Puuhonua o Honaunau Historical Park, Captain Cook (504620)

Puuhonua o Honaunau Historical Park, Captain Cook (504620)

Image by Robert Linsdell

Daniel Nelson

Last chance to see: James Cook: The Voyages at the British Library. Make the effort - it's excellent.

The maps, artefacts, books and contemporaneous drawings are, as with all British Library exhibitions, top quality, and the glimpses into what happened when armed men stumbled ashore into lands and cultures they had not previously known are fascinating. But what for me gives the show real power is the way it provides context.

From the outset, the exhibits make the point that Cook's 18th century voyages came at a time when a new ideology suggested that "whatsoever things may be said to be useful and excellent ... may be truly affirmed to be principally communicated by commerce". In that sense, Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations (1770 and still cited by free marketeers as inspiration though seldom read) has been seen as the foundation text for globalisation. 

And the intellectual shifts known as The Enlightenment meant that science, trade and national identity intermingled in Britain, with devastating effects around the world.

So when Cook set sail for Tahiti in 1768 it was ostensibly to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun, in furtherance of scientific knowledge. But secret Admiralty orders were to search for land and assess its potential for trade, and to "take possession of Convenient Situations in the Country" in the name of the British crown.

Unsurprisingly, these aims sometims conflicted, and weapons and mutual misconceptions resulted in violence, particularly as, along with lethal weapons and veneral disease, the British explorers took preconceived ideas: "The British wish to identify a single 'king' or 'queen' was a frequent cause of misunderstandings."

At one landing, Cook went ashore with a green branch in his hand while the ship's cannon fired over the heads of the people on the shore.

Inevitably, the exhibition shows Cook - the greatest sea explorer in history, in David Attenborough's view - through European eyes. It's a gaping hole in our awareness, for example, that we have no record of the impressions of Tupaia, a priest from the island of Ra'iatea, who frequently acted as an intermediary between locals and visitors, or of Mai, the first Polynesian to visit Britain. But the exhibition is careful to explain that some of Cook's accounts are still highly contested in the region, as is the relationship today between indigenous islanders and colonisers in countries such as Australia. One Aboriginal artist, Paddy Forham Wainburranga, has said that it wasn't Captain Cook that caused all the probems, it was those who followed - as is made clear in Wainburranga's painting, 'Too many Captain Cooks'. It is almost exactly 250 years since Cook started his first voyage from Plymouth, and the ripples are part of current affairs, not simply a matter of history.

James Cook: The Voyages, £14, conc £5-£11, at the British Library, Euston Road, NW1, ends on 28 August. Info: www.bl.uk/ www.bl.uk/ the-voyages-of-captain-james-cook

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