• The Listener
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  • RNZ

Captain, my captain

James Cook's closest relative lives in Sydney - a keen genealogist who likes raising the flag, but not sailing.

Wattlebirds chirped, music played and Kurnell school kids cheered on April 29 when Rod Fleck did what he always does on this day: raise the Union Jack at Botany Bay. The annual ritual is performed south of Sydney where James Cook first anchored in 1770 - by the closest living relative of the great explorer. Which makes Rod Fleck a little bit famous as well.

His sedan rolls through the quiet groomed streets of Sutherland, the shire that showed its uglier face last December during race riots. Fleck, 75, is tall and lean, with slicked-back hair and sharp, handsome features - he bears a faint resemblance to the legendary seafarer. Fleck throws names around as he drives, occupied with one thing only: family trees. "It's complicated," he says with a sigh and a smile, before stopping in front of a plain, tidy house that doubles as the company of his second wife's son. Inside, embroidered pictures adorn the walls and a friendly, white-haired lady introduces herself as Margaret, originally from Christchurch.

He worked for the state railway for 40 years; "the store side of it". Stocktaking and accounting. No adventures, no expeditions. "I have never been drawn to the sea," says Fleck, hesitant to talk about himself. "I don't sail. I play golf."

Nothing in this average suburban home indicates that the elderly gentleman is in any way connected to the explorer who changed the fate of the Pacific. Apart from the computer. Fleck demonstrates the genealogy programme Genes Reunited. Thanks to the internet, these days everyone can learn who belongs to the Cook family. And who doesn't. The surname "Cook" is a clear indicator that there is no direct blood line. James Cook, who fathered six children, had no grandchildren. "They produced no issue," Fleck states in the tone of a biologist who has discovered a rare protozoan. "His wife lived 56 years longer than him. The family name died out with her."

He pulls a yellowed newspaper article, dated 1935, from a folder: "Here, it says, for everyone to read: we, the Flecks, are the closest relatives."

James Cook's family came from Scotland and lived in Yorkshire. His sister Margaret married a fisherman called James Fleck. They had eight children. Number seven, John, led to Fleck, making the Endeavour captain his great-great-great-great uncle. "That's the structure," says Fleck. It's a word he loves to use.

Rod Fleck, an only child, was born in 1931. There are "around 40 to 50 distant cousins" in Australia and hundreds of Fleck descendants around the world. The generation before him was already putting pieces of the historic puzzle together - and defending it vigorously. When Cook's Cottage was rebuilt in Melbourne in 1940, Fleck's uncle had a dispute with the owner over the claim that what was built was based on Cook's original birthplace. "He wasn't welcomed at the opening cere-mony," says Fleck with a smirk.

When the rail clerk retired, he got busy. Through the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum, he contacted family members and visited many in England. He went through birth and marriage registers at the Sydney library. Every new name that came up had to be verified and placed. Hundreds of letters were sent in those pre-email times, before Fleck finally had "the structure" of 200 completed charts. His credentials are now secure.

Will his three children carry on what Fleck describes as "just a hobby"? "None of them are interested in this." His voice sounds flat. "I am going to die anyway, so it doesn't matter."

Others, though, seem overly interested. The genealogist who doesn't own a single piece of Cook memorabilia - "it would only gather dust" - is frequently dealing with people claiming to be Cook's descendants. Especially after historic cele-brations like Australia Day. He likes setting the record straight each time: facts and dates. They're what count.

When he visits Hawaii this year, he's not planning a sentimental journey; he's meeting up with his US stepchildren. At Kealakekua Bay, James Cook was clubbed to death, dismembered and partly eaten. His bones were buried at sea on a 21st of February. At last, there's a flicker of emotion in Fleck's eyes: "That's my birthday."