I’ve been waiting to do a post on this topic for quite a while, so I’m excited to finally be sitting down to draft this post!
The Pacific (or, as it is formally titled, The Pacific in the Wake of Captain Cook), is a TV miniseries, presented by New Zealand actor Sam Neil, that also has a companion non-fiction book, written by Meaghan Wilson Anastasios.
While this miniseries isn’t exclusively about Australia–it’s about the Pacific as a collective–Australia quite often takes centre-stage during it. After all, Captain Cook is widely regarded (though incorrectly) as the discoverer and founder of the Australian colonies. He is to Australians what Columbus is to Americans–a controversial figure, sometimes hated and sometimes revered.
I both watched the miniseries and also read the book (it was the first book I ever bought on Audible, in case you were wondering) and I found both very eye-opening. So let’s get into it, shall we?
When Lieutenant James Cook sailed into the Pacific Ocean, in his tubby little boat, HMB Endeavour, he couldn’t have had any idea the impact this voyage, and his subsequent voyages, would have on both almost every culture known to humanity. His discoveries would impact British, European, Asian, Australian and Canadian Aboriginal, Micronesian and Polynesian people alike. His coming would bring the benefits of modern civilisation, but–more importantly–it would bring death, disease, colonialism and warfare to “undiscovered” nations. And he would drive to extinction–or the brink thereof–many cultures, languages and ancient ways of life.
Both the book and the miniseries centre their narrative around the question: “For how much of this can we blame Cook?” Cook himself wasn’t a bad man. He had a dearly beloved wife and several children back in England. He had dedicated himself to the art of science and discovering as much as he could in his short life. He longed to go further than any man thought possible to go. Once he found himself in the Pacific, he fell in love with the cultures of the Maori, the Tahitians, the Tongans. He made the effort to learn their languages and their customs and became highly respected among them–a factor that eventually led to his brutal death at the hands of the Native Hawaiians.
But while Cook himself respected the people groups he came into contact with, his crew and his successors often did not. Even in his later years, Cook himself became more disillusioned (some historians argue he began to go insane or was suffering from another mental illness) and made rash and cruel decisions. So was he to blame for the colonialization and destruction of the Pacific?
What Did I Think of the Story?
I loved it. I loved every minute of both the book and miniseries and I learnt a lot from it. One of my favourite things was how balanced it was. It neither demonised nor romanticised Cook and his voyages. In the eyes of the writers, he and they are simply facts of history. While the question of his culpability in the destruction of the Pacific is posed, it is never answered one way or the other. The facts and opinions of those it impacted are simply presented and the reader/viewer is left to decide for themselves.
The book and the miniseries both contain interviews with the people groups of the islands Cook visited and they present varied, nuanced views of his impact, and him as a person. That was one of my favourite aspects and I think the aspect that makes this story so valuable.
Again, this story doesn’t focus on Australia, or Australia’s culture, but there’s a lot to be gleaned from the episode that focusses on Australia. It explains a lot of the divide between contemporary white Australians and black Australians, and the point where that divide began. It expresses varied opinions on issues such as whether Australia (“Invasion”) Day should be celebrated, and if so, how. It explores topics such as whether Cook is to blame for the current struggles facing Aboriginal People. It also explores how Cook and Joseph Banks’ declaration of Australia to be “terra nullius” (owned by no one) impacted generations of people, both white and black.
Overall, I definitely recommend this book and miniseries for anyone interested either in learning about the Pacific and it’s cultures, or who is interested in explorations of topics such as colonialism.
How about you guys? Have you done much reading about the Pacific? Does this topic interest you? What interesting non-fiction books or tv series have you come across lately?