Celebrating the birthday of Captain James Cook, explorer extraordinaire

Today is the birthday of James Cook, British explorer and navigator, born this day in 1728. While of Scottish descent, his shadow looms so large over the history of New Zealand (and Australia) that he may as well have been an honorary citizen of the region.

A man of skill and courage, Cook made three great voyages of discovery to the Pacific Ocean, and it was during the first of these that, among other things, he became the first European to reach the eastern coastline of Australia, and the first person to do a circumnavigation of New Zealand. He was the second European to reach New Zealand, 127 years after Abel Tasman. His mapping of the coastline of New Zealand was amazingly accurate and detailed, and he named many of the landmarks he discovered, including Cook Strait, the section of ocean separating New Zealand’s North and South Islands.

A painting of James Cook, by New Zealand artist Julia B Lynch, on display in the James Cook Hotel in Wellington.

An interesting tale about his first Pacific voyage is that he was initially engaged by the Royal Society to travel to Tahiti from where he was to observe and record the 1769 Transit of Venus. Unfortunately the separate measurements taken by Cook, astronomer Charles Green and Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander, differed significantly, making the results from the measurements less conclusive than was hoped.

All was not lost, however, as there was a secret second part to his voyage – he had sealed orders from the Admiralty containing details of the second part of his voyage – he was to search the south Pacific ocean for the fabled rich continent of Terra Australis. These orders were kept secret to give the British the best chance of discovering Australia under the guise of an innocent scientific expedition to perform astronomical measurements.

Cook apparently had doubts about the existence of Australia, but thanks to the help of a Tahitian called Tupaia, who was an expert in the geography of the Pacific region, the second part of his journey proved highly successful. Cook first reached New Zealand in October 1769, mapping it in its entirety over a period of 6 months, before voyaging further west to reach the south-eastern coast of Australia.

Upon reaching New Zealand, Cook made the following entry in his journal on 8 October 1769: “The land on the Sea Coast is high, with Steep Cliffs; and back inland are very high Mountains. The face of the Country is of a hilly surface, and appears to be cloathed with wood and Verdure.”

A hilly, forest-covered country – quite a succinct description for New Zealand, and probably not all that different to my first impression of the country as I gazed out of the airplane window when I first arrived here almost 240 years after Captain Cook.

So here’s to Captain James Cook, from the hills of New Zealand. ūüôā

John Macarthur and the birth of the Australian wool industry (not just another Aussie sheep joke!)

Today we celebrate the birthday of John Macarthur (3 Sep 1767 – 11 Apr 1834) the English-born Aussie who is recognised as the pioneer of the wool industry that boomed in Australia in the early 19th century, and has since been one of the country’s agricultural trademarks.

Sheep – serious business Down Under.
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Macarthur was born in Plymouth, Devon in the UK. He began his career in the army, and after various assignments and activities became part of the New South Wales corps in 1789 and was posted to faraway Sydney, Australia. A fiery character, his life story reads like a historical romance novel, with way too many saucy details (battles with authorities, involvement in a military coup, land battles and much more) to get into on this forum.

Suffice to say, after settling in Australia, Macarthur got involved in rearing sheep for mutton, purchasing his first flock in 1795. He also purchased a small flock of Spanish Merino, imported from the Cape Colony (part of the later South Africa) in 1797. The merino is an excellent wool breed, and it didn’t take long for Macarthur to recognise the economic potential of wool production for export, as opposed to simply rearing sheep for the local meat-market. What made wool a potential export hit was the fact that it was a non-perishable commodity (a necessary feature, given Australia’s distance from the markets of the UK and Europe) and offered a high value per unit of weight.

On a trip back to London he lobbied for more land, and succeeded in being granted 5000 acres of the best pasture land in New South Wales. He became the largest sheep rearer in the colony, and made a fortune exporting merino wool to the UK, who were at the time cut off from their traditional wool supplier, Spain, as a result of the Napoleonic Wars. He also gained recognition for producing wool of the finest quality, which further upped the prices at which he was able to sell his produce.

Macarthur’s ventures opened the door for others to follow, and Australia’s wool export market started to boom in the early 19th century. It remains a key export commodity, with Australia remaining the world’s largest producer of the wool, mainly from merino sheep. New Zealand is in second place, and China in third. The wool produced in Australia and New Zealand is considered to be of the finest international quality – the best Aussie and Kiwi merino wool is known as grade 1PP, and is the industry benchmark of excellence for merino wool.

Natural wool is one of nature’s super-products. It is technically superior to synthetic materials in various ways – it has better heat insulation and superior hydryphilic properties, it is naturally flame-retardant, resistant to static electricity, and hypoallergenic. ¬†Researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology have developed a material blending wool and kevlar (the material often used in body armour) and it was found that the blend was lighter and cheaper, and outperformed kevlar in damp conditions.

What’s more, wool is also environmentally preferable to materials like nylon or polypropylene. According to the latest research on the role of wool in the natural ¬†carbon cycle, it has been suggested that under the correct circumstances, wool production can potentially be carbon neutral.

So while the Aussies and Kiwis may suffer endless jokes relating to their sheep, the product being produced is something very special.  And John Macarthur deserves a tip of the hat as the bloke who kicked it all off more than 200 years ago.