CAPTAIN Cook – “Middlesbrough’s greatest son”. Of course no-one would be more surprised – ‘startled’ is perhaps a more fitting word – than the great explorer to find himself bracketed with an industrial town that didn’t exist in his lifetime (1728-1778).

Indeed, not only did Britain in Cook’s era lack any ‘industrial’ town, as presently understood, but Middlesbrough itself consisted then of only three or four scattered farms.

Their occupants perhaps totalled less than the 25 of the first reliable record in 1801.

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On contemporary maps the district would appear as ‘Middleburg’. The first settlement there is believed to have been a 7th Century monastic cell established by the sainted Hilda, of Hartlepool and later Whitby.

A small abbey, or priory, may have evolved, and some authorities suggest that ‘middle’, originally spelt ‘mydil’, referred to the location of this community roughly midway between Hilda’s religious powerhouses of Hartlepool and Whitby.

No matter. It is very possible that Capt Cook never even uttered the name ‘Middleburg’.

Why would he ever have needed to?

And yet it is now hard fact that his birthplace, Marton, is fully swallowed by modern Middlesbrough. The town could hardly ignore such a major international historic figure.

So the apparent incongruity of Cook being branded “Middlesbrough’s greatest son”, currently by its MP Simon Clarke, defending Cook against attacks on him in Australia, rests on a sound foundation.

The denigration of Cook, as an invading colonialist, is misjudged. By the standards of his day Cook was highly civilised.

His first instruction to his crew was to treat indigenous people “with all imaginable humanity”.

He spoke up for their simple values, their rejection of all the “stuff ” – his word – that Europeans considered essential.

BUT let’s stick with Middlesbrough. It should be more pro-active over its Cook link.

Yes it has a Cook Memorial Museum. But there’s no eye-catching ‘Birthplace of Capt Cook’ road sign at Marton, matching Great Ayton’s excellent ‘Boyhood Home of Capt Cook’.

It’s also often stated that Cook’s fascination with the sea began when, aged 16, he ‘left the farming country of Great Ayton’ for Staithes.

But in his day the Tees estuary would be clearly in view from Marton, where he lived until the age of eight.

It’s perfectly possible that the seed of young James’ urge to explore was sown by the sight of sailing ships passing to and from Yarm.

But there is a puzzling downside to Cook’s links to the so-called Capt Cook country.

Whether any of the numerous Whitbys around the world were named by Cook I can’t say. But he certainly didn’t name anywhere after Marton, Great Ayton, or even Staithes. And though he named several places after seamen on his ships, he didn’t name anywhere after Thomas Scottowe, his benefactor at Great Ayton.

Did Cook not have happy memories of his early years? He left no clue. His wife burned all his letters and personal papers. So we know little about Cook except what can be gathered from his journals. They indicate a fine man, if not Middlesbrough’s, or even Middleburg’s, biggest fan.