I had the great privilege of attending the opening of James Cook: The Voyages at the British Library which remains on display until 28 August. It is an extraordinary collection of paintings, journals, maps and artefacts recording the three voyages led by James Cook from 1768-1780. August 2018 marks 250 years since James Cook’s first voyage sailed from Plymouth on instructions from the Admiralty and the Royal Society to observe the Transit of Venus across the face of the sun at Tahiti in June 1769 and to search for the mythical Great Southern Continent. 

David Attenborough and the the Ngāti Rānana London Māori Club opened the exhibition. David Attenborough described James Cook as the greatest explorer of all time. It is incredible now to consider the distances travelled in fragile wooden ships, the records made and the peoples met at a time when there were no radios, cameras, mobiles or computers. Uniquely, each voyage included artists as well as scientists and naturalists and their role was to observe, record, find new trading routes and ‘to cultivate a Friendship and Alliance’. When Cook returned to Britain in 1780 the coasts and islands of the Pacific, which had been largely unknown to Europeans, were now mapped, paving the way for future exploitation and colonisation.

The exhibition tells the story of each voyage using original materials many created on board The Endeavour supplemented with newly commissioned films offering varying perspectives on the voyages and their legacy 250 years later.

A favourite item in the exhibition is a picture by Tupaia, a Polynesian high priest and navigator who became translator for Cook and accompanied the voyage to New Zealand and Australia. Only recently discovered to be by Tupaia, it is a picture of Joseph Banks meeting a Maori, painted in 1769 and recording an extraordinary cultural encounter. Banks in his blue coat is giving the New Zealander a piece of cloth in exchange for a big, red lobster. “I had a firm fist on the lobster,” remembered Banks.

Cook crayfish

It is an extensive, compelling and thought-provoking exhibition and I learnt much about our shared history that I hadn’t known before. It would repay repeated visits – or at least one if you are in London in the next four months. And if you can’t get to London, a specially commissioned website brings these extraordinary stories to life.

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