A Personal Selection of Books about Cook

 

In his book Blue Latitudes: boldly going where Captain Cook has gone before, published in 2002, Tony Horwitz wrote about the books he had found of great use.
His considerations are reproduced with his permission.

Links have been added to references to individual books reviewed or otherwise mentioned elsewhere on this web site.

 


Any study of Cook depends to an extraordinary degree on the encyclopedic work of John Cawte Beaglehole. The New Zealand historian, who died in 1971, published the first accurate and comprehensive edition of Cook's journals, including scholarly introductions, long excerpts from crewmen's diaries, and scores of official documents. Before Beaglehole, entire continents of Cook material remained unexplored, embroidered, or inaccessible to the general public. His four-volume edition of the journals is a masterpiece of thorough and judicious scholarship.

For this reason, I've relied on Beaglehole's edition rather than on the many earlier versions of Cook's travels, such as John Hawkesworth's three-volume work in 1773, An Account of Voyages undertaken... for making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere, which adapted Cook's words and blended the captain's writing with that of Joseph Banks and earlier Pacific explorers. In almost all cases, I've also used Beaglehole as my guide in navigating the shoals of eighteenth-century names, titles, and spellings.

Also invaluable to me were Beaglehole's essays, his annotated edition of Banks's journal, and his last work, The Life of Captain James Cook. In Beaglehole, Cook found the biographer he deserved: a fair, factual, tenacious, and humane man of astonishing breadth. Beaglehole isn't infallible or completely without prejudice; he's occasionally too forgiving of Cook, and overly harsh in his assessments of the naturalists Banks and Johann Forster. But his biography of Cook, published posthumously in 1974, remains the gold standard for books about the captain.

In the thirty years since Beaglehole's death, new sources have come to light. Also, the past three decades have seen a flowering of scholarship by and about Pacific peoples. So while any study of Cook must begin with Beaglehole, it shouldn't end with him. Two recent works that I found indispensable were Ray Parkin's H.M. Bark Endeavour, a very accessible, beautifully illustrated look at Cook's first ship, crew, and voyage, and John Robson's Captain Cook's World, which provides clear maps and concise exposition of Cook's circuitous travels, in Britain and Canada as well as the Pacific.

In a more analytic vein, Bernard Smith combines brilliant art criticism with literary and historical insight, particularly regarding Cook's legacy. Smith's European Vision and the South Pacific and Imagining the Pacific also include some of the best reproductions of art from Cook's journeys. Another Australian scholar, Greg Dening, skillfully dissects eighteenth-century seafaring and the encounters between Europeans and Pacific Islanders. In Mr. Bligh's Bad Language, Dening makes frequent reference to Cook and ranges across disciplines to craft one of the most original books I read in the course of my research. Typical of Dening's contrarian approach is his examination of the number of lashes doled out by every British captain in the Pacific during the eighteenth century; this tally reveals that Bligh, despite his reputation, was a mild commander compared to Cook and others.

Gananath Obeyesekere, a Sri Lankan-born anthropologist at Princeton, offers a harsh, postcolonial critique of the navigator and of the mythmaking that occurred in his wake. Obeyesekere's The Apotheosis of Captain Cook is a polemic, often wrongheaded (in my view), but always provocative. As with Smith and Dening, I found that reading Obeyesekere sharpened my own thinking about Cook and provided an antidote to the hagiographic, Anglocentric tone of much that's been written about the captain. Other, excellent interpretations of Cook and his legacy can be found in several books of essays, most notably Robin Fisher and Hugh Johnston's Captain James Cook and His Times, Margaret Lincoln's Science and Exploration in the Pacific, and Walter Veit's two-volume Captain James Cook: Image and Impact.

Though no biography comes close to Beaglehole's in depth, several offer lively introductions to Cook for readers who don't want to brave the New Zealander's 750-page tome. Alistair MacLean, the author of best-sellers such as The Guns of Navarone, knows how to tell a good story, and he does so in Captain Cook. One of the most recent biographies, Richard Hough's Captain James Cook, is very traditional in its approach, but it also provides a readable summary. Lynne Withey takes a broader, more anthropological approach in Voyages of Discovery, integrating the perspective of Pacific peoples in a way that most others have not.

For readers interested in Joseph Banks, Harold Carter's Sir Joseph Banks is the most comprehensive biography. Patrick O'Brian, the famed sea novelist, brings his lively style and eye for color to his shorter, more readable biography, Joseph Banks. The botanist's Endeavour journal is available online at http://slnsw.gov.au/.

For primary sources, apart from Cook's and Banks's journals, I relied for the most part on the Mitchell and Dixson Libraries at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney, which houses the best collection of Cook-related manuscripts in the world. Also very useful to me were the libraries and exhibits at Sydney's National Maritime Museum, the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., the Natural History Museum in London, and other repositories in Tahiti, New Zealand, Alaska, and Niue. I'm indebted to the curators and librarians who assisted me in each of these places. I also drew a great deal of information from the Captain Cook Society, which publishes a quarterly "log" and provides the best clearing-house for contemporary research at www.CaptainCookSociety.com.

For readers interested in works about travel in the modern Pacific, there are countless paeans to swaying palms and twitching hips. A few works stand out from this tired genre. Paul Theroux's The Happy Isles of Oceania is an acerbic, amusing, and insightful travelogue that covers an astounding amount of the Pacific, including many of the places I visited. Theroux can be brutal, but he's never dull. And it's a mark of Cook's appeal that a writer as skeptical as Theroux observes: "It is impossible to travel in the Pacific, even for a short time, and not develop an admiration for this hero of navigation and discovery, who was - amazingly, for a great captain - a thoroughly good man."

Simon Winchester's Pacific Rising offers an informative overview of the ocean and its history. And while Jonathan Raban's Passage to Juneau isn't, strictly speaking, about the Pacific, it's the most probing book I read about travel in the vast territory Cook covered. Raban sails the northwest coast of America in the path of Cook's disciple, George Vancouver, and casts an original and illuminating eye on both shipboard life in the eighteenth century and the legacy of European encounters with natives. Like Theroux, Raban also appreciates Cook's accomplishments. "Cook's rise in the world was a fabulous occurrence - a phoenix, born in smoke and ashes," Raban writes. "Cook proved that there was room for wild untutored genius in the upper echelons of eighteenth-century England."

The Lonely Planet and Rough Guide for each of the countries I visited provided lively and generally accurate introductions to Pacific history and culture, as did the South Pacific Handbook. For a more academic treatment of the region, I often turned to The Cambridge History of the Pacific Islanders.

Updated: October 2003

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