story by Liza Simon
photo by Charles E. Freeman
It was the 1930s when Eleanor Nordyke, a little girl on a family excursion, boated across Kealakekua Bay to visit the monument erected in memory of Capt. James Cook. The explorer had been killed in the bay in 1778, Eleanor learned, but not before he had undertaken three epic voyages and circumnavigated the world. Back home in Honolulu, an intrigued Eleanor studied up on Cook’s legacy in her parents’ large library. Cook’s voyages had brought societies into contact with one another, the books taught the curious girl, but they’d also introduced deadly disease and—as Cook’s demise itself illustrated—colossal cultural misunderstandings.
Now 82, Eleanor sits in her Manoa house, just a few doors from her childhood home and still surrounded by books on Cook. More than seventy years on, she is now a bona fide expert on the explorer’s life, and she is full of intriguing facts about Cook and his times. For example, she utterly discounts the idea that Cook was the first non-Polynesian in Hawaii. She points to boxes of evidence stacked up in her living room, filled, she says, with clues about numerous other foreigners who arrived before Cook: perhaps from Belgium, Spain, Portugal or other European nations or from Japan or China.
If Eleanor believes Cook wasn’t the first, all the more reason for the question: Why her lifelong fascination with the explorer? She smiles and notes that, to begin, he was a remarkable scientist. He entered life with nothing, the son of a farm laborer, yet managed to rise through the ranks of the British Navy and become the most famous sea captain of his day—no easy feat in the England of King George III. His mastery of mathematics, geometry, astronomy and other fields of inquiry made him the finest navigator of eighteenth-century Europe.
“He was a meticulous cartographer. He could pinpoint the location of his ships,” says Eleanor. “Let me show you his map.” She pulls it out and I blink twice, because—to Cook’s credit—his picture of the globe is so very modern. Previous European navigators could plot latitude only, which led to a distortion of distances; great blank surfaces of the planet were filled in with products of the imagination, often of the here-be-dragons variety. Cook had lunar tables, a nautical almanac and, most important, an instrument known as Harrison’s chronometer, which enabled the reckoning of longitude and history’s first nearly accurate rendering of the globe.
Beyond the hard science was the social science—and for Eleanor, who is herself a social scientist, it was this that proved most compelling of all about Cook: that he so skillfully honed his powers of observation that he became a documentarian. “As the first of the really scientific investigator-explorers, Cook had a directive from the British Admiralty to secure portraits of the people and lands he visited,” says Eleanor. His voyages made, she emphasizes, a remarkable contribution to “visual education” in an age long before technology gave us a virtual twenty-four/seven window into one another’s lives. “Cook got to experience a vast array of Polynesian customs. He took note of many things, such as the love of children, the island festivals, the significance of foods.”