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Arctic Ambitions: Captain Cook and the Northwest Passage. Edited by James K. Barnett and David L. Nicandri. 2015

 

The front cover illustration is from View of Snug Corner Cove by John Webber

Arctic Ambitions: Captain Cook and the Northwest Passage.  Edited by James K. Barnett and David L. Nicandri.  University of Washington Press.  2015

Captain James Cook’s charting of the South Pacific Islands and his relationships with their indigenous peoples have been thoroughly chronicled.  Less well documented are Cook’s 1778 exploration and surveying of the west coast of North America, south Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and Siberia, and his expedition’s relationships with the indigenous people of that region.  Arctic Ambitions comprehensively redresses this imbalance with eighteen authoritative essays.  

 

John Gascoigne opens Arctic Ambitions with “James Cook, Navigator and Explorer”, a consummate summary of Cook’s naval career and achievements prior to his 1776 departure on the Third Voyage.

 

In “James Cook and the Northwest Passage”, Glyn Williams backgrounds earlier searches for the passage and documents the Royal Society’s 1774 decision to support an expedition to search for a way through from the North Pacific rather than the North Atlantic.  This idea was not really new, he points out.  Drake, then Dampier, had postulated that it was likely that a passage could be found between Latitudes 38° and 54° N, from the west coast of North America into Hudson Bay.  The maps in this chapter are particularly revealing—or, rather, are non-revelatory.  Following the discoveries of Vitus Bering, the Russians had surveyed Siberia as far east as the Bering Strait, but a 1761 map of the north-west coast of America shows only a vast amorphous blank north of 60° N.  Then 15 degrees further south Drake’s “New Albion” coast puts in an appearance, albeit sketchily.

 

Williams draws attention to two omissions from the Third Voyage’s preparations: the ships’ lack of strengthening against the ice they would encounter, and a failure to include a Russian speaker among the crew.  Much worse than these, however, was the general condition of Resolution and Discovery, whose seams were poorly caulked and their rigging sub-standard.  No proper way to face the Arctic Sea. 

 

Iris Engstrand describes in “Setting the Stage” the exploration by the Spanish of the west coast of North America, from Vasco de Balboa who first crossed the Isthmus of Panama in 1513, to his compatriots who followed, such as Antonio Mendoza and Jose de Galvez, who initiated the colonisation of Alta California in 1769, and Peruvian-born Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, whose expedition sailed bravely as far north as 58° before his scurvy-struck company obliged him to turn back.  However these forays gave the Spanish a sense of entitlement to north-west America, and after Spanish spies in London learned of Cook’s North Pacific voyage they were aware that it could threaten their sovereignty of the coast.  Orders were issued to impede the Cook expedition’s progress if his ships crossed Spain’s path.  This did not eventuate, and anyway, Cook’s instructions included the conciliatory clause that he was not to intrude on any established Spanish settlement. 

 

In “From Russia with Charts”, Evguenia Anichtchenko describes the Cook expedition’s meetings with Russians at their outlying settlements at Unalaska and Chukotka.  The writer describes the Russians’ uncertain exploration of the Aleutian chain, Bering’s sighting of Alaska, and the way in which any interest by the Russians in seeking a Northeast Passage was replaced by the lucrative acquiring of sea otter pelts.  Cook’s unplanned landing in Chukotka in August 1778 is described, as is his return to Unalaska two months later and his genial meeting there with the Russian Gerasmin Izmailov.  John Webber’s illustrations of the encounter with the Chukchi people, and later at Petropavlovsk on the expedition’s return voyage, enhance this and several other chapters.

 

Richard Dunn in “James Cook and the New Navigation”, places Cook’s voyages in the context of a period when technological advancements such as the K1 marine timekeeper were greatly aiding long-distance voyaging  by more accurately determining longitude.  

 

David L. Nicandri, in “A New Look at Cook”, puts a persuasive case for the explorer’s experiences in semi-frozen seas as being pertinent to today’s concerns about climate change, and to “the pace and effects of global warming”.  This theme is followed up in later chapters, notably the ones by Harry Stern and Lawson W. Brigham, who document the retreat of the Arctic ice cap in recent years, and implications for the global environment and marine navigation in the Arctic Ocean.  The maps and graphs in Stern’s “Sea Ice in the Western Portal of the Northwest Passage from 1778 to the Twenty-First Century” are enlightening, particularly the one showing a tantalising marker of Cook’s hypothetical progress along the northern coasts of Alaska and Canada under the sea-ice conditions of 2002 or later.  Cook would have been gratified by the sight of this map.

 

In April 1778 Nootka Sound provided a highly significant stay for Cook’s expedition.  “Encounters”, a chapter by Richard Inglis, provides insights into the beliefs of Nootka Sound’s indigenous Mowachaht and Muchalaht people, with whom Cook, Clerke and their company interacted.  The tribes were welcoming, but there was mutual incomprehension linguistically and with these people, Inglis states, “The concept of ownership was stronger than Cook had experienced elsewhere”.  Although trading was brisk – mainly the tribes’ fish and furs for European metal objects – during the month-long stay, the visitors discovered that the property rights of the locals were asserted to an unusual degree.  In this chapter reproductions of Webber’s portraits of the people and their dwellings are wonderfully detailed.

 

The colonial ambitions of the late eighteenth century’s great powers in western North America are covered in a chapter by Aron L. Crowell entitled “The Cook Expedition and Russian Colonialism in Southern Alaska”.  England, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Russia sought to explore, claim and exploit the resources of northwest America, principally at first the precious furs of southern Alaska, during the late eighteenth century.  Crowell states: “Russian companies forced Unangaz [Aleutian] men to hunt sea otters and trap foxes and the women to produce clothing and food”.  He goes on to give an account of Resolution and Discovery’s week-long stay in Prince William Sound in May, 1778, and the customs and canoes of the local Chugach people, which were distinctly different to those of Nootka Sound.  The expedition’s subsequent ten-day visit to what became known as Cook Inlet is included in this chapter, while its two visits to Unalaska are also comprehensively covered.

 

In Cook’s wake came Spanish and French explorers and many British and American fur traders to Canada’s northwest coast and to south-eastern Alaska, but it was Russia’s harsh rule that was the dominant authority in the region until 1867, when Alaska was sold to the United States.  

 

Natural history specimens and ethnographic objects were avidly collected during Cook’s three Pacific voyages, and in “Gifting, Trading, Selling, Buying”, Adrienne L. Kaeppler records the types of cultural objects desired and acquired by Cook and his men, and the subsequent fate of many of these objects.  Photographs of twenty-three artefacts appear in this chapter, including masks, fish-hooks, rattles, spears, clubs, quivers, cloaks and hats.  These were cheaply acquired, taken aboard ship and brought to England.  Eventually they dispersed to private collections and museums all over the world, many becoming treasures “during their ownership by the descendants of the collectors or subsequent owners”.  Kaeppler also concludes that those native artefacts, “that can be associated with the voyages of Captain Cook have attained a kind of mystique not only because they have the stamp of authenticity but also because each object is acquiring its own biography—some making a full circle back to their homelands”. 

 

In “The International Law of Discovery”, Robert J. Miller addresses the vexed question of just who in law actually owned the territories that the European explorers claimed.  He also states that the doctrine of discovery, “will continue to adversely affect indigenous nations and peoples”. Today, in New Zealand and Australia, we are still well aware of this conundrum.  Miller reminds us that Cook was ordered by the Admiralty to, “engage in acts of possession, and to leave evidence that he had visited the area”. He did just this on America’s Northwest coast, but Miller says that Cook also, and unusually, “seems to have been aware of the incongruity of Britain’s claiming lands already occupied by indigenous peoples”. After citing numerous examples in which this view was not held by European powers, Miller concludes that, “The nations involved disagreed on exactly what rights each acquired by their acts of possession, but they were unanimous in the view that indigenous nations and peoples would lose the ownership of their lands and assets”.  

 

In a subsequent chapter, “from Discoveries to Sovereignties”, Barry Gough continues the story of the establishment of sovereignty by the rival imperial powers Britain, Russia and America from 1821 to 1846.  Their rivalry, Gough says, was as significant as the “scramble for Africa” in the same century. A hand-coloured 1848 lithograph by Henry James Warre, of sturdy Fort Vancouver, the supply depot for the Hudson’s Bay Company Columbia Department, is graphic evidence that the company was by this time a substantial presence on the continent.

 

There are some exquisitely detailed drawings and maps of America’s northwest coast in a chapter entitled “Cook on the Coasts of the North Pacific and Arctic America” by John Robson.  Particularly striking are the side-by-side maps and engravings of King Georges Sound (Nootka) by Thomas Edgar, James Burney and Edward Riou, and charts of Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet by Henry Roberts.  Robson reminds us, however, that “The most accomplished of the cartographers on the voyage was James Cook himself”.  Another interesting observation by Robson is that Cook instructed his midshipmen to copy the charts he made, enabling them to learn cartographic skills, as well as creating copies that could be sent back to London overland from Kamchatka.  

 

In “Narrating an Alaskan Cruise”, S. MacLaren mentions the role of the much-criticised writer John Hawkesworth, putative chronicler of Cook’s First Voyage, before examining in detail the estimable work of John Douglas, canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, the editor of Cook’s Second and Third Voyage journals.  MacLaren cites examples of the way the rigorous Douglas refined Cook’s often rough-hewn prose into what became the official account of the voyage.

 

James K. Barnett, in “The End of the Northern Mystery” explores some sequels to Cook’s Third Voyage, including La Perouse’s ill-fated 1786 voyage to Alaska, during which 21 of his sailors drowned.  Most significant, however, was the 1791-95 Pacific voyage of George Vancouver, who had served as a midshipman on Cook’s Second and Third Voyages.  Like the others, Vancouver did not succeed in finding a passage through to the North Atlantic, but Barnett makes it clear that he proved an admirable successor to Cook in the North Pacific, surveying the northwest coast thoroughly and cementing Britain’s relations with the Hawaiians through his friendship with Kamehameha the Great.  At four years and six months, the Vancouver-led expedition was the longest sea voyage ever undertaken. 

 

Astonishingly, it was not until 1906 that a Northwest Passage was successfully navigated, by the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen.  It was not for want of trying.  In “The Continuing Quest”, James P. Delgado chronicles other intrepid explorers who sought the elusive passage.  William Edward Parry, Robert McClure, Lieutenant John Franklin, Captain FW Beechey, and others, risked great hardships in their attempts to discover a passage through the Arctic ice.  Some tried from the west, others from the east.

 

Amundsen’s epic expedition in the fishing smack Gjoa, which carried an auxiliary engine, left Oslo in the summer of 1903.  After many stops along the way for scientific observations (such as obtaining precise data as to the Magnetic North Pole and fraternising with the Inuit people) the expedition eventually passed through the Bering Strait in August 1906.  This event must have been as momentous to its era as the first Moon landing was in 1969.  James Cook would have been filled with admiration for Amundsen’s achievement.

 

This book is scholarly but never dull, meticulously researched, comprehensively annotated, handsomely designed and beautifully illustrated.  Arctic Ambitions is a superb compilation.  No one interested in James Cook’s Third Voyage and those who came after him can fail to be engaged by the book.  I cannot recommend it too highly. 

 

Reviewer

Graeme Lay


Originally published in Cook's Log, page 18, volume 38, number 3 (2015).

 

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