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Captain Cook Coined the Name "Nootka Sound." Literally

Most people, when they hear the name, Captain James Cook (1728–1779), might picture the seafaring explorer making the first recorded European contact with Australia, sailing the Bering Strait or anchoring in Hawaii. The British navigator charted more terra incognita than any other in his time.

But as it turns out, a good portion of Cook’s adult life was actually spent honing his navigation and surveying skills in what is now Canada. We sat down with two Captain Cook Society experts and historians, Robin Inglis and Victor Suthren, to discover why Cook’s time in Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island 240 years ago — a stop on his final voyage — deserves to be commemorated today.

Q: Captain Cook’s landing at Nootka Sound was actually a bit of an accident, wasn’t it?

Suthren: Yes. Cook’s job was essentially to see if he could find a Northwest Passage.

He was meant to enter the Pacific from the Indian Ocean, and then to go north along the North American coast to see if a Northwest Passage existed. There had been rumours that if you sailed into Hudson Bay or somehow into the Canadian Arctic, there was a strait possibly leading from Hudson Bay to the north Pacific. If that was the case, you had a tremendously easy route to China.

Q: If that was the plan, why stop along the Vancouver Island coast?

Inglis: Unfortunately, he was delayed. He left in 1776 but he was delayed in the South Pacific for a whole year and he didn’t reach North America until March 1778.

Now his instructions said, “Find a place to get wood and water and prepare the ships.” In other words, do some work on the ships to prepare them to go to the north. But they hit a lot of storms and Cook was looking for an anchorage. At one point he found what he called Hope Bay, a huge indentation in the west coast of Vancouver Island. Inside Hope Bay is the entrance to Nootka Sound.

Suthren: Now, the actual name for that bay is Kyuquot and it was inhabited by a village of the Mowachaht people. There’s a long sandbar, and on the right hand side of the sandbar is where you enter into the bay. Upon Cook’s arrival, the Mowachaht people came out in canoes as Cook’s ships, the Resolution and the Discovery, were sailing in. They called out to him using a Nuu-chah-nulth word, which means “go around!”

So Nootka really means, “go around sound.” The Mowachaht were simply saying, “Go this way! You’re going to run into the shore!”

Q: Really? That’s so interesting. It sounds like the welcome that Cook received was actually quite amazing.

Inglis: The Yuquot beach keeper would have come out with a canoe for a welcome ceremony. They threw feathers onto the water, they sang a song. A lot of description of that moment still survives today, and there was a wonderful drawing by John Webber of the canoe welcoming them to the Mowachaht territory.

Q: That’s the scene we see on the Captain Cook 240th Anniversary commemorative coin. So what happened next?

Inglis: Hearing the sound of the singing and drumming, Cook said “I’ll give them a response.” And would you believe it? He called the bagpipes to start up! And so you have this incredible moment when you had the bagpipes from the ships, and you had the Mowachaht with their welcome chanting and singing.

Q: So was Captain Cook the first European to anchor at Nootka Sound?

Suthren: Cook found the Mowachaht had an advanced culture. They had cedar-planked homes, totem poles and they were wealthy in the sense that they had ocean-going canoes, fished for salmon and had a strong cultural life. However, the Mowachaht were aware of iron and Western goods. In other words, it’s quite possible that Russian or Spanish traders had passed by there — because the Mowachaht weren’t in awe of Cook and the English at all. And the Mowachaht were tough traders, demanding many knives, axes and cooking pots.

Q: Cook stayed in Nootka Sound for nearly a month readying his ships to head north again, but despite being there for such a short time, it sounds like living near the Mowachaht had a long-term impact on everyone.

Suthren: Ultimately, the arrival there allowed the British later to claim that they were the first settlers on that portion of the North American coast. Before that, there probably had been some trading, but nobody had stopped there permanently. Later, because it was such a good harbour, the Spanish decided they’d better get up there. They claimed that Nootka was their territory. In fact, in the 1790s there was even what we call the Nootka Crisis over the territory.

Inglis: And of course, because Cook and his officers were going to the North, they traded for furs. The Mowachaht caught sea otters, an animal that has wonderful, rich and very warm fur. Cook and his officers and crew basically just wanted them to have the fur in their bunks to keep them warm because they knew it was going to be much colder up north looking for the Northwest Passage.

Later, after Cook was killed in Hawaii in February, 1779, the officers and crew got to Kamchatka (in the Russian Far East) and realized the prices for these furs were astronomical. Then when they moved on to Macau, China, and furs again fetched these high prices. The men said, “Let’s forget going back to England. We’re going to go back to the Northwest Coast and get more furs!” This began the Maritime fur trade.

Q: Even after his death, Cook had an impact on opening up Canada’s West to the European fur trade?

Inglis: Right. When the ships got back to England, word got out that they’d found these furs. When Cook’s journal was published after he died, Lieutenant James King, who took over the official journal, wrote up almost like a how-to guide about how to collect furs and make big trips to China. In 1785 the first fur traders arrived, and that began what was really like a gold rush. It was a “fur rush” and kicked off the Maritime fur trade. Of course, that changed western Canada forever.

But I think the crucial thing that Cook did in Nootka Sound was that he and his officers recorded their observations. There are also drawings and paintings of both the people and the countryside. They also made the first chart of the entrance to Nootka Sound. These things basically created an incredible reference point today for the Mowachaht’s heritage.

Q: But there were also negative consequences of Captain Cook being in Nootka Sound too.

Suthren: Cook tried his utmost to prevent unnecessary sexual contact both in the South Pacific and at Kyuquot, because the ramifications of venereal disease were terrible. But, ultimately, Cook was part of the British Imperial expansion of the 18th century, and that wasn’t good news for the Indigenous populations of North America.

Q: What do you know about the health of his own crew after being on ships for months at a time.

Suthren: In 1758, when he crossed to Halifax, over 20 of the crew of the Pembroke were totally out of it because of scurvy, which is a disease of vitamin C deficiency. He really learned at an early stage just how important the health of sailors actually was. So he was insistent on personal cleanliness on the ship — bathing and washing clothes. He would fumigate and scrub down the men’s quarters with vinegar. He knew that scurvy had something to do with fresh vegetables and fruit, and so he did everything possible to take on board fresh greens, He even had sauerkraut on the ships.

Q: Would the crew actually eat it?

Suthren: The sailors wouldn’t touch it. So he had a trick: he served it on the officers’ table and the officers all ate sauerkraut in great quantities. When the sailors saw the officers eating it, they decided that nothing could be finer than sauerkraut! So Cook never really learned, in direct scientific terms, about vitamin C deficiency, but he realized that fresh food, exercise and general health were the ways to avoid scurvy, and by and large he succeeded.

Q: What do you think would surprise Canadians most about Captain James Cook? It’s amazing to think he actually set foot on both sides of what would eventually become Canada — Newfoundland and Vancouver Island — back in the 18th Century.

Suthren: He had, in effect, bookended the country because he spent 1758 to 1767 in Eastern Canada and then in 1778 to 1779 in Western Canada. The part of the world he knew better than any other, other than England, was Canada.

Q: Earlier in his career was involved in charting Newfoundland and also the St. Lawrence River? That’s also part of his legacy.

Suthren: That’s true. He was instrumental in getting James Wolfe’s army up to Quebec City for the conquest, which was, you know, is still a moment of great emotion for Canadians. And he was at home in Halifax for four years and really was a pioneer of Eastern Canadian shipping and navigation. In fact, it was because of his work in Canada that he was picked to do the Pacific navigations that took him to Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii.

So everybody thinks of him as the Hawaii and the Pacific explorer — but we got him first.

Commemorate Captain James Cook’s Legacy

It has been 240 years since Captain Cook, his officers and crew anchored in what has become known as Nootka Sound. The Royal Canadian Mint is celebrating his legacy by offering a 2018 fine silver proof set and proof silver dollar.

The coins, designed by maritime artist, John Horton, present the timbered headland of Bligh Island, while Captain Cook is viewed in three-quarter profile keeping a stern eye on his ships, the HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery. Each coin captures the moment Captain Cook and the Nuu-chah-nulth greet each other for the first time.

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