A fragile piece of Capt. Cook history passes from city to museum

An important part of Capt. James Cook’s story was lifted gingerly from a crate Tuesday at the Royal B.C. Museum.

It was a 20-piece collection of dessert china once owned by Cook’s widow, Elizabeth. The china was unveiled as part of a presentation to the museum by the City of Victoria, where it had been stored in the municipal archives.

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The other half of the original set is in the Captain Cook Schoolroom Museum in Great Ayton, England, and one piece from the Victoria set was given previously as a gift to Australia.

The china, estimated to date to 1813-1820, was made by John & William Ridgway in Shelton, England. It joins other artifacts in the museum’s Cook collection, including a rare volume of woven textiles from around the Pacific region and the dagger reputed to have been used in the killing of Cook in Hawaii in 1779.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said the city is pleased to give the items to the museum “where they’ll be well-displayed and well-cherished.” The collection was last displayed in 1978 for Cook’s bicentennial celebration through the efforts of Victoria archivist Ainslie Helmcken.

It became part of the city archives after being purchased by Helmcken in the mid-1980s for $800 from Cook’s relatives in Duncan, and then donated to the city.

Helps said aspects of James Cook’s home life, as seen through Elizabeth, come to light with the china.

“Her husband, his life was celebrated . . . and her life very much was marked by tragedy,” Helps said. “By the time she was 50 she had lost all her [six] children and lived as a widow at a time where it was very difficult for women to do so.

“So to have the china, is a real testimony to the domestic element of high adventure.”

“A lot of people look at explorers through the lens of colonialism but don’t understand that there are families at home,” said Lorne Hammond, the museum’s curator of history.

“For many of us, we have people in service with families at home and it’s always good to be able to connect those stories to it.”

Museum chief executive Jack Lohman said the china is in “remarkably good condition.”

“We’re delighted to have this,” he said, adding the museum maintains a close relationship with Victoria’s archives.

The presentation of the china attracted 12 local members of the Captain Cook Society, an international group.

Jan Bergnik said his admiration for Cook relates to “his leadership style and the interesting aspects of his travels and his mapping.”

Hammond said it will be a while before the china goes on display since it has to be catalogued and go through other preparations.

jwbell@timescolonist.com

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