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Australasian Biotechnology (backfiles)
ISSN: 1036-7128
Vol. 6, Num. 3, 1996
Australasian Biotechnology,
Volume 6 Number 3, May/June 1996,pp.156-160

Biotechnology Brought to New Zealand by Captain James Cook aboard the Endeavour, Resolution, Adventure and Discovery

Max J. Kennedy,

Industrial Research Ltd, Box 31-310, Lower Hutt, New Zealand. ph 04-569-0000, fax 04-569-0132 email

Code Number: AU96001
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When Captain James Cook arrived in New Zealand he brought with him a wave of biotechnology inventions that were to pave the way for many traditional bioprocesses in New Zealand. This is not to say that James Cook was the first to use biotechnology in New Zealand. Many Maori processes and technology can be classed as biotechnology processes.

James Cook visited New Zealand three times. The first time he commanded the Endeavour, landing first at Cook's cove on the southern side of Tolaga Bay, near Gisborne on the 9th October, 1769. On his second visit during 1773 he captained the Resolution and was accompanied by Tobias Furneaux commanding the Adventure. His third voyage during 1777, was as captain of the Resolution, and this time he was accompanied by the Discovery (TVNZ, 1994).

James Cook is most famous in New Zealand biotechnology history for being the first person to brew beer in New Zealand. During his second voyage to New Zealand, on Thursday 1April, 1773 on the south-east shore of Dusky Sound, near his camping point in Pickersgill Harbour, the first New Zealand beer was brewed (TVNZ, 1994). Cook's journal records "Also began to brew beer with the leaves & branches of a tree which resembles the Americo Black Spruce, Inspissated Juce of Wort and Melasses". The tree which resembled the Americo Black Spruce was the Rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum). Also used was the Tea plant or Manuka, (Leptospermum scoparium). (Beaglehole, 1961).

The recipe from Cook's journal was as follows (Oram, 1995):

"Make a strong decoction of the small branches of the spruce and tea plants by boiling them for three or four hours or until the bark will strip with ease from off the branches; Then take them out of the copper and put in the

proper quantity of molasses, 10 gallons of which to make a ton or 240 gallons of beer; Let the mixture just boil, then put it into the casks; And to it add an equal quantity of cold water, more or less according to the strength of the decoction of your taste; When the whole is milk warm put in a little grounds of beer, or yeast if you have it, or anything else that will cause fermentation, and in a few days the beer will be fit to drink".

On Monday April 5, the brew was ready to sample. Lieutenant Clerke commented "got beer on board for the people and stopt their spirits - this beer I think is a very palatable pleasant drink; the major part of the people are of the same opinion, for they seem to drink plentifully of it". Sparrman, one of Cook's crew mixed rum and brown sugar with his beer stating it was a "pleasant, refreshing, and healthy drink, it bubbled and tasted rather like champagne" (Beaglehole, 1961). Cook later stated "had I known how this beer would have succeeded and the greater use it was to people I would have come better provided" (New Zealand Breweries, 1973).

Cook's actions in making the beer were very deliberate. It was not a spur of the moment decision to supplement the alcohol requirements of the crew, but a measure against scurvy. During those days of sailing voyages lasting many

years it was normal to loose a quarter or more of the crew to scurvy. In 1753, a Scottish naval surgeon James Lind, linked the deaths to diet and suggested orange and lemon juice as a prevention (TVNZ). The cause of scurvy was later shown to be a lack of vitamin C which lead to anaemia, spongy gums and bleeding beneath the skin (McLeod, 1990). During Cooks time, the solution was seen to be to take as many fresh vegetables and fruit on the voyage as possible. However, the Admiralty knew that these fresh provisions would not last the length of time the ship was at sea, and so many other measures were tried. Cook's crew were therefore guinea pigs in a grand experiment against scurvy.

Beaglehole, 1961 comments "On the Admiralty side, the voyage was regarded as an excellent opportunity to experiment, particularly in relation to antiscorbutic measures: hence the openness to suggestions from outside. The Baron Storsch, with his carrot marmalade, received a good hearing; so did Dr Priestly, with a device for sweetening water by the application of 'fixed air'; so did Mr Pelham, the secretary of the Victualling Office, with his recipe for experimental beer". Thus the idea of brewing beer from plant materials at hand on newly discovered lands was formulated in England before the journey. New Zealand's first beer was designed by Mr Pelham, the secretary of the Victualling Office. Cook even took some malt made by Mr Pelham himself to be brewed into beer on the voyage. Mr Pelham could reasonably be called the founding father of beer manufacture in New Zealand. Cook, although the innovative brewer using materials at hand, was simply following instructions from afar.

Cook's experiments against scurvy were spectacularly successful and he did not loose a single crew member to scurvy (Oram, 1995). For this feat, of which the beer was only one small part, Cook was awarded a Royal Society Gold Medal. "The 'Prize Medal' was Sir Godfrey Copley's Gold Medal, awarded to the author of the best paper contributed to the Transactions of the Royal Society by a Fellow during the year; and this was bestowed on Cook for his report on the methods used by him to preserve the health of his men during the second voyage; read at the Society on 7 March 1776" (Beaglehole, 1974). Thus the beer made at Dusky was not only the first beer made in New Zealand but a medal winning beer as well!

One surprising aspect to the beer manufacture was how Cook knew to use Rimu and Manuka. The foliage of a new land was completely unknown to Cook, and he could easily have chosen a plant with potentially fatal consequences. The answer to this riddle comes from Sir Joseph Banks, the botanist travelling with Cook. Cook was brewing his 'spruce beer' on the Newfoundland model (Beaglehole, 1974). This model most likely came from Banks as it is described in Bank's Newfoundland journal (Beaglehole, 1961, 1974) when he voyaged to that part of the world aboard the Niger in 1766 (TVNZ). Thus Cook chose the New Zealand tree that most resembled the North American Spruce, which had proven itself of worth in making beer. Cook comments "from the knowledge I had of, and the similarity this tree bore to the Spruce, I judged that with the addition of other articles it would make a very wholsom Beer" (Beaglehole, 1961). The first New Zealand beer could be described as a mixture of the traditional skills of Mr Pelham and the empirical observations of Sir Joseph Banks and Cook.

Indeed Cook's beer was the first beer exported from New Zealand. Cook took Rimu and Manuka away with him to make spruce beer on his homeward journey to England. During Cook's third journey to New Zealand, the spruce beer was keenly remembered and brewed again. Clerke, reports on the 18 February, 1777 that while in Queen Charlotte Sound "Stop'd the Grog and serv'd Spruce Beer to the People" (Beaglehole, 1967).

In 1986 New Zealand Breweries Ltd duplicated Captain Cook's brew at the Khyber Pass Road Brewery in Auckland. They unanimously pronounced it 'revolting'. However it was recognisably an Ale (Mclauchlan, 1994). According to one of the brewers involved, Alan King, the brew was 'drinkable but awful. No one came back for seconds' (PPW, 1994). This modern appraisal of the brew may not have been complimentary, but the brew did become famous in its time. In 1791 Captain George Vancouver visited the Dusky Sound in the Chatam. His journal states on 12 November "Our Spruce Beer, which was made under the directions made by Captain Cook, prov'd excellent, and was served to the Ship's Company in lieu of Spirits" (Mclauchlan, 1994). The Chatam's botanist, Lieutenant Menzies recorded in his journal "Thus we quitted Dusky Bay... the good effects of a plentiful supply of ... spruce beer were evident in the appearance of every individual in our little society" (Oram, 1995).

Cook's contribution to biotechnology in New Zealand was not limited to beer production. Cook's ships were laden with the products of biotechnology. For the first voyage, the Victualling Board loaded the Endeavour with the following (Beaglehole 1955):

    Bread in bags - 21,226 pounds

    Flour in Barrels - 9,000 pounds

    Beer in Puncheons - 1,200 gallons

    Spirits - 1,600 gallons

    Beef - 4,000 pieces

    Suet - 800 pounds

    Raisins - 2,500 pounds

    Wheat - 120 bushels

    Oil 120 gallons

    Sugar 1,500 pounds

    Vinegar 500 gallons

    Sour Krout 7,860 pounds

    Malt in Hogsheads - 40 bushels

    Salt - 20 bushels

Also mentioned during Cooks journeys was the use of the fermented product arrack (Beaglehole, 1955, 1961). Arrack is a clear, straw coloured distilled alcohol spirit, usually matured in wooden casks for 3-10 years before consumption. It had an alcohol content of 20-40% and is described as sometimes having a rough, fiery taste. It is most commonly made from rice although can be made from sweet potato (Campbell Platt, 1987). The function of arrack was thus the same as rum during Cooks journeys, and arrack was often used as a rum replacement.

Most of the recognisable biotechnology products such as vinegar, sauerkraut, malt, beer and bread were taken to New Zealand as a means of preventing scurvy because they kept a long time.

Sauerkraut was a particularly good example. Beaglehole 1961 comments "Sour Krout is cabbage cut small, and cured by going through a state of fermentation. It is afterwards close packed in casks with its own liquor, in which state it will keep any length of time. It is a very wholsome food and a very great antiscorbutick, a pound of it is served to each man each beef day."

Another bioprocessing methodology that Cook used was in the provision of soup. Cook in his second voyage took a portable soup, which consisted of a glue-like material obtained by boiling meat until much of the water had evaporated (Barnell, 1974). This extract would then be reconstituted into soup by adding water and any other vegetables that were at hand. Thus Cook brought meat extract to New Zealand, ironic considering New Zealand's agricultural prowess of the years to come.

Fermentation (eg sauerkraut and beer), dehydration (eg meat soup concentrate) and salting (pickled meats) were the main technologies used by Cook to overcome scurvy. Thus one of biotechnology's early contributions to New Zealand's development was providing the technology to make European discovery of New Zealand possible. This is eloquently put in the journal of the second voyage "portable soup were boiled with the Pease and wheat for both ships companys every day during our whole stay and they had spruce beer to drink, so that if any of them had contracted any seeds of the scurvy these articles soon removed it" (Beaglehole, 1967). One could even theorise that had not these traditional biotechnology processes been available, New Zealand would not have been rediscovered and colonised in the manner that it did. Biotechnology can therefore claim a pivotal role in New Zealand's history.

Cook was also to foreshadow the major bioprocessing industries of New Zealand history, namely animal production and processing. Cook was the first to bring sheep to New Zealand. During the second voyage on Sunday the 28th March 1773, Cook reports "Out of four ewes and two rams I brought from the Cape with an intent to put a shore in this country or any other that I might find, I have been only able to preserve one of each and even they are in such a bad state that it is doubtfull if they may recover". New Zealand's first experiment in live sheep shipment ended in disaster. When the two surviving sheep were put ashore at Queen Charlotte Sound they survived only a few days (TVNZ, 1994).

Cook also started the New Zealand seal processing trade. On his second voyage to New Zealand Cook used seal flesh for food, seal blubber for lamp oil and repaired rigging on the Resolution with seal skins while in Dusky Sound. Cook reported he saw seals "in great numbers" in Dusky Sound. It is likely that this report by Cook lead Captain William Raven, master of the Britannia to land the first sealing gang in Dusky Bay in 1792 (Grady, 1986).

Cook's crew also produced wine, although not made from grapes and not made in New Zealand. It was a fruit wine of some merit and was produced serendipitiously (like many great inventions it was an accident). While in North America on October 1778, on Unalaska island on the Alaskan Peninsula Cook's journal records "We must reckon amongst the food of the Indians some other wild roots ... and berries of several different sorts ... [including] a brown berry unknown to us. It had something of the taste of a sloe, but unlike it in every other respect; it is very astringent, especially if eaten in quantity. Brandy might be distil'd from these berries, Captain Clerke attempted to preserve some but they fermented and became as strong as if they had been steeped in Spirit". Beaglehole, 1967 identifies the fruit as Cornus suecica (belonging to the Dogwood family) the reddish fruits of which had turned brown with age. The old age of the fruit may account for the ease with which they fermented. It was indeed a pity that this same "mistake" was not made in New Zealand as Cook was familiar with distillation technology and it has beenreported that a primitive form of distillation was found by Cook in the Pacific Islands (Forbes, 1970).


Captain James Cook had never heard the term biotechnology, but he was an astute student of biotechnology. Through using fermentation methods to prevent scurvy, and his foresight into the value of animal processing James Cook set biotechnology on the track to have a very significant impact on the development of New Zealand Captain James Cook was New Zealand's first European Biotechnologist.


Barnell, H.R. (1974) "Biology and the Food Industry", Edward Arnold, 9.

Beaglehole, J.C. (1955) "The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery: I The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768-1771", Hakluyt Society, Cambridge.

Beaglehole, J.C. (1961) "The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery: II The Voyage of the Resolution and Adventure 1772-1775", Hakluyt Society, Extra Series No XXXV.

Beaglehole, J.C. (1967) "The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery: III The Voyage of the Resolution and Discovery 1776-1780", Hakluyt Society, Cambridge.

Beaglehole, J.C. (1974) "The Life of Captain James Cook", Adam & Charles Black, London.

Campbell-Platt, G. (1987) "Fermented Foods of the World: A Dictionary and Guide", Butterworths, London.

Forbes, R.J. (1970) "A Short History of the Art of Distillation", E.J. Brill, Leiden.

Grady, D. (1986) "Sealers and Whalers in New Zealand Waters", Reed Methuen, Auckland.

Mclauchlan, G. (1994) "The Story of Beer: Beer and Brewing - A New Zealand History", Viking, Auckland.

McLeod, W.T. (1990) "The New Collins Dictionary and Thesaurus", Collins, London.

New Zealand Breweries (1973) "Hosts to the Nation: The First Fifty Years of New Zealand Breweries Limited".

Oram, R. (April 1995) "The Brew from Dusky Sound", Pacific Way, 82, 70.

PPW (Nov 17, 1994) "Beer", Contact, p8.

TVNZ (1994) "The New Zealand Encyclopedia", on CD- ROM.

Figure Legends:

    Figure 1: The remaking of Captain Cook's "Spruce Beer" was conducted at New Zealand Breweries Ltd in Khyber Pass, Auckland in 1986. This shot shows Mr Robert Brightwell of New Zealand Breweries Ltd adding Rimu and Manuka to the process. The brew was not considered to have commercial potential. Photograph courtesy of The New Zealand Television Archive.

    Figure 2: Cook's beer being fermented at New Zealand Breweries Ltd Khyber Pass, Auckland 1986. Photograph courtesy of The New Zealand Television Archive.

    Figure 3: A reconstruction of the Endeavour, during its 1996 tour of New Zealand, seen here entering Wellington Harbour. Photograph courtesy of Arthur Bremford, Bremford Studios, Gore.

Copyright 1996 Australian Biotechnology Association Ltd.

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