I WAS astonished to read Steve Kay’s sanitised account of the exploits of Captain James Cook, stating he was neither a conqueror nor an imperialist in his letter “Cook legacy” (HAS, June 19). Cook was certainly an extraordinary navigator, explorer and cartographer; but his mission was to claim territory for the British Empire.

In 1770, he claimed the entire east coast of Australia for the British Crown, despite instructions allowing him to claim land only if it was uninhabited, which it wasn’t, or if the native peoples gave their consent, which they didn’t.

The first British settlers followed 18 years later, bringing with them diseases such as smallpox, which wiped out thousands of Aborigines. Others were hunted down and murdered. In 1845, one British farmer declared there was no more harm in shooting a native than shooting a wild dog, while another argued it was preposterous to suppose that blacks had souls.

Estimates of the Aboriginal population before Cook’s arrival vary from 300,000 to 750,000. By the time the massacres ceased in the 1920s, there were fewer than 30,000 left alive.

Previously, Mr Kay defended William Gladstone (Good Gladstone, HAS, June 13), correctly pointing out that he first became an MP in 1832, just a year before slavery was abolished. Nevertheless, he spoke against abolition in Parliament, and in favour of compensating the slave owners. His father, Sir John Gladstone, was paid £106,769 (about £10m in today’s money) for the loss of his “property,” – 2,508 slaves. However, William Gladstone would later describe slavery as “by far the foulest crime that taints the history of mankind”. Surely we must “hear all sides” of British history.

Pete Winstanley, Durham.