Climate change just might accomplish what Captain James Cook set out to do 237 years ago: open the fabled Northwest Passage.
Cook, one of history’s most storied explorers, set sail from Plymouth, England, on July 12, 1776, on what would be his third and final voyage to the Pacific Ocean. He would meet his end on a Hawaiian beach in 1779.
Though Cook is primarily associated with the Hawaiian Islands (his name for them, the Sandwich Islands, didn’t stick) and other South Pacific locales, his time in the Pacific Northwest made it his “greatest voyage,” some historians say.
In the service of the Royal Navy, Cook searched for the long-sought navigable passage between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans that was presumed to exist across the top of North America. Though he never found it, he mapped a good stretch of the Pacific Northwest’s coastline and made first contact with many native tribes.
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The explorer’s time in the Northwest is now chronicled at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma with “Arctic Ambitions: Captain Cook and the Northwest Passage.” The exhibit opens Saturday and runs through March 6.
The 5,000-square-foot show offers the view from aboard the ship and the view from shore — those of native peoples he encountered. It also puts Cook and his expedition in the light of the 21st century.
The show was organized by the museum in conjunction with the Anchorage Museum. While it uses interactive displays and other storytelling devices and exhibits, one of the most impressive aspects is the large amount — more than 50 — of artifacts that sailed with Cook on his two ships: The Resolution and the Discovery.
The artifacts are on loan from museums, libraries and private collections in eight countries.
Front and center is Cook’s handwritten journal. The volume is under glass, dimly lit and opened to a page in which he recounts finding and naming Cape Flattery on March 22, 1778.
Nearby are Cook’s telescope and parallel rulers he used for navigation.
This assemblage hasn’t been in one place since Cook collected them in 1778.
Redmond Barnett, head of exhibits at the Washington State History Museum
Cook was already a famous British navigator when he made his third trip to the Pacific. He had explored the eastern coast of Australia, circumnavigated New Zealand and mapped Newfoundland.
The stated purpose on Cook’s third journey was to return a Polynesian man from England to his home. But the real reason, a poorly kept secret, was to find the Northwest Passage.
Maps from the 1600s showed California as an island and the rest of North America’s west coast bearing little resemblance to reality even where Russians had explored in Alaska.
“Cartographers simply filled in the blanks to their heart’s desire,” said historian David Nicandri. The former museum director has compiled an anthology of essays on Cook.
It wasn’t until after Cook’s expedition returned to England that what is considered the world’s first modern map was produced in 1784, according to Nicandri.
Cook first encountered North America in 1778 at Cape Foulweather in modern day Oregon (Cook didn’t like the weather). Cook sailed past the Strait of Juan de Fuca (later explored by the Spanish). Whether he missed the strait on purpose or by accident doesn’t matter, said Nicandri.
“He didn’t start looking (for the passage) until he got up here,” Nicandri said pointing to Alaska.
Cook explored Prince William Sound and later Cook Inlet, thinking they might be the passage. Cook wasn’t optimistic that the inlet was the passage. But many of his men, including William Bligh, were.
Bligh later went on to claim his own notch in history when the crew of the ship he commanded, the HMS Bounty, mutinied in 1789.
On his expedition, Cook and his men encountered dozens of native tribes from Vancouver Island to the Aleutian Islands. He collected a number of artifacts from them that in the ensuing 200-plus years have been dispersed all over the world.
“This assemblage hasn’t been in one place since Cook collected them in 1778,” said Redmond Barnett, head of exhibits at the history museum.
Seeing the 50-plus native artifacts together is a snapshot of native life, circa 1778. The items have various origin dates, but they were all in the hands of tribal members until traded or given to Cook in 1778.
A cloak on loan from the Weltmuseum of Vienna shows the shift of rectangular design to the ovoids of formline design in Northwest art that was occurring at the time of Cook’s voyage.
Other artifacts include clubs, daggers, rattles, mauls, bows and arrows, harpoons and several unusual hats, including a chief’s hat and another designed to disguise a person as a seal. There’s also a vest of “slat armor.”
Eventually Cook called it quits for the season in 1778.
“The ice was forming around his ships and he turned back just in time,” Barnett said.
Already a true Northwesterner, Cook headed to Hawaii. He was killed by natives there following a dispute on Feb. 14, 1779, day 946 according to the timeline that runs through the entire exhibit.
Cook never ruled out the possibility of eventually discovering the passage, Nicandri said. The expedition, under new command, returned for one last search in 1779.
“He had the sense it wasn’t going to be productive, but he was willing to exhaust all resources to prove it,” Nicandri said of Cook’s final take on the passage.
All of this was going on while America and Britain were at war with each other. But Benjamin Franklin, who was acquainted with Cook, persuaded the Continental Congress to leave Cook’s ships alone.
European powers, and later the United States, didn’t give up on finding the passage. When they realized sea ice made an arctic route impossible, they turned to rivers. Thomas Jefferson’s hope that a connection or short land portage between the Columbia and Missouri rivers existed inspired him to create the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804.
The dream finally was realized by technology: the railroad. “That is the Northwest Passage you see operating every day out those windows,” Nicandri said gesturing toward the train tracks that operate along Tacoma’s waterfront.
The final segment of the show puts Cook’s expedition in a 2015 perspective. Was he a great explorer or the man who brought centuries of diminished living conditions to native peoples?
It also takes a look at climate change and the melting of the Arctic ice cap. The route Cook searched for centuries ago just might exist one day.
“The Chinese ... are building the world’s largest fleet of ice breakers in anticipation of what global warming is bringing about: to enable year-round passage,” Nicandri said.
ARCTIC AMBITIONS: CAPTAIN COOK AND THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE OPENING
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesdays-Sundays, free admission 2-8 p.m. every third Thursday.
Where: Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave, Tacoma.
Tickets: $11 adults; $8 seniors, students and military; 5 and younger free.
OPENING DAY PROGRAM
11 a.m.-4 p.m.: Sea exploration scavenger hunt, sea ice versus freshwater ice display, gnarly nautical knots demonstrations.
Noon-4 p.m.: “People of the Adze” — carving demonstration.
1p.m.: “Ice and Arctic Exploration — From 1778 to 2015” with Harry Stern.
3 p.m: “Life in the North Through Art” with Susie Silook.