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Actor Sam Neill presents a voyage following in the wake of one of Britain’s greatest explorers

Navigating Pacific history with Sam Neill

Image: Captain Cook's Pacific with Sam Neill

Great British explorer Captain James Cook mapped much of the South Pacific with the exceptional precision with which he would become well known, but ‘discoverer’ he was not.

That title must go to the many Polynesian navigators who toured the ocean in the several thousand years before Cook and his European crew boarded the HMS Endeavour in Plymouth, England, and set sail.

While it would be hard to completely dispel the achievements of Cook’s three voyages into the Pacific - there was plenty to marvel at - those Polynesians that sailed before him did so without compass or sextant and relied on the wind, waves, stars and nature to find their island homes.

I touched on these remarkable explorers and the impact Cook had on them when he arrived in the South Pacific when I met with Sam Neill.

Following in their wake

Proud New Zealander and Hollywood actor Neill fronts the historical travel series Captain Cook’s Pacific with Sam Neill, charting Cook’s journey himself, meeting the people of the island nations today and finding out more about the rich history of the Pacific and the people that inhabit them.

'This is so much more than a travelogue really,' Neill ascertains. 'It was incumbent on us to look at what these encounters meant and what they would mean for the people themselves. Really on the balance of things, I understand it when people say Cook was bad news because he was a harbinger of things to come.

'I went in with an open mind and I didn’t want to demonise Cook and I came out with an immense amount of respect and admiration for Cook and his achievements.'

Everywhere around the Pacific they always thought that Cook’s men were ghosts or zombies because only dead people are white

We had previously talked about the personal side of Neill’s journey in Cook’s wake, and so I wanted to understand more about the great voyagers that went before.

'The image that excites me the most was that these wonderful navigators. They weren't finding islands, they weren't looking for islands, they were sitting there in a state of meditation bringing the islands towards themselves. You bring the island over the horizon. So much of Polynesian thinking is in reverse. The Antipodean way of looking at things, since you're upside down!

'In episode two, which is a New Zealand-centric episode, we examine Tupaia - the great Polynesian navigator, diplomat, priest, and also a bit of a libertine, a bit like Banks. Tupaia could map 80 islands around the Pacific, just in his head. This kind of knowledge is a very different way of navigating.'

Originally from Ra'iatea, an island in the Society Islands near Tahiti, Tupaia was of great assistance to Cook and the expedition’s botanist, Joseph Banks. A fantastic artist, whose art survives to this day Tupaia exhibited the almost instinctive wayfinding ability that had served the Polynesian navigators so well.

Having kept the islands in his mind, Tupaia helped to form the charts with which the Europeans returned from the Pacific, while also serving as an indispensable figurehead for Cook.

But, of course, the crew were certainly not well received everywhere they went.

'There were strange encounters in Canada,' Neill states. 'And in Australia too. They just knew somehow that this was bad news. It would have been like a spaceship landing. Everywhere around the Pacific they always thought that Cook’s men were ghosts or zombies because only dead people are white.'

As Neill mentions in the series that to Cook New Zealand is ‘arguably his favourite place in the Pacific’ but that doesn’t mean that he will have had an easy time when landing there.

The antithesis of a hostile New Zealander, Neill leans in to me flashing the contrasting traditional ta moko tattoo on his right arm that he received during filming. 'It was the encounters in the Pacific that I find really engaging. A lot of hostility in New Zealand - it’s like when you turn up to play the All Blacks, and they do a haka, and it’s intimidating. It’s not like in Tahiti where they’re putting garlands round your neck. They’re going "you want a piece of this? Bring it on!"'

Cook’s three Pacific voyages covered the length and breadth of the world’s largest ocean but there were some islands that he couldn’t help but return to. Hawaii, his ultimate resting place, was one of those places.

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There is a real conflict in how we remember Captain James Cook. For some he is a racist coloniser, while others celebrate him as a great explorer.

His relationship with the Pacific peoples and with his own crew started to change towards the end of his final voyage. Cook was killed after rashly attempting to kidnap King Kalaniʻōpuʻu to recover a stolen boat. A quick and decisive revolt by the native islanders left Cook lying dead in the surf having been stabbed by one of the king's attendants.

Neill is pragmatic in his view of Cook’s final months.

'While I don’t think he entertained those romantic ideas of the noble savage he was actually very interested in a lot of these societies. He was insightful about many of these people. And while he was erratic on that last journey, there was discontent among his syphilitic crew that Cook was going native. He was participating in ceremonies in Tonga with his shirt off. The crew didn’t like that. They thought "he’s gone troppo!"'

Which leaves one final question: does the seasoned actor think we need a dramatised take on the Pacific voyages, and what form should it take?

'I think we need to do a bit of correction of what we see on film. The south sea idyll thing that you saw in Mutiny on the Bounty the dusky maidens and things - that really pissed people off like Tina Ngata, with good cause. There’s something so horribly patronising and unpleasant about that stuff. And the stories that those sailors brought back to Europe did Polynesia no good at all.

'It’d be good to see something closer to what really happened. Unfortunately, a lot of it is quite bleak. Everything else is post-apocalyptic, let’s have some pre-apocalyptic bleakness!'