Home > Constructing Colonial Discourse: Captain Cook at Nootka Sound Currie, Noel Elizabeth. 2005

Constructing Colonial Discourse: Captain Cook at Nootka Sound Currie, Noel Elizabeth. 2005


Carr 1983Constructing Colonial Discourse: Captain Cook at Nootka Sound

By Noel Elizabeth Currie, and published in 2005 by McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0-7735-2915-2.

Nootka Sound is located off the central western coast of Vancouver Island, now part of British Columbia, Canada. During the Third Voyage, Captain James Cook visited Nootka Sound from Sunday 29 March to Sunday 26 April 1778. After departing Nootka Sound, Resolution and Discovery proceeded further north to search for the Northwest Passage.

This book is a study of the 1784 edition of Cook's journal, edited by Canon John Douglas, compared with the 1967 Hakluyt Society edition of Cook's journal, edited by J. C. Beaglehole. The author, an instructor in English at Langara College, Vancouver, utilizes "post colonial literary theory," to analyze "colonial discourse" through which Nootka Sound was known by 18th century readers. The author contends the Douglas version of the Northwest Coast "contact zone" created "an imperial past". Currie writes, "My concern is to examine how a variety of eighteenth century discourses constructed Nootka Sound for European readers. As a result, the view of the Pacific remains predominantly that of eighteenth-century Europe." Currie considers the Beaglehole edition as a corrected version of Cook's journals, to that produced 183 years earlier by Douglas.

The book contains five chapters. The first considers Cook's journals as part of eighteenth century travel and exploration literature. The second and third chapters explore the assumptions and created visions of the Northwest Coast as interpreted by John Douglas in the 1784 edition. These assumptions led to conclusions about the Yuquot native peoples, the land, vegetation, etc. The author examines scientific and ethnographic assumptions, the "mutually interdependent discourses of aesthetics and science" that provided a basis for later exploitation of land and peoples. The author asserts that the Northwest Coast is viewed through a "double filter," perceptions formed first in Europe and later in the South Pacific. This leads to the fourth chapter, the "discourse of cannibalism" among native peoples, which Currie demonstrates was incorrect and influenced by other exploration narratives from the South Pacific.

The final chapter explores the discourse constructed whereby Cook emerges an eighteenth century imperial hero. Currie provides interesting examples of various "visions" of Cook through the eyes of native peoples, later writers, and historical or other interpretations, including Cook's visit as a "founding moment" of Canadian History. She speculates about the Eurocentric view of history whereby native peoples appear only at the moment of European contact, with the assumption that there was no significant history prior to that time. The author asserts that Cook's death in 1779 is a final filter through which the accounts of Nootka Sound (and all other events) were viewed by the editor and, therefore, readers of the 1784 version of Cook's journal.

Words convey specific, shaded, symbolic, and other meanings. The author contends that editor John Douglas took great liberties, using exaggeration and myth, with Captain Cooks journal entries, creating a vision used later to support colonial and imperial expansion. Douglas drew material from other Third Voyage journals and added perceptions from others to Cook's account. Currie observes that the "official" Douglas account of the Third Voyage "suggests how social values, historical assumptions, and conventional paradigms inform and colour historical discourse in general." The author writes, "Using eighteenth-century aesthetic conventions that constructed the aesthetic subject as a landowning male, Douglas amplifies Cook's description of Nootka Sound. In the process, he transforms Cook from a working-class pragmatist into the kind of gentleman whose eye takes in and possesses all he sees."

It cannot be said that Cook discovered the Northwest Coast as native peoples were already present. To talk of first discovery is incorrect, first European contact may be more accurate, but also subject to earlier (1774) Spanish interest in the area. The land is described as foreboding and massive. Douglas used "woods" instead of "timber" (used by Beaglehole) to create a more romantic image of the land. The practical-minded Cook used the word "timber" because he was interested in trees for a replacement mast. Furthermore, since Cook wrote that the land seemed uninhabited (at a distance, on first approach). Douglas furthered this concept implying the Northwest Coast was available for the taking. Even more so, it was "virgin" land, territory to be possessed or ravished by European explorers.

The author recognizes the scientific aspects of Cook's voyages but implies that the use of the Linnaean system of classification further grafts European concepts or visions onto the Northwest Coast. She observes Beaglehole carried Linnaean classification even further: "The way that each editor uses science reflects the scientific discourses of his time. For Douglas, natural history - the work of Linnaeus and his followers - was the realm of the gentleman scientist... The fact that Linnaean lists were written in Latin meant that this knowledge-building endeavour was limited to those possessing a classical education. In England, this meant primarily men of the upper classes."

Douglas created a "hierarchical" relationship between the civilized visitors and the native peoples. Cook did not designate the Yuquot peoples as cannibals. It was the editor, Douglas, who implied the "first peoples" of the Northwest Coast were cannibalistic, using his "own sense of rhetorical flourish" to embellish Cook's journal. Here the filter of the Pacific is used to describe Vancouver Island. The author writes, "in the account of Nootka Sound at least, cannibalism reveals as much about eighteenth-century Europe as it does about the far-off Pacific, as much about discourse as about the simple observation of 'savage' behaviour." Currie asserts such language provided further justification to follow-up Cook's landing at Nootka Sound, the subsequent conflict with Spain over the coastal territory, and its incorporation into the Empire.

The book contains lengthy analysis of journal "visions" of the land and people. Currie utilizes literary, architectural, and artistic concepts of "the Picturesque" and "the Sublime" in considering language and paintings related to the 1784 edition of Cook's journal. At this point I sought refuge for definitions in the Encyclopedia Britannica. These terms were in use during and after the eighteenth century. The Sublime is characterized by grandeur of thought, emotion, and spirit. The Picturesque favors natural sensibilities, variety, and irregularity. I am unable to determine if post-colonial literary theory affects these concepts.

The author includes reproductions of some John Webber paintings in the book. Currie points out that Webber's The Resolution and Discovery in Nootka Sound (1778) includes an "enormous" British flag attached to one of the ships (almost as large as the ship's hull), the much larger Resolution and Discovery in comparison to several very small native boats, the industrious natives on shore working and trading with the British visitors, one of them presumably Cook shaking hands with a Yuquot native. The vision is of natives eager to trade with the Europeans, with implications for subsequent history, including the Nootka Sound Crises of the 1790s. Other Webber paintings are analyzed showing Nootka Sound people and their dwellings. Currie writes that Webber's Picturesque painting does not match the literary use of the Sublime by editor Douglas in describing the landscape and Cook's heroic image at Nootka Sound or during the Third Voyage.

Curiously (to this writer, for it has nothing to do with Nootka Sound) the book includes Webber's painting, A View of Christmas Harbour (1776), based on the six day visit to the Kerguelen sub-Antarctic Archipelago in December of that year. Unlike Nootka Sound, Webber's "Sublime" painting emphasizes the sense of desolation. Currie observes "nothing less Christmaslike [sic] could be imagined. Indeed, the name of the harbour seems to emphasize its isolation and inhospitability [sic]. There is awe here - an awe tempered not by wonder but by fear."

In neither of her critiques does the author suggest that Webber painted what he actually saw at Vancouver or Kerguelen Islands. Currie also omits a good deal in this analysis: Cook named this Kerguelen Island harbour because it was where Resolution and Discovery spent Christmas of 1776. Cook used the word "desolation" to describe Kerguelen Island. No mention is made by Currie of the Arch of Kerguelen, which may be the harbour's most remarkable geological formation located on the far edge of the painting. She does not mention the William Ellis drawing of Christmas Harbour, a contemporary less detailed but strikingly similar watercolour version to that produced by Webber, or subsequent engravings of Webber's painting that appear to have added details to the scene.

This book fits the genre of literary criticism. The author demonstrates considerable knowledge about Cook's voyages. The book is well-written with considerable documentation and an extensive bibliography of post colonial theory writings, as well as various editions of Cook's journals, and journals of others who sailed on the Third Voyage. It is useful to read historical interpretations that may approach events from far different perspectives or employ theoretical models (such as post colonial literary theory) for which a reader may have reservations. Constructing Colonial Discourse falls into this category.

I find the author pushes the envelope too much in, for example, the implied criticism of Linnaean classification, the characterization created by use of "timber" or "wood" to describe trees, or the interpretation of Webber's Christmas Harbour. At times too much "post colonial literary theory" jargon is bothersome.

Of course Cook, Douglas, Webber and others wrote or painted from the perspective of eighteenth century British seamen-explorers, editors, or painters. That is who they were and they used their personal frame of reference in writing or painting. It does seem valid, however, to note that Douglas inserted his words to shape and amplify Cook's account and this represents the author's contribution to Cook literature.

Currie's book is not written to serve as a narrative account of Cook at Nootka Sound. However, if a reader knew little or nothing about Cook's visit to Nootka Sound or of Cook's journals, I would first read Beaglehole's Life of Captain James Cook, or the Nootka Sound section of Beaglehole's edition of The Journals of Captain Cook, or other recent Cook biographies. I would also read the appropriate sections of John Gascoigne's Captain Cook: Voyager Between Worlds (2007) concerning the Northwest Coast of Canada, to contrast it with 18th century England. Finally, in seeking an interpretation of Cook's image over time, I would first read Glyn Williams's The Death of Captain Cook: a Hero Made and Unmade (2008). At that point, Currie's concept of colonial discourse can prove useful.

Reviewer: James C. Hamilton

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 43, volume 34, number 1 (2011).

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