Monday, April 14, 2003


Although it's a passable parody of Kuhn's style there's a small problem. Stove has chosen a poor example: there are a couple of very good reasons for thinking that the claim that Cook discovered Cook Strait is inflated.

The first ought to be familiar from the controversy over whether we can really claim that Columbus discovered America when America already had a native population when the Nino, the Pinta and the Santa Maria fetched up on the shores of one of the Carribean islands (which island is still in dispute). This same argument applies to Cook's discovery of the Cook Strait unless you accept that the Maoris snuck int oNew Zealand quietly while Cook's back was turned. Assuming that they were already there, it's hard to imagine how they could remain unaware that they were living on two islands separated by a mere 20 kilometers or so at their closest points. If they were laboring under the delusion that New Zealand was a single land mass, they would have learnt otherwise as soon as they tried to walk from the North Island to the South or vice versa. Or lacking the frigates and brigantines of the Royal Navy, they didn't appreciate the significance of Cook Strait to the European science of navigation.

One way out of this difficulty and restore Cook's legitimate claim to the discovery of Cook Strait isn't too far from the post-modernist "one history, many truths" approach. We might say that, while it is true from the Maori point of view that Cook didn't discover Cook Strait, Cook can lay claim to the discovery as the first European to navigate and chart the strait. It's important that we be precise about the nature of Cook's cognitive achievement here: if his claim to discovery rested in having been the first European to sail through the strait, we'd have to call it Cook and the Crew of the Endeavour Strait unless, perhaps, he ran out to the end of the bowsprit when the crow's nest look-out cried out "Strait on the starboard bow!" It's the sort of thing I can imagine as part of the Royal Navy tradition: a friendly foot-race from the quarterdeck to the very front of the boat every time a strait was up for discovery. Just the sort of thing to win the love of the crew, tempering the austerity of Navy discipline by showing them that their officers had a playful side too. Finally, it's obvious that we can't claim that Cook discovered Cook Strait (at least from a European perspective) on the basis that he was the first European to see the strait: that honour would rightfully belong to the crow's nest look-out which would make it Able Seaman Smith Strait or something similar. But only a Marxist historian would say anything like that.


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