7 Dec 2014

Captain Cook’s naval charts embody Enlightenment imperialism

From The Rutherford Lectures, 4:06 pm on 7 December 2014

NZ beach

In the eighteenth century, the naval charts of Captain James Cook set out a new way of looking at the sea, according to anthropologist and historian Dame Anne Salmond. Drawn from an “eye of God” perspective, they transformed the ocean, “grey or blue-green, the home of birds, fish and whales, surging with tides or currents” into a static, white, two-dimensional expanse, gridded by lines of latitude and longitude and mathematically partitioned and measured.

Near harbours or lagoons, the depth of the coastal seabed was measured, and these soundings were recorded on charts. In the process, says Salmond, something was lost: “Using instrumental observation, the blurred, shifting liminal zone between land and sea was reduced to a single line.”

Salmond argues that this process of cartographic simplification acts as a powerful metaphor for how imperial power would be exercised, remarking that “Except for scatters of islands, stretches of the Pacific were depicted as vacant expanses, waiting to be explored, charted, claimed and ruled by European power.”

In her first 2014 Rutherford Lecture for the Royal Society, Dame Anne explores in some detail the implications of two apparently benign Latin words – imperium and dominium. At the time of Cook’s voyages, the sovereignty of the Crown (or imperium) in Europe was held to extend three nautical miles from the coastline, or within cannon shot. However, property rights (dominium) could be granted within that limit, and Cook had instructions from the Admiralty to claim any new lands he might “discover” for the British Crown.

Later in the lecture, Salmond connects the recent dispute over the foreshore and seabed legislation to the difference between the Maori world view of the sea and that of Cook and his Enlightenment compatriots.

The 2014 Rutherford Lecture: The Sea will be broadcast on Radio New Zealand National at 4pm on Sunday 7 December, repeated at 9pm on Tuesday 9 December 2014. Or listen here now: