Stories of the Voyages - official accounts, secondary accounts, bibliographies and specialized catalogs

At a time when literary fashions … are changing with such bewildering rapidity, there is perhaps something to be said for collecting the works relating to a man whom no change of fashion can deprive of the credit of a superlative contribution to the advancement of human knowledge.
Sir Maurice Holmes: An Introduction to the Bibliography of Captain James Cook, R.N. (1936)

It’s been said that books are the future of the past. That statement is certainly true when it comes to Captain Cook. After all, few of us have access to the "real" artifacts of his life. Even if we did, they would have little significance if we had no background knowledge to give those artifacts significance. Almost all of what we know about the man and his times comes from books.

There is no shortage of books about Cook. People have been writing about his exploits for nearly a quarter of a millennium and some new publication appears every month or so.

Publications about Cook’s voyages tend to fall into one of two categories:

  1. retrospective accounts written by non-participants long after the fact and through the reverse spyglass of history; and
  2. narratives composed by people who were on the scene when the events described unfolded.

Books of the first type tend to be more polished, analytical and complete. After all, the author knew how the story came out before the first word was written. Narratives, on the other hand, are usually more "in the moment," with both the author and reader uncertain about what the next moment might bring.

As both a Cook fan and book collector, I have always found the narratives and their contemporary accounts to be the most interesting way to learn about Cook.

But where does one look for such narratives and information about early Cook publications? Four sources come to mind - official accounts, secondary accounts, bibliographies and specialized catalogs.

Official Accounts

There are many early narratives of Cook’s voyages, but the best known are the official accounts published under the auspices of the British Admiralty. John Hawkesworth’s three-volume Account of the Voyages… covered Cook’s first voyage and was published in two editions in 1773. Cook’s two-volume Voyage Towards the South Pole and Round the World… went through four editions in 1777, 1779 and 1784. Cook’s and King’s three-volume A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean… was published in three editions in 1784 and 1785, and often included a separate folio atlas that contained many of the larger plates and maps.

In addition to their lengthy narratives, the official accounts contained numerous maps, charts and plates. As a result they were always both desirable and expensive, having sold for today’s equivalent of US$300-500 plus the cost of having the printed material bound, an activity that was left to the discretion of the buyer.

Although not rare by antiquarian book standards, the official accounts are still highly desirable. Today complete sets can command many tens of thousands of dollars, unfortunately placing them out of reach of most Cook fans.

Secondary Accounts

In addition to the official accounts, there is no shortage of secondary accounts written by other participants on the voyages. Not surprisingly, the number of such publications was much larger for the second and third voyages, once the lucrative potential of such works was demonstrated by the first voyage accounts. Many of the names familiar to readers of Cook’s Log show up as authors of secondary accounts of the voyages - names such as Parkinson, Magra, Bayly, Burney, Elliott, Forster, Marra, Pickersgill, Wales, Anderson, Ellis, Gilbert, Ledyard, Rickman, Samwell, Sparrman and Zimmermann.

In some cases, the secondary accounts never passed beyond the personal journal stage. Early copies of the published accounts are expensive, in some cases fetching well over US$100,000 on the rare occasions when they appear on the market. Once again, the average Cook fan is unlikely to be able to acquire such treasures, and few local libraries will have copies that can be examined.

A less expensive (but still pricey) version of the texts of many of the journals of Cook’s voyages (including Cook’s own journals) can be found in J.C. Beaglehole’s multi-volume edition of The Journals of Captain James Cook, published in 1955-1967 by the Hakluyt Society. The four volumes and portfolio of maps were reprinted in 1969 and republished in 1999. Nonetheless, one can expect to pay US$1,000 and up for copies of the set. These books are, however, more likely to be found in larger libraries than their 18th century predecessors.

The Beaglehole edition is remarkable, and is an excellent resource for much information about Cook. However, the utilitarian Beaglehole books provide not much else to true book lovers. They offer little to excite one’s senses and lack that special feel one gets when handling antiquarian volumes.

Finally, a number of the secondary accounts are available in less expensive modern editions from used book dealers. To see what’s available, check out some of the Internet book search engines at:


There is another alternative for those who would are fascinated by the original publications of Cook’s voyages yet lack the means to do so - collecting books about the books.

The collecting of books about Captain Cook can be a detailed and complex exercise, as there are literally thousands of books and other items related to the voyages. Of the numerous attempts to detail and categorize the major bibliographic works related to Cook, the best known first appeared in a slim 1936 volume entitled An Introduction to the Bibliography of Captain James Cook, R.N. Written by Maurice Holmes, it documented 108 items related to Cook. Captain James Cook, R.N., F.R.S.: A Bibliographical Excursion, Holmes’ revised and expanded edition, appeared in 1952. In addition to noting the bibliographic characteristics of the books, Holmes’ work describes the histories and significance of many of the items. For that reason, antiquarian books about Cook are often referenced by their number in the Holmes’ 1952 work, and the list he compiled has often been used as a checklist by avid collectors of Cook material. Most Cook collectors will encounter the 1952 Holmes in its 1968 reprint by the Franklin Press. In that form it usually commands US$35 to US$50, although the 1952 original can still be located for about twice as much.

Books graphic

The most significant bibliography of Cook material was compiled and edited by M.K. Beddie and published in 1970 by the Mitchell Library of the Library of New South Wales. A total revision and expansion of an earlier and less ambitious 1928 edition, Beddie’s Bibliography of Captain James Cook, R.N., F.R.S. catalogs and cross-indexes over 4,800 books, publications, artifacts and other Cook-related items that can be found (for the most part) in libraries and collections in Australia. A clever Internet shopper can usually locate a copy of Beddie’s book for between US$10 and US$25, although some booksellers still list the book for over US$150.

There are certainly other Cook bibliographies, but Holmes and Beddie are the ones most often encountered.

Specialized Catalogs

So what’s a Cook fan to do if he or she is attracted to original and antiquarian books about Cook’s voyages; but

  1. is not a diehard book collector;
  2. cannot afford original 18th century accounts of the voyages; and
  3. gets little thrill out of reading bibliographic descriptions?

There actually is an answer, and it’s the one chance those of us with more interest than income have to take advantage of the great collections of Cook material - specialized catalogs produced by auction houses and antiquarian booksellers.

Book collectors come in all types, but there is a very small group that has the means and interest to develop specialized collections of rare and valuable books. When such collections are ultimately passed on to others, it is usually by one of two pathways:

  1. donation to, or acquisition by, libraries; or
  2. the sale of individual books to others through auctions or specialized antiquarian book dealers.

While the great research libraries of the world offer amazing resources to those in search of information, they seldom produce non-scholarly listings of their specific collections that can be enjoyed by the casual collector. That’s an area where the auction houses and booksellers have an edge.

Even in the Internet age, high-end auction houses and booksellers often issue beautiful, well-researched catalogs that describe each individual book (often accompanied by high-quality color images), document each item’s history and significance, and cite other references where additional information can be obtained.

One of the best such catalogs to come along in a great while was recently published by Hordern House, 77 Victoria Street, Potts Point, NSW 2011, Australia (, a Sydney-based antiquarian bookseller with a long history of handling some of the "best of the best" when it comes to early publications related to Cook. The catalog in question is the first of two volumes describing the collection of Pacific voyage books from the library of David Parsons of Atlanta, Georgia.

According to Hordern House, David Parsons, one of the foremost collectors of voyage material, has assembled what is in many ways an ideal collection: exceptional copies of rare and important books. We are delighted to have been asked by him to catalogue and sell the Pacific voyage section of his library, the most valuable collection of Pacific voyage material to have been offered by a bookseller in modern times. The collection will be sold in two stages through fully illustrated catalogues. Part I covers the period from Dampier to Cook, the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth century. The second part will continue the story of Pacific discovery and exploration from La Pérouse to Wilkes, the immediate post-Cook period to the middle of the nineteenth century. The catalogues will prove an invaluable reference for collectors, booksellers, librarians and researchers.

This article is not intended to be an advertisement for Hordern House, and few of the members of the Captain Cook Society will be in a position to acquire items from the catalog. However, most members will be able to acquire the catalog itself, and with that single addition to their libraries they will come as close as they probably can to being able to enjoy and appreciate the wealth of early published material about Cook.

The catalog is stunning and is more likely to end up as a coffee table conversation piece than tucked away on a dusty bookshelf. It is hardbound with a color dust jacket and measures approximately 8.75? by 11?. Its 128 pages detail 138 items, including full descriptions and color illustrations. Sixty of those pages describe 68 separate items related to Cook. And with its price of AU$68 delivered worldwide, it’s about as inexpensive an introduction to the richness of the Cook literature as one is likely to find.

So if you want to have your own instant collection of the most significant works on Cook without spending many hundreds of thousands of dollars you should certainly consider getting the recent Hordern House catalog of the Parsons Collection.

Books graphic

Is there a downside to acquiring a copy of Hordern House’s publication? Only that you’ll probably feel the need to get the second installment when it’s released in 2006.

Ron Ravneberg

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 7, volume 29, number 1 (2006).

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