Guest Post – There once were men of science who visited these shores

Two-hundred and forty years ago today they anchored in Ship Cove, for some on board it was their third visit here. After securing the ships in the stream they cleaned and fumigated the vessels and made preparations to set ashore, loading up the landing boats with tents, all the paraphernalia of their scientific mission and the implements, equipment and utensils required for their observations. Landing the following day they would strike up a veritable tent village in an area surrounded by rich grass and wild celery. It was a pleasant day in the Marlborough Sounds; the Noon temperature was measured at 65.5(18.6c) on the ship’s thermometers, the air pressure 30.0inHg(1015mb), there was a fresh West-North-west wind and no rain. The seawater temperature, measured outside of the straits approaching the Sounds had been 60.0f(15.5c), a bit chilly for swimming, but consistent with the other readings they had taken while crossing the Tasman Sea since leaving Van Diemens land; their last landfall before leaving for New Zealand.  

The ships crews poured ashore; erecting the tents, hoeing, stacking and bundling the long grass, setting up the instruments, some set to hoarding cuttings of the excellent spruce (rimu) and tea-tree (manuka) that they together would boil down into an agreeable beer in the brewery erected alongside the tents. Such a pleasant day was it that they also landed the animals from the ships holds: sheep and geese, turkeys and goats, even the peacocks came ashore, but none more astonished the local population than the cattle and horses; the native people stared in amazement at the wonderful creatures as they partook of the abundant natural foraging terra-firma offered them in the beautiful setting; first assistant to the Ship’s Surgeon, James Samwell, opined of the farmyard scene: “these [animals] being all feeding & diverting themselves about the Tents familiarised the Scene & made us almost forget that we were near the antipodes of old England”. There were Marines landed this day as well, groups of the heavily armed men accompanied all of the grass-cutters, spruce fellers, tent-erectors, and brewers. Pickets would be set every night men and equipment were ashore, they would never be less than vigilant of the locals; there had been a sickening, stomach-churning incident during their previous stay which they vowed would never be repeated.

While the crew and the military performed their functions the officers and scientists were not idle, they had a regime to follow; readings of the sextants, quadrants, the thermometers and barometers, the magnetic needle, measurements to take of the position of the sun, and at night; the planets, the salinity of the seawater, their latitude, the longitude, then corrections to the latter, they would be required to venture and find water, to test it, to find new species of flora, collect them, and their seeds, to preserve them and draw them, to take depth soundings and record them, to map and sketch the coastline and seaward entryways, to climb the local peaks in order to view the interior, to meet the locals, to try to understand their language, to record it as possible; which they did, declaring there was more dissimilarity between the languages of the two principal islands of New Zealand; Tewai-o-Pounammu and Teika-a-Mauuwi, than the language of the latter and the priestly caste of their cousins in Tahiti. They would record what they could find of the natives customs, religion and social structure, and to trade with them, entertain them and try to ensure a mutually beneficial stay.

This was all recorded; in detail. The journals and diaries from those on board voluminous, while the total number of scientific readings taken and recorded measurements from James Cook’s third voyage around the world number in the tens-of-thousands, collated together for the Admiralty they cover nearly four-hundred tightly packed pages; and that’s how we know what the temperature, air pressure, wind direction and cloud conditions were in Queen Charlotte’s Sound on February 12th 1777.

Towards the end of 2016 modern scientists from the New Zealand government released a publication. Somewhat pessimistic in nature it forewarned of the possibility of boiling oceans, caused by a thing called ‘global warming’. The scientists conferred upon us the knowledge that they had been assiduously monitoring ocean temperatures around New Zealand for over thirty years and that in that time the measured temperatures had changed; not one jot, by zero, there was no trend, no change; at all.

Despite this worrying news of zero temperature change the scientists warn we should not be complacent, that thirty years is an exceedingly short time to measure change, that it may surely come, creep up on us, destroying  our marine life and, amazingly, deplete mātauranga Māori, this quality, according to the science report, is “The knowledge, comprehension, or understanding of everything visible and invisible”, which may actually be very useful because the ocean’s temperature trend is, after all, invisible. It doesn’t exist.

I can’t imagine what James Cook, son of a farm-labourer, home-schooled by his father’s employer’s wife who saw it as her Christian duty to help educate the not-so-well-off, the magnificent Master Mariner, would have made of the modern scientists shrill warnings of zero temperature change and the possible side-effects thereof; Maybe, shaking his head, he will have said ‘It’s not thirty years, lads; your temperature recordings match mine from nearly two-n-‘alf centuries back; the temperature of the Tasman Sea was 15.5c in 1777, right same as now. I don’t know what thee are panickin’ and scare-mongering for, clearly ye’s don’t ‘ave enough to do. Come with me, I’ll send thee to a hill for climbing, maybe that will ease ye’s silly panic over the non-existent’.


-Name and address withheld by request


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