Captain James Cook & Nicky Gumbel: English Explorers

An Article for the January 1999 Deep Cove Crier

With New Year’s Eve just finished and the 3rd Millennium rushing upon us, it is a good time to take stock and ask ourselves what our lives are really all about.  What are we really looking for in life?  What really is the meaning and purpose of our lives here on planet earth?

This month’s article is the third in a trilogy of English Explorers that helped make Canada what it is today.  Sir Martin Frobisher (Nov. 98 DCC), and Captain George Vancouver (Dec. 98 DCC) were all searchers for something more in life.  They, like Captain James Cook, were all deeply curious about this mysterious planet that we live on.  All were seeking to make sense out of the confusing jumble of facts and information that was flooding into their previously sheltered English world.

Sometimes I ask myself: Why is English now spoken by hundreds of millions of people in virtually every country of the world?  Why do most people of English ancestry live anywhere but England?  Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, South Africa, etc.  Perhaps it is because as seagoing islanders, the British were insatiable searchers for that which was beyond.  From the ranks of such inexhaustible seekers emerged the greatest of the 18th century nautical explorers –Captain James Cook.  James Cook had an unbounded curiosity and a deep interest in everybody and everything with which he came into contact.

Born on October 27th, 1728 in Yorkshire, Cook’s father was an impoverished Scottish farm labourer and his mother a simple Yorkshire village woman.  Cook began his sea life by lugging coal off the treacherous east coast of England.  There he learned how to survive the storms, fogs, hidden shoals, and tricky tides.

In 1758, Cook was master of the Pembroke, a 1,250 ton, 64-gun man-of-war.  In early 1759, the Pembroke joined a blockade of the Saint Lawrence River designed to prevent French ships from carrying supplies to the fortress colony of Quebec.  Cook led patrols up and down the river, charting every hazard, and marking a channel for the warships to follow.  During the British assault on Quebec City, Cook successfully navigated the massive Pembroke up the narrow, twisting, and frequently shallow waterway.  Without the help of Ship’s Master James Cook, it is doubtful whether the British troops could have taken the fortress by surprise.  Given the endless threat of Quebec referendums, however, one may reflect with classic Canadian ambivalence about whether James Cook’s St. Lawrence navigating hindered or assisted Canada’s future development.

With only a few years of elementary school education, no one ever expected that a ‘nobody’ like James Cook would one day be chosen as a navy sea captain.  Since the upper class were virtually the only officers, there was little chance of promotion by merit in that caste-bound naval world.  By sure grit and determination, he taught himself mathematics and astronomy, and at age 40, was chosen as captain, an age when most naval officers had passed their peak.

After being appointed captain, Cook went on to complete three global voyages from 1768 to 1779, exploring and accurately mapping more of the earth’s surface than anyone else before or since.  He became the first European to set foot in Australia, the first to fix the position of remote places accurately, the first to establish longitude (one’s position east and west), and the first to have extensive contact with all the various peoples of the Pacific.

It can safely be said that in his time no man knew the world as well as Captain Cook, and no other explorer had such an impact on the global map.  As a result, the name of James Cook is commemorated across the length and breadth of the vast Pacific: Cook Strait and Mount Cook in New Zealand; Cooktown and Cook’s Passage in Australia; The Cook Islands in Polynesia, and Cook Inlet in Alaska..  With Cook’s discoveries and surveys, the geography of the world was nearly complete.  Only Antarctica remained to be discovered.

Upon reaching Hawaii, the islanders worshipped Captain Cook as the god Lono.  Curiously, Lono was envisioned as a white god fated to arrive on a magical floating island during the holiday of Mahahiki….Cook’s ships’ huge sails therefore were construed to be long staffs bearing Lono’s divine white banners.  When Cook returned to Hawaii from having explored British Columbia, he upset the Hawaiians who had then turned to the season for worshipping the god of war Ku.  Things went from bad to worse, and when Cook attempted to hold the king hostage for the return of a stolen cutter, hundreds of Hawaiians converged on him with deadly effect.  To many of his crew such as the future Captain George Vancouver, losing Captain Cook was like losing their own father.

Another English Explorer that is making a big impact these days around the globe is Nicky Gumbel.  While Cook explored in the physical, Nicky Gumbel explores in the spiritual with the 700,000 strong Alpha Course.  The Economist magazine recently wrote about Gumbel and Alpha, commenting that Alpha claims to offer atheists, agnostics and lapsed Christians "an opportunity to explore the meaning of life."  Nicky Gumbel is an old Etonian, former barrister, keep-fit fanatic, and a lapsed atheist.  "The Alpha Course style", says the Economist, "is matter-of-fact and jokey, with an emphasis on "exploring" (a big Alpha word) rather than teaching."  Nicky Gumbel is indeed a 21st century explorer.  In fact the entire Alpha Course is designed for explorers, for people like James Cook and Nicky Gumbel who are not afraid to check out uncharted waters.

This January 14th, there will be an 7 pm Alpha Dinner for people who are willing to be Explorers of the questions of life. Feel free to give me a call at 604-929-5350 or if you are willing to ‘walk in the spiritual feet’ of Captain James Cook and Nicky Gumbel.

The Reverend Ed Hird
Rector, St. Simon’s Anglican Church, North Vancouver

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