands scattered across this vast body of water – nearly 64 million square miles of ocean – were unknown to Europeans. When Cook’s third voyage returned to Britain in 1780, most of the blank spaces had been filled in as a result of his labours.

This exhibition is an excellently curated and imaginatively staged account of Cook’s big three voyages. It:

  1. sets them in the wider framework of European knowledge of the time
  2. shows how each one was received and assimilated by both the elite scientific community and the broader general public
  3. most significantly of all, goes to great lengths to present the other side of the story, the by and large disastrous consequences for the ‘native’ or ‘first peoples’ of Australia, New Zealand and across the Pacific islands not so much of Cook’s visits themselves, but of the consequences – the way these peoples found themselves quickly caught up in the worldwide web of European trade, exploited, marginalised, often decimated by disease and of how their descendants, even today, are fighting to make their voices heard and to re-establish the importance of their culture and their version of history.

Image result for james cook voyages

Voyage One 1768-71

Cook had gained a reputation as a hard working navigator and map-maker during the Seven Years War (1756-63) in Canada, when he had charted the St Laurence Waterway and then, when peace came, made the first detailed charts of the island of Newfoundland off the Canadian coast.

So when the Royal Society approached the Royal Navy for a captain to lead an expedition to the Pacific, to carry scientific equipment and astronomers there in order to observe the transit of Venus across the sun which was due to take place in June 1769, the Admiralty saw an excellent opportunity to combine science with exploration and Cook’s name came into the frame.

The Navy provided the ship, HMS Endeavour which Cook sailed on, and he was under Admiralty orders that, once the transit was observed, he should sail on to try and find the fabled southern land which geographers and explorers of the time were convinced ran along the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Cook took along with him Joseph Banks, a charming, privately wealthy botanist, with an extensive retinue of six artists and assistants, plus his servants and pet greyhounds. The huge collections of plants, birds, fish and other life forms which Banks made on the three year journey would later be sent to the new Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and to the Royal Society, for categorisation and study.

The first voyage crossed the Atlantic and touched at Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of South America, before sailing into the Pacific and on to Tahiti. Here the astronomers got to know the native people, built a fort, and observed the transit of Venus – then the Endeavour sailed on to New Zealand. By sailing right round and charting the two islands in detail, Cook proved that New Zealand was not part of the fabled Great Southern continent.

Cook’s Chart of New Zealand © British Library Board

Cook’s Chart of New Zealand © British Library Board

In April 1770 Cook anchored on a spot which he named Botany Bay, on a long stretch of the eastern coastline of Australia. The north coast had been mapped by the Dutch but this eastern coast Cook claimed for Britain and named New South Wales. Detecting no human habitation he declared it terra nullius i.e. uninhabited – the start of 250 years of ignoring and marginalising Australia’s aboriginal people.

Cook’s ship was holed on the Great Barrier Reef, and after a very dicey few hours getting the ship afloat again, they found a sheltered cove in which to make extensive repairs. After completing the survey of east Australia, they sailed north-west to reach Batavia, capital of the Dutch East Indies, where a number of Cook’s crew were struck down by malaria and dysentery, and so across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope and home.

Banks sent the vast cornucopia of specimens, sketches and descriptions made by him and his retinue to the Royal Society and became what David Attenborough describes as ‘the Great Panjandrum’ of the late-18th century scientific world.

Voyage Two 1772-5

This time Cook was sent with explicit orders from the Admiralty to search for the Great Southern Continent. After a dispute about accommodation Banks didn’t, alas, go on this second trip.

In searching for the Southern Continent, and ultimately proving its non-existence, the expedition would cross the Antarctic Circle three times and, during the winter months, would make two long circuits of the south Pacific, charting a number of islands and island groups not before accurately plotted on European maps.

The voyages among towering icebergs in the southern seas gripped my imagination most, but Cook also made longish stays at Tahiti and Easter Island.

The Resolution and the Discovery in Prince William Sound, Alaska by John Webber © British Library

The Resolution and the Discovery in Prince William Sound, Alaska by John Webber © British Library

Voyage Three 1776-80

Cook was put in charge of the Resolution to be accompanied by the Discovery, captained by Charles Clerke. This time his mission from the Admiralty was to sail via Tahiti to the Pacific North-West coast of America in search of that other great chimera, the fabled ‘North-West Passage’ which sailors, for two centuries – had been hoping would allow ships to sail from the vast Hudson Bay in north Canada, clear through into the Pacific and so on to the Indies.

As no such passage exists, Cook never found it. Instead this voyage was as epic as the others, taking in stops at Queen Charlotte Sound in New Zealand, Tasmania, Tonga and Tahiti, places they had previously visited.

In January 1778, the expedition called at the Hawaiian islands, which were then unknown in Europe. After taking on supplies here, Cook sailed for the North Pacific coast of Canada. They arrived at the coast of modern Oregon and sailed north around the coast of Alaska looking in vain for some river or channel or outlet which would give access to the fabled short cut around North America.

They landed in the Aleutian Islands to take on water and then proceeded on through the Bering Strait in August 1778, still hoping to find access to a channel. Instead they ran up against a barrier of sheet ice and, following this east, discovered that it extended in an unbroken line from the west coast of North America all the way to the east coast of Asia. In August the expedition reached Russian soil. In other words – there was no way through.

Three Paddles from New Zealand by Sydney Parkinson, 1769 © British Library Board

Three Paddles from New Zealand by Sydney Parkinson, 1769 © British Library Board

The quest was over and Cook now needed to make winter quarters. Rather than stay up in Arctic waters, he decided to return to Hawai‘i. On 26 November 1778 the ships sighted Maui and on 16 January 1779 the ships arrived off Kealakekua Bay on the west coast of Hawai’i. They anchored and resumed friendly relations with the native people, led by King Kalani‘opu‘u, repairing the ship, taking on provisions and resting.

Finally, the ships sailed out of Kealakekua Bay on 4 February to resume their mission. But soon after their departure a storm blew up and the Resolution’s foremast was damaged, forcing them to return. King Kalani‘opu‘u had supervised elaborate farewell ceremonies for Cook and his men and now, according to diarist James Burney, ‘was very inquisitive, as were several of the Owhyhe Chiefs, to know the reason of our return and appeared much dissatisfied with it’.

Overnight on 14 February 1779, the large boat from the Discovery disappeared. As he had done in other places, Cook went on shore with the marines to take a senior figure hostage in order to demand its return. Charles Clerke later recorded that, on finding Kalani‘opu‘u having just woken up, Cook believed him to be ‘quite innocent of what happen’d and proposed to the old Gentleman to go onboard with him, which he readily agree’d to’. As the party returned to the beach, where two or three thousand people had assembled, tensions increased. News may have reached the crowd of the death of a man shot by British sailors who were blockading the harbour. Violence broke out and Cook was killed on the beach alongside four of the marines. Sixteen Hawaiians are believed to have been killed.

Both sides quickly regretted the misunderstanding and violence, but it was too late and – as commentators ever since have pointed out – it was indeed a symbol, a sign, a prophecy, of more misunderstanding and violence to come…

The exhibition

To my mind the British Library sometimes struggles to compete with the other major galleries or the British Museum for the simple reason that whereas the galleries have great works of art and the Museum has fabulous artefacts, for the most part the Library, by definition, is restricted to books and other printed matter, extending to pamphlets, prints, maps and so on, but none of them necessarily that visually impressive.

But the curators have gone to great lengths to overcome this potential drawback and to bring together the widest possible range of sources.

Books Thus, as you’d expect, there are a number of original journals and diaries, of Cook himself, as well as of important colleagues such as Banks and several of the other naturalists, surgeons and scientists who accompanied him.

Maps If you like maps, you’ll love this show. There are European maps from before Cooks’ voyages, maps generated by predecessors like Tasman, and his French contemporary de Bougainville, and then the maps which Cook himself generated.

Cook’s charts It was fascinating to see the very actual maps that Cook himself drew and created. At the end of the day, this was what all this extraordinary effort was about – the charts which were brought back to be used by the Royal Navy and by commercial sailings. These were the core of the project and it is great to have the opportunity to study in real detail the results of Cook’s handiwork, to read the wall labels and have explained to you why there were gaps here or there (for example, a stretch of the Australian coast wasn’t charted in detail because Cook couldn’t penetrate through the Great Barrier Reef to observe it closely), and even his errors. He mistook a peninsula on the South Island of New Zealand for an island, and an island off the North Island for a peninsula. Nobody’s perfect.

Objects But to supplement these obvious selections, the curators have also brought in some interesting objects such as one of the telescopes which was used to observe the transit of Venus and an example of the new timepieces which helped navigators work out longitude and thus establish their position.

Copies of Harrison's chronometer made by John Arnold © Royal Society

Copies of Harrison’s chronometer made by John Arnold © Royal Society

Oil paintings There’s also a handful of big contemporary oil paintings – of Cook himself and Joseph Banks and of the famous Tahiti Islander, Mai, who Cook brought back to Britain and who made a great splash in London society, being painted by William Parry and Joshua Reynolds among others, as well as having books and poems dedicated to him.

Botanical and scenic sketches Banks was a man obsessed with gathering absolutely every specimen of flora and fauna he could get his hands on throughout the entire three-year voyage. Spurred on by his work ethic, the naturalists and artists he had brought with him generated a wealth of sketches and drawings (including the earliest European depiction of a kangaroo!).

The exhibition sets the sketches alongside the finished oil paintings which were later worked up from them, either by the original artist or by a commercial artist back in London. Often the original sketches were ‘improved’ or ‘finished’ for inclusion in one of the many books which were published about the voyages to capitalise on their popularity, and the exhibition quietly points out how the rough and accurate sketches became noticeably westernised i.e. the landscapes became more soft and ‘sublime’ as per contemporary taste, and the sketches of the native people’s sometimes very rough shelters were transformed into noble dwellings, sometimes complete with ancient Greek columns, again to fit in with prevailing Western tastes for the idea of ‘the Noble Savage’.

One of the highlights is the striking drawings of natives and plants by Sydney Parkinson (who made nearly a thousand drawings of the plants and animals collected by Banks and Daniel Solander on the first voyage). There are evocative drawings of native people decorated by elaborate tattoos by William Hodges, beautiful flowers painted by Georg Foster who went on the second voyage, and so on.

Native objects In stark contrast to all these visual images created from within the western artistic tradition, the exhibition also includes a number of original artefacts by the natives, or aboriginals, or first peoples of the many places Cook visited.

These include, for example, a wooden cuirass or piece of armour from Prince William Sound, a bow and arrow, and a flute and drum, and a beautiful Nootka rattle carved in the shape of two birds.

Rattle from Nootka Sound, c. 1778 © Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Rattle from Nootka Sound, c. 1778 © Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

To quote the press release, exhibition highlights include:

  • Paintings depicting Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia by the Polynesian high priest and navigator Tupaia, which are on display as a group for the first time
  • The first chart of New Zealand by James Cook
  • The first artworks depicting the Antarctic by William Hodges on loan from the State Library of New South Wales, reunited with James Cook’s handwritten journal entry describing the first crossing of the Antarctic Circle, for the first time in 100 years
  • Specimens from the first voyage, including the mouth parts of a squid, on loan from the Royal College of Surgeons
  • Expedition artist John Webber’s watercolour landscapes, including the first European illustrations of Hawai’i
  • Jewellery and musical instruments, including a necklace from Tierra del Fuego, ceremonial rattle from Nootka Sound (Vancouver Island) and bamboo flute from Tahiti, on loan from Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge
  • Natural history drawings, including the first European depiction of a kangaroo by Sydney Parkinson on loan from the Natural History Museum

Quite an assembly, going far beyond books and maps – and from a strikingly wide variety of sources.

Staging In terms of staging and presentation, the curators have gone to a lot of trouble to create a marine atmosphere, by painting the walls with sea-inspired colours. The exhibition is in the form of a kind of maze of differently shaped rooms, some painted light blue to display the voyage material, and deliberately contrasted with ‘brown’ rooms, lit by replica 18th century oil lamps to represent the time spent back in London. In these rooms are displayed the paintings, prints and publications of all sorts which the voyages inspired.

It’s interesting to note the number of literary works, with quite a few epic poems, dramas and satires based on the sea voyages or on the character of the new peoples Cook had ‘discovered’, particularly the peoples of Tahiti and Hawai’i.

It’s also notable that a number of these works were openly critical of Cook, of the occasional violence with natives which – despite Cook’s best efforts – broke out, and accurately predict the likely dire consequences for people suddenly thrown into the ‘modern’ world economy with absolutely no preparation or help.

Videos And there are no fewer than eight shortish (three minutes) videos, specially commissioned for the exhibition and dotted throughout the show, which feature not only maps and charts and the art work listed above, but modern day shots of many of the key (and generally quite stunning) locations, plus a range of interviewees explaining what actually happened on each voyage, and their importance.

Among the European interviewees are David Attenborough who enthusiastically describes Cook as probably the greatest maritime explorer of all time, and Australian anthropologist Nicholas Thomas, whose book about Cook is on sale in the well-stocked exhibition shop.

The controversy

And this brings us to what is maybe the dominant thread running through this exhibition. As Thomas says in one of the films, the past 30-40 years have seen a revolution in attitudes towards Cook and white colonial rule generally.

As recently as the 1970s there is footage of the Queen and Princess Anne sitting on a beach in Australia watching a re-enactment of Cook’s landing with his crew, and making his notorious claim that, the land being ’empty’, he claimed it for the British Crown.

Well, attitudes among educated people throughout the Western world have been completely changed since then and now there is widespread acknowledgement of the possible illegality of those claims, and the definitely devastating impact of white colonial contact with native peoples.

From Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, across the scores of small islands of Polynesia and up into the Arctic Circle among the Inuit Indians, the impact of white explorers on native ‘first’ peoples was almost always catastrophic.

‘Inhabitants of the Island of Terra del Fuego in their Hut’ by Alexander Buchan, 1769 © British Library Board

‘Inhabitants of the Island of Terra del Fuego in their Hut’ by Alexander Buchan, 1769 © British Library Board

As the films make clear, it is only in recent decades that the presence of the native peoples has been fully acknowledged, and the voices and experiences of the first peoples of Cook’s time, and of their contemporary descendants, fully heard.

Thus the eight short videos had contributions from a number of qualified white people – from David Attenborough, Nigel Thomas, Australian historian Dame Anne Salmond, from a male author and a woman biologist. But there were at least as many if not more ‘native’ voices heard – descendants of the Australian Aborigines and a number of the Pacific islanders / Polynesians where Cook stopped. I’d like to name them all, but the captions giving their names and titles only appeared very briefly, and there was – well – a lot to see and take in.

What came over in the words of all the native peoples – aborigine, Maori, Tahitian, Hawaiian – was the hurt.

After all these years – after 250 years – their descendants are still very upset about the way that:

  • their lands were taken from them
  • their heritage, their culture, their languages and customs and religions, were ignored, submerged, obliterated
  • their populations were decimated by the many terrible diseases the white men brought (smallpox, syphilis)

Entire peoples found themselves consigned to being second class citizens or not even that – invisible, non-people, with no political or legal rights, no voice, no say.

It is impossible to deny that this was the impact of Cook’s voyages. Without doubt the voyages were themselves heroic endeavours and respect to the men who carried them out. And there is plenty of evidence that Cook himself was a just and fair man, who made efforts to have natives treated fairly, who personally respected the rites and cultures which he encountered, and who rigorously punished any members of the crew found mistreating or exploiting natives.

But even Cook himself was uneasily aware that the technologically backward peoples he was discovering would struggle to survive in the face of Western technology, ships, guns, and trade.

Tupaia Nothing can really make amends for the wrongs which were done to native peoples across the Pacific in the aftermath of Cook’s explorations. The dignity with which the curators treat their often tragic histories is a start. Hearing from their descendants in the eight videos also ensures that the voices of the first peoples will always now be part of the Cook story.

But the exhibition also sheds new light on some specific and named natives. I’ve mentioned Omai – real name Mai – who was befriended and persuaded to travel all the way back to Britain.

Omai by William Hodges © Royal Museums Greenwich

Omai by William Hodges © Royal Museums Greenwich

We also hear about named kings and high priests who Cook and his officers treated fully as equals, giving them gifts, attending their religious ceremonies.

But the exhibition also brings out how vital many natives were to Cook’s success. It was, after all, only with the help and co-operation of the various local peoples that Cook was able to anchor, land, make repairs to the ship, to access vital fresh water and, above all, food.

And communicate. Another Tahitian, Hitihiti, travelled with Cook on to a number of Pacific islands, notably Easter Island, where he was invaluable as acting as an interpreter to first peoples.

Another very notable figure is the Polynesian high priest and navigator Tupaia. He accompanied Cook to New Zealand and Australia and is referenced by many of the aboriginal interviewees in the films as a kind of role model for the power he had and the respect he commanded from the white man.

And now it appears, from evidence in a recently discovered letter of Joseph Banks, that many of the sketches included in the archive of the first voyage were drawn by Tupaia himself, not by British artists. They are shown here for the first time with their proper credit and this knowledge gives them a whole new mystique and poignancy.

Banks and a Maori by Tupaia © British Library Board

Banks and a Maori by Tupaia © British Library Board

Summary

The voyages of James Cook were a great human achievement, displaying stunning bravery, discipline, determination, scientific and artistic expertise. The long-lasting impact on native peoples all over the vast Pacific region was almost always disastrous.

The exhibition makes a very good effort to capture the complexity of the resulting situation – amazement at a great achievement from the Age of Discovery. Difficult, moving and upsetting testimonials to the sorry centuries which followed.

The video


Related links

  • James Cook – The Voyages continues at the British Library until 28 August
  • The British Library microsite contains links off to quite a few good articles about each of the voyages, the natural history, indigenous peoples, the north-west passage, imperial legacy and much more
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