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The endeavours of Elizabeth Cook. Portrait by William Henderson
The endeavours of Elizabeth Cook. Portrait by William Henderson

SocietyNovember 6, 2019

Introducing Mrs Cook: in search of history’s ‘other half’

The endeavours of Elizabeth Cook. Portrait by William Henderson
The endeavours of Elizabeth Cook. Portrait by William Henderson

Tuia 250 commemorations have pressed the mute button on sexual intimacy as part of the colonial encounter. The focus is on first encounters of a public and asexual kind, writes Katie Pickles.

Who knew Captain Cook had a wife? The tales told agree that after a brief intense and romantic courtship twenty-one year old Elizabeth Batts and thirty-four year old James Cook were married on 21 December 1762. Elizabeth’s mother was the inn-keeper at a London drinking hole Cook probably frequented.

Descriptions of Elizabeth range from historian J C Beaglehole’s “a highly personable young woman”, to Peter FitzSimons’ recent comparison of her to a Whitby coal and timber ship: “though without the thick waist and snub nose”. Elizabeth was pregnant by the time that James departed for Newfoundland in April 1763.

Through their 17 year marriage Elizabeth kept the home fires burning. James was away so much on public missions that their private life together only clocked up around four years. While James roamed, Elizabeth was home, stitching a cloth sampler that featured a map recording his voyages.

By all remaining accounts it was a long distance relationship with plenty of mutual respect and devotion. James wrote that an allowance from the First Lord of the Admiralty providing for his wife and family while he was away “has set my heart at rest”. And he appointed Elizabeth as an executor of his will, a document that made provisions for all members of his family.

History has cast Elizabeth as a homely heroine, a “decent, plump English-woman”, according to writer James Boswell who visited the couple at their Mile End house. She was a helpmeet, supporting her husband, raising her family, and coping with a mountain of emotional labour. Alongside love and happiness, separation anxiety, fear and then grief plagued her life from the time she met James.

James the family man was home enough to father six children. Elizabeth Jr, Joseph and George, the third to fifth-born children, died in infancy. The eldest two, James Jr and Nathaniel, followed their father into careers at sea. Nathaniel died shortly after his father, drowned in a ferocious hurricane in the West Indies while serving as a midshipman. A commander in the Royal Navy, James Jr died in 1894 in mysterious circumstances while boarding his ship. The youngest child Hugh, a student at Cambridge, had died a year earlier of scarlet fever.

One story goes that James gave Elizabeth a gift of Tahitian tapa cloth and while he was away on his last voyage the domestic diva kept busy embroidering a waistcoat for James. When news of his February 1779 death in Hawaii reached Elizabeth nearly a year later her stitching stopped. The remnants of her unfinished work is held in Sydney’s Mitchell Library.

Stoic and ever-virtuous, Elizabeth kept a lock of James’s hair in a ring and for the rest of her long life faithfully fasted to mark the anniversary of his death, and those of her children. She also had moments of collapse, especially when her son James died and she experienced ‘fits morning and night and stayed in her room hardly eating’. A memorial fountain in Caringbah South, NSW celebrates “this woman of formidable courage and character”.

Ultimately staunch, Elizabeth was to outlive her family by 41 years. Provided for by a generous royal pension, she moved to Clapham and her cousin Isaac Smith, who had voyaged under James, lived with her. Elizabeth died in 1835 aged 93 and was buried at the church of St Andrew the Great in Cambridge where there is a monument to the whole family. She left money in her will for poor women of the parish.

Wanting their private lives to remain so, before she died Elizabeth wilfully destroyed all of the Cook family’s papers and correspondence. This was to the everlasting dismay of those researching Cook’s life and personality. As Beaglehole said, “I myself would give the world for a letter to Mrs Cook – though I am sure that would not pass the bounds of virtue.”

All this is family history – now fashionably rebranded as the history of intimacy and emotions. It is still content too often kept separate from politics, governance, war and exploration. It can seem that not much has changed in how Elizabeth perceived her place in society and her relationship with James – as in the private and personal domain – located in the half of history that was domestic, unchanging and ultimately unimportant.

It is this history that appears at odds with the current Tuia 250 commemorations where the focus is on voyaging and cross-cultural exchange across public space.

But historians and anthropologists know well that all manner of close encounters of the intimate kind were a key part of colonial contact. Anne Salmond has written that Cook’s sailors “exchanged nails and other items for sex with the women”. James Belich has commented that embodied contact represented the first inter-cultural trade in Aotearoa New Zealand.

While the marginalised Elizabeth is named, the women and girls of the Pacific remain largely anonymous and left out of history. They sometimes appear as formidable wives or temporary love interests, but all too frequently they are visible as sex objects of sailors’ desire, their bodies bartered by their people for new goods.

Exploring this part of contact history is not a Tuia 250 focus. And moving to explore LGBTQI sexual behaviour also remains far off the radar, even in the homosocial space of seaborne vessels.

Salmond writes that Cook himself disliked the barter of women, but felt that he was unable to prevent it. He did attempt to control the spread of venereal disease and aggression against women. Beaglehole considered that Cook was himself immune to “Polynesian princesses” and Salmond concurs that he did not sleep with Island women. He was chaste Captain Cook the family man whose heart belonged to Elizabeth – even if she burnt the evidence that proved it.

So far, Tuia 250 commemorations have pressed the mute button on sexual intimacy as part of the colonial encounter. The focus is on first encounters of a public and asexual kind. The voyaging is steering clear away from the allure of other halves as subjects of history.

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