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Let Captain Cook sail away again

  • Author: Shehla Anjum
    | Opinion
  • Updated: June 25, 2020
  • Published June 25, 2020

A statue of Captain James Cook stands on a plinth in Resolution Park overlooking the Cook Inlet near 3rd Avenue in Anchorage on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

It is time to see Captain James Cook sail away again. Anchorage has tortured Cook too long by placing his statue where it gazes day and night on the inlet that bears his name. Cook in fact despised these waters. He never set foot on shore and stayed aboard his ship for the two days he spent offshore Anchorage. The statue reflects the pride some residents of Alaska’s largest city take in the captain’s visit. Well, I am not one of those people.

It is time to take Cook down from his pedestal. In the past few weeks, monuments to colonialism and slavery began falling around the world. In Bristol, U.K., protesters toppled a statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston and threw it in the River Avon. New York will remove the bronze statue of former President Theodore Roosevelt, astride a horse and flanked by an African American and a Native American, from the entrance of the American Museum of Natural History. Theodore Roosevelt IV, a great-grandson of Roosevelt, approves. “The world does not need statues, relics of another age,” he said. I agree.

Cook, a son of the British Empire, was determined to increase its extent. In places he visited, many people now question the wisdom of celebrating a man who opened the way to pain and destruction from European colonization. They consider monuments to him symbols of empire and exploitation and want them removed.

Captain Cook has been a part of my life for years. He came to Alaska on his search for a Northwest Passage. I admire his achievements and, for a long time, thought little of the impacts of his voyages on places he landed, including Cook Inlet. My thinking has changed.

From my house, I look at the silt-laden waters of Turnagain Arm, and beyond it the Kenai Mountains tapering to the point where the arm’s pewter waters melt into Cook Inlet. That, of course, is Point Possession, a name that comes from a ritual repeatedly performed by Cook or his crew — taking possession of land for the British sovereign, often in the presence of the land’s occupants.

Looking toward Fire Island, I often imagine Cook’s ships anchored south of the island. Undaunted by the inlet’s large tidal fluctuations and the frequent high winds or gales the two ships, Resolution and the Discovery, “drove up with the tide” late on the evening of May 31, 1778, according to a journal of the voyage.

On windy days, when whitecaps top the waves of a high tide, I picture two shore boats from Cook’s ship laboring up the arm against the outgoing water. That happened on the morning of June 1, 1778, when Cook sent the boats to check the eastern arm, or “river” in his words. The strong tide thwarted their efforts, and Cook signaled the crew to return. The men, however, found that the water flowing out was fresh. That discovery dashed the hopes of a Northwest Passage but brought the realization that “the continent of North America extended much farther to the west,” a journal noted.

A disappointed Cook named that body of water Turnagain River, now known as Turnagain Arm.

My interest in Cook increased and I read accounts of his voyages — books by Barry Lopez, Tony Horwitz, James Barnett and others, journals from the voyages online, and recollections by the Dena’ina.

I added to my knowledge of the area’s Native history through writing for First Alaskans magazine about Native art, culture and traditional crafts. The stories included one on Dena’ina artist Joel Isaak and another on the 2018 Dena’inaq’ Huch’ulyeshi at the Anchorage Museum, the first large exhibition that acknowledged the original people of the area. I began to have mixed feelings about Cook whenever I looked at Point Possession.

The readings led me to reflect on the arrogance displayed by the British when they hoisted a flag to stake a claim to the lands. At Point Possession, the ritual happened in the presence of the Dena’ina — the land’s owners. I can imagine their puzzled expressions at the antics of the first Europeans they had ever met.

That ritual of planting a flag, naming and claiming possession took place on each voyage, from the South Pacific to Australia and on to Alaska, where it happened three times — at Kayak Island, Point Possession, and Cape Newenham. New names replaced the old Native names, and Point Possession supplanted the Dena’ina name, Tuyqun, which means “calm waters.”

The ceremony at Point Possession took place on June 1, after the failed attempt to go up Turnagain Arm. That next day, the ships weighed anchor and began their outward voyage.

My antipathy toward Cook is also rooted in my childhood in Pakistan, a place colonized by the British, where reminders of their rule stay still survives in some grand buildings, a railway network and an educational system. Not long after its 1947 creation, Pakistan began tearing down colonial-era statues of British dignitaries and royalty, including Queen Victoria and King Edward VII. By the early 1970s, names of many towns and streets changed. In Karachi, the two main shopping streets of my childhood, Elphinstone Street and Victoria Road, became Abdullah Haroon Road and Zaibunnisa Street — one an advocate for a separate homeland for Indian Muslims, the other a pioneering journalist and a feminist.

Despite my aversion to Cook and his statue, I admire his pluck in sailing more than 200,000 miles on three long voyages in small retrofitted coal carriers and surviving perilous conditions. And, most important, he tried to keep his crew healthy and free of scurvy.

It is important to credit the artists on the voyages for giving our only accurate visual images of what many Indigenous people looked like. And the ethnographic, geographical, and biological information collected by the scientists provided knowledge about unknown places.

I am amazed how Cook sailed beyond the Bering Straits to latitude 70°44′ north, reaching nearly as far north as when he came closer to the South Pole than any previous explorer in getting to latitude 71°10′ south. The meticulous charts created on Cook’s voyages filled the blank spots on a sizable portion of the world, and some charts remained in use until the 1990s. I also admire Cook’s determination and ambition. In a 1774 journal entry, during his search for the southern continent, he wrote about sailing “farther than any other man has been before ... as far as I think it possible for man to go.”

But all his accomplishments are diminished because I know the captain went against the instruction of the British Admiralty that he could “with the consent of the natives ... take possession, in the name of the King of Great Britain ...”

Cook ignored those orders, disregarded the presence of Aboriginal people in Australia and the Dena’ina in the inlet, and applied the doctrine of terra nullius — land that belonged to no one — to justify the claims.

It is time to do the right thing. BP is leaving Alaska and Anchorage should gift them Cook’s statue, installed in 1976 and a donation from the company. Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s wants to “modify the monument,” but let’s remove it, return it to Britain, and turn over the space to Alaska Native artists to create art that celebrates the history of the area and its original inhabitants.

We don’t need reminders of colonialism or relics of another age anymore; of men from distant lands taking possession of a place to extend their country’s empires. Let us reclaim that space.

Shehla Anjum is a writer based in Anchorage.

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