I’m in Hawaii for a meeting, kicked back near a hotel swimming pool not far from the place where native Hawaiians, in 1779, killed Captain James Cook, the great English explorer, during a dispute over stolen British property.
What would Ben Franklin say about Captain Cook’s explorations of the South Pacific? Here’s what he might say: “A great adventure full of promise.”
Cook’s return to London in 1771 after his first voyage to the South Pacific caused much celebration by the British whose empire he expanded. His description of the Maori people of New Zealand resulted in a visionary proposal by Ben Franklin (in London lobbying for American interest) and a number of his colleagues. After meeting Cook and hearing about the native peoples of the tropical islands, Benjamin Franklin, mapmaker Alexander Dalrymple, and other like-minded friends published a pamphlet, Introduction to a Plan for Benefiting the New Zealanders, to encourage private financial support for a second voyage to the Pacific islands by Captain Cook.
The pamphlet noted that, “The inhabitants of those countries, our fellow-men, have canoes only; not knowing Iron, they cannot build ships: They have little astronomy, and no knowledge of the compass to guide them; they cannot therefore come to us, or obtain any of our advantages.”
The group asked, “does not Providence, by these distinguishing favours, seem to call on us, to do something ourselves for the common interests of humanity?”
Acknowledging the less-than-honorable intent of many expeditions, the group wrote, “many voyages have been undertaken with views of profit or of plunder, or to gratify resentment; to procure some advantage to ourselves, or do some mischief to others.”
Dalrymple, Franklin, and other supporters suggested sending the mission to New Zealand “not to cheat them, not to rob them, not to seize their lands, or enslave their persons; but merely to do them good, and enable them as far as in our power lies, to live as comfortably as ourselves.”
To help sell the proposal, the group suggested that England would benefit financially because “a commercial nation particularly should wish for a general civilization of mankind, since trade is always carried on to much greater extent with people who have the arts and conveniences of life, than it can be with naked savages.”
(Here, Franklin proved himself a supporter of what we today call a free-trade agreement, the principle that aiding developing countries to improve the lot of their people simultaneously adds customers for advanced products of the more developed nations.)
The pamphlet writers were unable to raise enough money to sponsor such an expedition. The Royal Navy, however, soon sent Cook to the South Pacific to determine, once and for all, the existence or absence of a massive continent surrounding the South Pole called, at the time, Terra Australis (Southern Land), now known as Antarctica.
Cook, on his second voyage tried unsuccessfully to get through the sea ice, reaching as far south as 70 degrees south latitude, but never spotted land. This failure convinced many that no such region existed, a mistake later corrected by fearless whalers, seal hunters, and explorers of many nations.
In part two, I’ll describe another remarkable intersection between the lives of Ben Franklin and Captain James Cook, this time when their two countries were at war.