Sam Neill says he is fascinated with those “initial awkward, often funny, sometimes tragic first encounters” between Captain Cook, his crew, and the people they met in the Pacific.
When we think about Cook’s time in the Pacific, ‘funny’ isn’t usually the first, or even the second, word that comes to mind. But in this six-part series helmed by Neill, viewers discover the very human, and sometimes humorous, side of Cook’s three voyages to the Pacific.
“One of the funniest ones takes place off Cape Kidnappers,” says Neill, grinning as he recalls an encounter between the crew of the Endeavour and local Māori. “One of the warriors onboard the canoe bared his buttocks to show what he thought of the English and one of the English returned the gesture by baring his bum over the side of the Endeavour, which enraged both sides,” he laughs.
Sam Neill in the documentary series Uncharted
“They were just so angry. There were stones being thrown. It probably wasn’t very funny at the time, but it strikes me as hilarious now.”
In his new series Uncharted, Neill opens with the disclaimer that he is “not a historian or an expert”, but it soon becomes apparent that he has a vast knowledge and genuine interest in this subject.
A storyteller both on-screen and in real life, the 70-year-old actor, known for a wide range of movies including Jurassic Park and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, imbues an old story with new energy.
“As someone said, ‘There’s not a feathered quill in sight or a piece of parchment’,” says producer Owen Hughes. “I think one of the lovely things about it is that it’s very much a contemporary story so it’s not really stuck in the past.”
Uncharted marks the 250th anniversary of Cook’s first journey to the Pacific, during which time he visited New Zealand, Australia and Tahiti. In Tahiti he recorded the transit of Venus, a navigational breakthrough which helped to accurately calculate longitude.
“It’s a boys’ own adventure. What could be better than the story of James Cook?” says Neill. “Cook is so integrally part of all our history and that moment when Cook first sailed in the Pacific was a watershed moment, for good or ill, for a third of the planet.”
Neill visited all of the places that Cook saw in his subsequent journeys to the Pacific and some that he didn’t, including Antarctica and Mt Yasur, a volcano on Vanuatu that Cook was forbidden to climb.
Neill also sailed on many different vessels as he followed Cook’s path, but the container ships and fishing boats he travelled on couldn’t truly capture the experiences of the sailors of yore.
“We just got a little intimation of it but it’s unimaginable the sheer hardship, what sailing would have been like for these blokes – 100 men on a tiny vessel, along with livestock.”
As for his own seafaring adventures, Neill wryly remarks, “I’m probably better on dry land.”
Given that Cook is viewed as the catalyst for colonisation in the Pacific, Neill encounters mixed feelings about the navigator and explorer. This series aims to provide perspective from “both sides of the beach”.
Neill is full of admiration for the achievements of the man who “came from humble beginnings” but acknowledges throughout that Cook and his crew carry much of Europe’s ills with them.
“People were so isolated in the Pacific so they were incredibly vulnerable to all the crap that the Europeans had with them – syphilis and gonorrhea just to mention a few, the common cold. These things kill isolated people.”
Hughes says the response they had from some of the people they interviewed was, “Not dissimilar I suppose to the reaction that Cook himself got when he went around.
“We tried to find a variety of people, what Sam would call ‘Cook-lovers and Cook-haters’. So we had an ear out for the Cook-haters. We wanted to hear what they had to say.”
Having sailed in Cook’s wake and followed in his footsteps, how has this experience coloured Neill’s view?
“Cook was an extraordinary figure and his achievements are legion. I can’t do anything else but admire him, but in a qualified sense. That’s to say he had his bad days when he got things wrong. I think in some parts he got too much credit when I was growing up.
“And he doesn’t get enough credit in other places now. History keeps turning on its head.”
Uncharted, Prime, September 2 – TV Guide
View the story and trailer on Stuff.co.nz