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Cook As A Commander - The Forsters on Cook


Writing as a supernumerary scientist on board the Resolution, and experiencing the extreme privations and fatigues of the second ice-edge cruise in Antarctic waters in 1774, Johann Reinhold Forster lambasted Cook for continuing the exploration of the South Pacific Ocean in order to prove or disprove the existence of the fabled Terra Australis Incognita - the unknown southern continent. Forster thought that Cook would be unable to keep a healthy ship’s company in the forthcoming dangers of sailing off Cape Horn, "if they be called up several times a night & go down wet through without being able to dry themselves or to shift cloths." He thought too, that Cook’s perseverance would cost the lives of, "the poor Sailors or at least their healths." People like Cook, he maintained, should be employed on schemes to find what, at the time, were the equally-fabled north-east and north-west passages between the Atlantic and the Pacific; "but wo! the poor Crew under them", contended Forster.1 He little knew how prophetic he was being.

Writing as an historian after all Cook’s voyages were over, Forster Senior, first of all in 1781, describes Cook as, "a cross grained fellow who sometimes showed a mean disposition and was carried away by a hasty temper", displaying an "overbearing attitude which was the result of having his head turned by Lord Sandwich."2 Later, in 1786, while discussing the career of Richard Pickersgill, he discusses two or three different occasions, when, he alleges that, "Cook hurried away by his passions", had treated the lieutenants and midshipmen rather too harshly and in a manner, "hardly fit for a gentleman to bear with". Pickersgill’s open disagreement with such treatment probably did his career no good, thought Forster.3 Nevertheless, despite these strictures, Forster could proclaim, when describing the manner of Cook’s death:

Thus fell this truly glorious and justly admired navigator.-If we consider his extreme abilities, both natural and acquired, the firmness and consistency of his mind, the paternal care of the crew entrusted to him, the amiable manner with which he knew how to gain the friendship of all the savage and uncultivated nations, and even his conduct towards his friends and acquaintance, we must acknowledge him to have been one of the greatest men of his age, and that Reason justifies the tear which Friendship pays to his memory. He was not free from faults, but these were more than counterbalanced by his superior qualities and it is very unfortunate that on this last voyage he should have no friend with him, who by his wisdom and prudence might have withheld and prevented him from giving vent to his passions which in fact became so detrimental to himself, as to occasion his destruction.4

In his reference to a friend to guide Cook, Forster is repeating an earlier allegation in his preface to Rickman’s Journal, that Banks, Solander, George Forster and himself brought, "civilizing influence"5 to bear on the man who took them on their ocean voyages.6

Cook der Entdecker

Johann Forster’s 1786 historical work was followed a year later by his son George’s essay, "Cook der Entdecker" ["Cook the Discoverer"]. George, drawing on his own experience, discusses Cook’s relationships with the crew of the Resolution in superb prose that is a pleasure to read. Michael Hoare has examined Forster’s essay, has quoted extensively from it, and summarises Forster’s opinions about Cook, in another essay, ‘Cook the Discoverer: An essay by George Forster, 1787’.7 As Hoare’s essay is published in an Australian scholarly journal not easily accessible to many readers, I propose therefore, to retrace some of the ground that Hoare has covered, bearing on Cook’s relations with his crews, since "Cook der Entdecker" throws so much light on Cook as a governor of men. I will indicate some of the salient points that Hoare has made about "Cook der Entdecker"; then follow this up with quotations from the translation of the same work that P. E. Klarwill has made; and which is available in New Zealand in typescript, in the archives of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.8

Hoare has drawn attention to George Forster’s claim that he had, "done justice to Cook, or rather procured it for the first time, for his merits certainly have been until now [1787] incompletely recognized."9 Also, Hoare has shown that Forster’s essay:

was written with a deep appreciation of the state of contemporary [eighteenth century] European science and philosophy; a first hand knowledge of the personalities and ethos of England and a growing awareness of the significance of the great movements of his day. It must rank as one of the most important contemporary assessments of Cook.10

Another point Hoare makes, is:

Beaglehole, in the short character sketch of George that he gives in his introduction to Cook’s journal of the second voyage has given little credit to Forster’s active philosophy and his deep seated humanitarianism. It was the man of action; the humane leader and the man of intellectual perception that Forster admired most in Cook.11

Hoare points out too, that it was Forster’s desire to see (in his own words), "how far he [Cook] has led his century on in knowledge and Enlightenment; what increase human happiness has gained through his efforts."12

Hoare notes, that Forster did not set out to present a life history of Cook ,but sought, "to summarize Cook’s discoveries, define their limits, trace their capable organization and interrelationships, as well as many of their important consequences, and so establish a humble memorial not only to the sailor and discoverer, but also to the man."13

In another context, Hoare calls attention to the fact that Forster, writing about the hardships of the ice-edge cruises of the second voyage, which he had experienced himself, is able to show that, "In the face of unprecedented hardships, of sickness [that Cook incurred and which nearly caused his death] and of flagging morale, Cook displayed his obstinacy and powers of leadership to the full.14

The second part of "Cook der Entdecker" deals with the manner in which Cook organized the three voyages. Hoare writes:

Forster is seeking out, the man who is the soul of the whole enterprise, who does everything for himself and sees with his own eyes, who penetrates the future and weighs up events and who, in the testing moment of decision is completely in control of himself’ and his own ship.15

Other Comments by George Forster

The above, are some of the salient points in captain-crew relationships that are dealt with in the first halves of Forster’s and Hoare’s essays. As to how Forster saw Cook in relation to his shipmates on the voyage, let Forster speak for himself, first of all on the complements of Cook’s ships:

Among the matters under his care, his companions took pride of place. Men are the strongest mainsprings set in motion by a greater man as well as the tools by means of which he achieves everything. Thus, the success of his undertakings depends on the care with which they are handled. For his lengthy voyages of discovery Cook chose above all sailors distinguished by their skill in all their tasks, their hardened and healthy bodies and their youth…

His greatest strength lay in the large number of capable officers whom he had obtained from his superiors. Despite the fact that his ship carried a mere eighteen guns and thus according to the usual rules of the Navy should carry only one lieutenant, he was assigned three, as well as three master’s mates; instead of two midshipmen he was allowed to pay six as well as taking with him several without pay. This system was of the greatest use in carrying out his itinerary. One advantage was the three watch system-lieutenant, a mate and several midshipmen per watch. Each third of the crew had to be on duty for twelve hours every third day only, but six hours on the other two days. Middle watch had to be done by the same man only every third day. Off duty spells often lasted twice as long as they would have according to the usual system.16

On Cook’s treatment of his crews and the responses he got from them, Forster’s account must rank high in written appreciations of naval commanders:

Even more effective was the firm trust of the crew in the wise leadership of the captain and the awe with which his abilities and character were regarded by everyone on board. Partly his voluntary abstinence from any pleasure which would have set him apart from his men and partly the innumerable examples of his indefatigable paternal care of his crew strengthened their trust in him to the pitch of enthusiasm. A party which he allowed them to hold at the right time, an invigorating drink which he had served when the weather was too cold or after some hard work had tired the men out, a trait of humane feeling, when he gave up his own quarters so that the sailmaker could work in greater comfort there, and many other little things of this nature won for him the hearts of these rough and tough fellows, who had seldom been treated like this before.

One can therefore say with justification that his discipline was exemplary and this perhaps the more so since those officers who had been transferred from other warships to Cook’s command did in general not consider it strict enough. Does not this blame do honour to Cook? How beautiful this contrast of a great man who honours humanity even in a common sailor, compared with those naval despots in whose school his critics had been taught to consider their arbitrariness as the supreme law? However, only he who himself had got to know and detest, when on the lower rung of the naval service, the iron hand of such petty tyrants was able to feel for the sailors. Cook punished rarely and unwillingly never without pressing need and always with moderation. Never did he interfere with the innocent pleasures of his crew; rather, he encouraged them and gave them leave to play.17

Regarding the training Cook gave to his officers and midshipmen, George Forster draws attention to, "The spirit of competition and ambition with which their commander had imbued them",18

and describes how, from the young men who accompanied him on his first voyage and from the midshipmen entrusted to his care by their parents:

he gradually trained several excellent officers, some of whom accompanied him on subsequent voyages while others proved a credit to his training at other stations... Thus by long habit they had assimilated Cook’s methods in all fields of service at sea and his strict supervision had afforded them continuous practice. Where the noble drive to excel was combined with the advantage of patterning oneself after so great an example, was it to be wondered at that a certain degree of perfection was attained?18

In his final summation of Cook’s abilities and character, Forster saw him as possessing:

An imagination which quickly and clearly grasped and understood the condition of things; an ability to judge which understood correctly and decided impartially; an irritability of feelings, the excess of which at times led to violent outbursts, but which more frequently governed by reason, inclined towards justice, kindness and humaneness; traits of character which bear witness to the nobility of his soul were one day to bear fruit for great purposes in Cook, the son of a tenant farmer.19

George Forster’s appreciation of Cook as contained in "Cook der Entdecker" and translations of it, needs to be more widely disseminated. This would allow a greater understanding of Cook to be achieved, especially in the English-speaking world. Michael Hoare’s essay on "Cook der Entdecker", should also have a wider audience.

Allan Arlidge


  1. Hoare, Michael E.(ed.), The Resolution Journal of Johann Reinhold Forster, vol. III, pp. 443-44.
  2. Preface to the German (Berlin 1781) edition of [Rickman, John], The Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean.
  3. Forster, Johann Reinhold, Histories of the Voyages and Discoveries made in the North, London and Dublin 1786, pp. 407-08.
  4. ibid., p.404.
  5. The phrase is Beaglehole’s.
  6. See Beaglehole, Journals II, p. xlvii and Hoare, The Tactless Philosopher: Johann Reinhold Forster, Melbourne 1976, pp. 237-38.
  7. Hoare, in Records - Australian Academy of Science, vol.1, no.4, 1969, pp. 7-16.
  8. Klarwill, P. E., Typescript translation of "Cook der Entdecker", extracted from Forster, J.G.A., Werke in Vier Bänden [Frankfurt am Main 1968] v2: Kleine Schriften zur aturgeschite, Länder-und Volkerkunde, pp.105-224. MS Papers 1485. Folder 1, Forster Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand.
  9. Hoare, "Cook the Discoverer", p. 8.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., p. 9.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid., p. 12
  16. Klarwill, pp. 45-46. Cook did not invent the three-watch system. Wallis used it before him and there were probably other uses of it before Wallis. See Warner, Oliver, (ed.), An Account of the Discovery of Tahiti: From the Journal of George Robertson Master of H.M.S. Dolphin, London, 1973, p. 10.
  17. Klarwill p.49. See also Bodi, Leslie, "George Forster, the ‘Pacific Expert’ of the Eighteenth Century Germany" in Historical Studies Australia and New Zealand, vol. 8, no.32, 1959, p.356: "Forster emphasised Cook’s fatherly care for his crew, his solicitude for the health and good spirits of the seafaring men."
  18. ibid., p. 79.
  19. ibid., p. 80.

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 6, volume 28, number 2 (2005).

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