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Captain Cook in Alaska and the North Pacific Barnett, James K. 2008

 

Carr 1983Captain Cook in Alaska and the North Pacific.
By James K. Barnett, and published in 2008 by Todd Communications. ISBN 9781578334087

It was only after I had agreed to review this book that I discovered that the author has been a practicing attorney in Alaska for 35 years, so I am choosing my words with far more care than usual. It may be more pertinent to say that the author, James Barnett, has been the President of the Cook Inlet Historical Society since 1998, and is well known for his research into the early history of the coast of N.W. America.

His book about Alaska is similar to many of his predecessors who have focussed on a discrete geographical area that Captain Cook visited. The author had a rich and varied range of source material to draw upon and I suspect that the most difficult part of his work was deciding what to leave out. I believe that this is the first book to look specifically at Cook's visit to Alaska, and it was published in May 2008 to commemorate the 230th anniversary of Cook sailing into Cook Inlet.

The author traces Cook's voyage from March 1778, when he encountered the coast of modern day Oregon, to the return of Resolution and Discovery to London in October 1780. This short period of some 30 months is recounted in 11 chapters covering different stages of the voyage, including the winter visit to Hawai'i. A final chapter records those who visited the Alaskan coasts after Cook including La Perouse, Malaspina, Billings, the Nootka incident, and of course the epic voyage of George Vancouver.

The reader is able to relate the author's commentary to Cook's progress along the coast with the help of a useful map inside the front cover. But, as the map only traces the path of Resolution from May to October 1778, it does not show the course of the ship when Clerke returned to the Arctic in the summer of 1779.

I enjoyed the author's literary style which follows the chronology of the voyage at a leisurely pace, finding time to introduce associated themes at appropriate junctures. So that by the end of the book the reader is fully aware of issues such as scurvy, longitude and the sea otter trade. The author shows considerable skill in bringing together the extracts from the journals of Cook and his crew. These extracts have been carefully chosen and enhance the story that is being told. Those who are familiar with Cook's Third Voyage will find little new in this book, but as the old saying goes, a good tale deserves retelling.

Now and again the author takes the opportunity to add some relevant historical background to local aspects of the Cook voyage. Whilst welcoming this new information I was a little disappointed that the author did not provide any interpretation of the cultural behaviour of the indigenous peoples as recorded by Cook. Maybe I have been spoilt by reading Anne Salmond's "The Trial of the Cannibal Dog" where she contrasts journal extracts with a Maori interpretation of events. This lack of such detail is worthy only of being noted rather than being a complaint.

The 250 pages of text are augmented by 40 pages of colour illustrations printed on fine art paper. Many of these illustrations are reproductions of Webber's original drawings, reflecting the high quality of the illustrations.

The author has included two useful appendices; one is a detailed chronology of Cook's Third Voyage giving dates of arrival and departure at various locations, the other lists the place-names assigned by Cook to various geographical features. Wherever possible the author provides some background as to why Cook gave certain names.

The book contains footnotes to each chapter, with Beaglehole being prominent amongst the entries. There are several pages of bibliography relating to the printed word, but the author does not refer the reader to any Internet sources of information. The book ends with a useful index to those people and places referred to in the story of the voyage.

This book is published as an A5 paperback, but this in no way detracts from the high quality of the publication. The spine appears to have been stitched and glued, thus ensuring that copies of this book will be around for many years to come, and deservedly so.

Reviewer: Cliff Thornton

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 38, volume 27, number 2 (2009).

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