Feature: Captain Cook's Great Escape

Feature: Captain Cook's Great Escape
Feature: Captain Cook's Great Escape
©REUTERS / Action Images

When Captain Cook and his men arrived in New Zealand they were under instructions to be friendly but firm towards the locals. He was told that when confronted by natives he must encourage patience and discipline among his men. It is important to win hearts and minds, they said. However, should the local inhabitants seek to deny your claims to victory in a hostile manner you must combat their belligerence with force.

Shock them with strike power. Remember, they would never have seen anyone as pugnacious as an Englishman. As the man in charge you must demonstrate that English superiority, born of the Enlightenment, prevails in every field of human endeavour and achievement. Where England leads others follow.

So, with the words of his London masters ringing in his ears, and with expectations of an easy conquest, Cook came to impose himself on New Zealand. For his men, full of hope and a longing for glory, it had been a tiring journey and they were pleased to stretch their legs and run around on terra firma once more.

It wasn’t long before the first skirmishes occurred and to Cook’s surprise he discovered that resistance to his forces was determined. The locals were tenacious. In the weeks that followed several battles took place, some lasting just a few hours, others whole days. They were bloody affairs in which Cook’s battle hardened troops only just prevailed. Wounded men retired from the fray, never to be seen again.

Worse was to come. In the remote mountains of the South Island a group of untried local boys assembled to confront the English. Cook smiled, here was an opportunity for some of his seasoned men to rest and take advantage of the wonderful sights the region had to offer. He decided to promote a few junior troops to the front line. Give them a taste of battle he thought, let them feel the satisfaction of a crushing victory.

But the clash was a disaster. His men were soundly beaten, a defeat that sent shock waves through the English invaders. Such indignities were rare. How could professional men, selected and trained by the finest tactical minds in England, be defeated in battle by a rag-tag bunch of mountain warriors?

Cook knew that sterner tests lay ahead, bigger battles that would last day after day and demand concentration, guts and determination. We must prepare ourselves mentally and physically he said, if we are to bring all resistance to an end.

A series of long confrontations began, bringing days of misery and joy to both protagonists. From time to time foul weather drove the enemies from the battlefield giving Cook and his men time to lick their wounds and rethink their tactics. Eventually exhaustion and frustration took hold in both camps and neither side grasped the upper hand. Twice battles ended in stalemate.

We did not come all this way to fail, railed Captain Cook to his troops. The English blamed the environment for the inability of their front line troops to crush the New Zealanders. These are alien conditions they whinged, and not encouraging for our battery of powerful strike weapons.

The locals ignored the enemy’s mutterings and, as the final confrontation approached, concentrated on preparing for the greatest battle of their lives. They had nothing to lose but their status as a peace loving South Pacific paradise.

Finally, the two armies met at the site of an ancient volcano in the north and the struggle for supremacy lasted five full days in hot sunshine. For much of the time the defending troops outmanoeuvred the enemy and as the battle wore on it was Captain Cook who stared defeat in the face.

Something needed to be done to save England from ignominy. Rousingly, the bugler played the English anthem. We will not be humiliated by a second class army Cook said, and recalled the words of his benefactor in London.

"Should the natives oppose you in a hostile manner and you are on the verge of defeat, call upon the Prior to prayer for your salvation and dig in."

And he did, and the battle was drawn.
John Darkin

© Cricket World 2013

Footnote: In 1769 the English sea captain James Cook returned home with New Zealand a prize for his king. In 2013 the English cricket captain Alastair Cook returned home with Kiwi egg on his face.

John Darkin has written two books on the Southern voyages of Captain Cook.

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