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Historical Records of New Zealand Vol. II.

James Cook to John Walker. †

James Cook to John Walker.

Mile End Road, 13th September, 1771.


In my last I gave you some account of my voyage so far as the South Sea Islands; the remainder shall be the subject of this letter. What I mean by the South Sea Islands are those that lie within and about the tropics. They are in general small, and George's Island, which is only about 33 leagues in circuit, is one of the largest. The inhabitants of this island gave us an account and the names of 130 islands lying in these seas. They are of two kinds, very low or very mountainous. The low islands are such as are called Keys in the West Indies; that is, mostly shoals, ledges of rock, etc. The chief produce of the firm land is cocoanuts. These and fish, with which all these islands abound, are the chief support of the inhabitants. The mountainous parts of the high islands are in general dry and barren, and, as it were, burned up with the sun; but all these islands are skirted round with a border of low land which is fertile and pleasant to a very high degree, being well clothed with fruit trees, which nature hath planted here for the use of the happy natives. These people may be said to be exempted from the curse of our forefathers. Scarce can it be said that they earn their bread by the sweat of their brows. Benevolent nature hath not only provided them with necessaries, but many of the luxuries of life. Loaves of bread, or at least what serves as a most excellent substitute, grow here in a manner spontaneously upon trees, besides a great many other fruits and page 79 roots, and the sea coasts are well stored with a vast variety of excellent fish. They have only three species of tame animals, hogs, dogs, and fowls, all of which they eat. Dogs we learnt from them also to eat, and there were but few amongst us who did not think that a South Sea dog ate as well as an English lamb. Was I to give a full description of these islands, the manner and customs of the inhabitants, etc., it would far exceed the bounds of a letter. I must therefore quit these Terrestrial Paradises, in order to follow the course of our voyage.

In the beginning of August, 1769, we quitted the tropical region, and steered to the southward, in the midst of the South Sea, to the height of 40°, without meeting with any land, or the least visible signs of any; we then steered to the westward, between the latitude of 30° and 40°, until we fell in with the coast of New Zealand, a very small part of the west coast of which was first discovered by Tasman in 1642, but he never once set foot upon it. This country was thought to be a part of the Southern Continent, but I have found it to be two large islands, both of which I circumnavigated in the space of six months. They extend from the latitude of 34° South to 47½° South, and are together nearly as big as Great Britain. It is a hilly, mountainous country, but rich and fertile; especially the northern part, which is well inhabited. The inhabitants of this country are a strong, well-made, active people, rather above the common size. They are of very dark brown colour, with long black hair. They are also a brave, warlike people, with sentiments void of treachery. Their arms are spears, clubs, halberts, battleaxes, darts, and stones. They live in strongholds of fortified towns, built in well chosen situations, and according to art. We had frequent skirmishes with them, always where we were not known, but firearms gave us the superiority. At first some of them were killed, but we at last learned how to manage them without taking away their lives; and when once peace was settled, they ever after were our very good friends. These people speak the same language as the people in the South Sea Islands we had before visited, though distant from them many hundred leagues, and of whom they have not the least knowledge or of any other people whatever. Their chief food is fish and fern roots; they have, too, in places, large plantations of potatoes, such as we have in the West Indies, and likewise yams, etc. Land animals they have none, either wild or tame, except dogs, which they breed for food. This country produceth a grass plant like flags, of the nature of hemp or flax, but superior in quality to either. Of this the natives make clothing, lines, nets, etc. The men very often go naked, with only a narrow belt about their waists; the women, on the contrary, page 80 never appear naked. Their government, religion, notions of the creation of the world, mankind, &c., are much the same as those of the natives of the South Sea Islands.

We left this country on the 1st of April, 1770, and steered for New Holland, all the east part of which remained undiscovered, my design being to fall in with the southern part called Van Diemen's Land; but the winds forced me to the northward of it about 40 leagues, so that we fell in with the land in latitude 38° South. I explored the coast of this country, which I called New South Wales, to the northern extremity; in the doing of which we were many times in great danger of losing the ship. Once we lay 23 hours against a ledge of rocks, were obliged to throw our guns and many of our stores overboard, received very much damage to her bottom, but by a fortunate circumstance got her into port and repaired her. Great part of this coast is covered with islands and shoals, which made the exploring it exceeding dangerous, even to a very great degree. We sailed upon this coast near 400 leagues by the lead, with sometimes one, sometimes two and three boats ahead to direct us, and yet with all this precaution we were very often obliged to anchor with all sails standing to prevent running ashore. We at last surmounted all difficulties, and got into the Indian Sea by a passage entirely new.

The East Coast of New Holland, or what I call New South Wales, extends from 38° to 10½°. If New Holland can be called an Island it is by far the greatest in the known world. The interior part of this immense track of land is not at all known; what borders on the sea coast is a mixture of fertile and barren land: the soil, in general, is of a loose sandy nature. The natives of this country are not numerous; they are of a very dark brown or chocolate colour, with lank black hair; they are under the common size, and seem to be of a timorous, inoffensive race of men. They spoke a very different language from any we had met with. Men, women, and children go wholly naked. It is said of our first parents that, after they had eaten the forbidden fruit, they saw themselves naked and were ashamed; these people are naked and are not ashamed. They live chiefly on fish, and wild fowl, and such other articles as the land naturally produceth; for they do not cultivate one foot of it. These people may truly be said to be in the pure state of nature, and may appear to some to be the most wretched upon earth; but in reality they are far more happy than we Europeans, being wholly unacquainted, not only with the superfluities, but with many of the necessary conveniences so much sought after in Europe; they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a tranquility which is not disturbed by the inequality of page 81 condition; the earth, and sea, of their own accord, furnish them with all things necessary for life; they covet not magnificent houses, household stuff, &c.; they sleep as sound in a small hovel, or even in the open air, as the King in his palace on a bed of down.

After quitting New Holland we steered for the Coast of New Guinea, where we landed but once; then made the best of our way to Batavia and in our way touched at an island, partly under the Dutch East India Company. Here we got plenty of refreshments, which came very acceptable.

We arrived at Batavia in October, all in good health and high spirits. On our arrival at a European settlement we thought all our hardships at an end, but Providence thought proper to order it otherwise. The repairs the ship wanted caused a delay of near 10 weeks, in which time we contracted sickness, that here, and on our passage to the Cape of Good Hope, carried off about 30 of my people. The remainder of the voyage was attended with no material circumstances.

If any interesting circumstance should occur to me that I have omitted I will hereafter acquaint you with it. I, however, expect that my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty will very soon publish the whole voyage, charts, etc.

Another voyage is thought of with two ships, which if it takes place I believe the command will be conferred upon me. If there is anything that I can inform you of in respect to my late voyage I shall take a pleasure in it, and believe me to be,

Your obliged servt.,

James Cook.

John Walker was the senior member of a coal-shipping firm at Whitby. Cook was apprenticed to him when a lad, and kept up a lifelong friendship.—The Editor.