On this day 250 years ago James Cook aboard the HMS Endeavour landed at what is now known as Botany Bay. In primary school Social Studies during the 1960s it was called a ‘discovery’. When I later sat in a university history course in the 1980s, taught by an Indigenous Australian, the lecturer referred to the same event as an ‘invasion’. Regardless of your perspective Lieutenant James Cook, an officer of the Royal Navy, changed this ancient land’s history. Cook’s extraordinary life has many lessons to teach us today, not least was his ability to humbly lead through adversity.
Cook circumnavigated what is now known as New Zealand and then sailed west. After landing at Botany Bay, Cook continued his extraordinary journey heading north and charting the east coast of Australia. At 11pm on 11 June 1770 disaster struck when Endeavour ran aground on what we now call The Great Barrier Reef. Fortunately, after discarding 40 tonnes of equipment overboard, including an anchor which is on display in the Cooktown Museum, the ship was floated off the reef on the next high tide. However, a large gaping hole was left in the ship’s hull. The ship’s company including Cook rallied to the task of manning the pumps, but with over 20 nautical miles to land, and water coming in faster than could be pumped out, it seemed certain that Endeavour was doomed.
In the midst of such terrible adversity the ship’s young midshipman Jonathon Monkhouse hesitantly approached his Captain with a suggestion. He had previously witnessed a successful technique on a merchant vessel called fothering the ship. The idea was that a sail would be slung under the hull and then sucked into the hole to cap the leak. Cook accepted the suggestion and entrusted the midshipman to supervise the task of sewing bits of oakum and wool into an old sail, which was then drawn under the hull allowing water pressure to force it into the gap. It worked. The ship was saved. And the rest is history.
A midshipman is the lowest ranked officer and in some sense not really an officer at all. Today our trainee officers begin at the rank of midshipman. For Cook, a brilliant navigator and successful ship’s captain, to take the advice of his midshipman, in the midst of a life threatening catastrophe shows his extraordinary humility. Here was a leader willing to trust his life, the life of his crew and the success of his mission on the advice of one whose rank was lowly, but whose experience was great. Cook did not pretend to be a leader who knew all the answers, rather in humility he accepted the wisdom of another and in the process saved many.
Humility listens to the advice of experience. It accepts the best wisdom. It trusts. It risks doing something different. Cook did not save his ship by pretending to be the wisest man in the room. He rescued his ship by following wise counsel.
Humility remains an undervalued virtue.
The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice. Proverbs 12: 15