Cook, Elcano, and Circumnavigation

New Zealand is in the process of commemorating, commiserating and/or celebrating James Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand in 1769. New Zealand was merely one stop on his trip, albeit a lengthy one, which proceeded onwards to Australia, Java (where nearly a third of the crew died from dysentery), Cape Town and back to England.  It was the 25th circumnavigation of the world.

250 years earlier, on August 10 1519, the first circumnavigation of the world began when Magellan and 270 others left Seville with five ships (the Victoria, Trinidad, Santiago, Concepcion, and San Antonio). The fleet departed the coast of Spain on September 20, and three years later 18 survivors led by Elcano returned in the sole remaining ship, the Victoria. Elcano is one of many people you could imagine being more famous – being the first person to sail around the world is no mean achievement. Magellan, of course, was victim of that well known Sicilian adage “Never get involved in a land war in Asia,” if being killed on an island in the Philippines counts.

Elcano died in an attempt to be the first person to circumnavigate twice, an honour that belongs to von Aachen, a member of the same voyage who was captured by the Portuguese near the Mollucas and repatriated to Europe as a prisoner several years later. In fact, it was 60 years before there was another successful circumnavigation of the world, in the sense that it started and ended on the same ship, led by the same captain, Sir Francis Drake.  

Twenty-five trips around the world in 250 years is slow progress. Long sea trips were expensive, difficult and dangerous. In many ways it is a similar explanation for why so few manned trips to the moon have occurred since the first landing fifty years ago. Some things just don’t seem necessary to do again and again until technology improves and substantially reduces the cost.

The reasons for why it was so expensive and dangerous were wonderfully described in Alfred Crosby’s brilliant book “Ecological Imperialism: The biological expansion of Europe, 900-1900 ” (1986). This book was the original “Guns, Germs, and Steel“, but better; and since Crosby spent some time in New Zealand there is even a chapter dedicated to the colonial experience of this country.

One of the real gems of the book is its explanation of the difficulties European sailors faced crossing the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans in the face of prevailing winds that blew against them. I never understood the primary technological reason for pirates in the Caribbean until reading this chapter: Spanish galleons had to sail north past Cuba to find the winds that would enable them to sail home. Nor did I understand the reasons for the rise and decline of Dunedin and Hobart.

Dunedin’s headwind is … falling demand for wind?

Any visitors to Dunedin and Hobart will notice a lot of similarities: splendid harbours, beautiful old stone buildings, especially in the warehouse district; magnificent old residential houses; and some of the best students and university staff in either country.

Oh, yes, both have fairly stagnant economies, which explains why mutton-headed developers didn’t spend the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s replacing the wonderful stone buildings with the architectural marvels that we celebrate in other New Zealand cities with such awe and wonder.

One of the reasons for the decline is the changing importance of wind power. In the 1860s and 1870s, ships from Britain sailed round South Africa and then south of Australia to take advantage of the “roaring-forties” (the winds that still plague Wellington today). Hobart and Dunedin were the first ports of call after a long voyage, and developed vibrant merchant communities.

In Dunedin you can see evidence of this if you visit Olveston House, owned by a prosperous merchant, the Bell Tea company building, or some of the buildings owned by the formerly sizeable Lebanese community. But the steamship, the Suez Canal, and later the Panama Canal put an end to all of that. Auckland was now closer to the rest of the world and, given some climatic advantages, it rapidly developed into the preeminent merchant town.

These advantages have not ceased and in fact Auckland’s advantages in the wholesaling sector are still increasing. If you delve into the census (no, not that one, the last accurate one) it shows that between 1996 and 2013 Auckland gained 4300 new jobs in the wholesale sector, whereas employment in this sector in the rest of the country declined by 1600.

Economic geography is a fascinating subject. It is the perfect mix of history, math, geography and economics, with some all-purpose complexity theory thrown in.  One of its findings is that the world can become more uniform on a wide scale as transport costs fall, but it also can become more locally concentrated.

Cheap international travel means technology, political power and disease become global, with all the benefits and troubles that entails, but at the same time economic activity becomes concentrated into a smaller number of increasing large cities. And that, in a nutshell, is a history of New Zealand in the 250 years since Cook sailed into Tūranganui-ā-Kiwa.