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Cast in bronze, then into Victoria’s Inner Harbour: So who was James Cook?

Likeness of British maritime explorer commissioned in 1976, forcibly removed on July 1
Captain James Cook statue splashes into Victoria’s Inner Harbour, after being removed from its upper causeway pedestal on July 1. (@CJusticeVic/Twitter)

Cast in bronze and then into the sea, the statue of Capt. James Cook was hauled off its pedestal in Victoria’s Inner Harbour on July 1 and tossed into the ocean by a crowd gathered near the legislature.

While police are looking for two men now accused of vandalism to public property, we wondered who was James Cook anyway?

The 18th-century seafarer led three scientific expeditions around the world, making sailing charts and maps as he went. On board he had botanists, astronomers and artists who made scientific catalogues of what they saw.

“He’s the eyes of Europe discovering the Pacific,” said Lorne Hammond, a history curator at the Royal B.C. Museum.

Globally he’s known – or blamed, Hammond added – for “discovering” Australia. But around B.C.’s West Coast, his interactions were short and by all accounts Hammond knows of, peaceful.

“There are nasty stories that are likely true about Simon Fraser and the behaviour of his men, but I haven’t found stories about Cook except for the incident that leads to his death.”

The notable, dramatic exception to his peacefulness.

READ MORE: VicPD seeks two suspects in toppling of James Cook statue in downtown Victoria

It happened in Hawaii on Cook’s last voyage. His crew are said to have stolen sacred wood from a burial ground. Hawaiians retaliated by stealing a row boat, and things escalated when Cook tried to take King Kalaniʻopuʻu hostage. Cook was killed in the ensuing fight, whether by dagger, club or both the stories vary.

The Royal B.C. Museum has an iron dagger on display that’s alleged to have killed Cook, though Hammond cautions that there are six supposed weapons in the world, each claimed by collectors to be what killed the captain.

A year before his violent death, Cook stopped in Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island’s west coast where his crew was welcomed by the Mowachaht Nation. They stayed for just over a month to repair their boats, trade and stock up on food and fresh water.

The Mowachaht Nation says on its website that, “We enjoyed good relations with these visitors and traded fish, furs and everyday things from cooking utensils to hats, capes and ceremonial items in return for metal and clothing.”

Cook was on a mission to find a northern passage back to Europe, which of course does not exist. Along the way he made sailing charts and coastal maps that were so accurate some of them are the basis of the maps used today, Hammond said.

In fact the statue was commissioned in 1976 in Victoria as a tourist draw, for the 200th anniversary of one of his expeditions. Recreational sailors still follow Cook’s routes around the world to follow in his, er, wake-steps.

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Perhaps his most lasting influence on this part of the world is that he trained midshipman George Vancouver, who later returned to finish mapping the Island and became its European namesake.

“I totally understand the destruction of the statue. It’s unfortunate that it’s Captain Cook, but there’s a guy in a wig and a colonial uniform, and you want to blame somebody, there he is,” Hammond said.

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