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The Making of John Ledyard: empire and ambition in the life of an early American traveler Gray, Edward G. 2007


Carr 1983The Making of John Ledyard: empire and ambition in the life of an early American traveler
By Edward G. Gray, and published in 2007 by Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-11055-5

In some ways this is a straightforward biography of the American John Ledyard, corporal of marines on Cook's Third Voyage. A "long series of failures" according to Gray, as he failed to graduate, failed to become a lawyer or join the clergy, failed in business, failed to make money from the publication of his journals of the Third Voyage, failed to cross Russia and failed to penetrate Africa. However, it is fascinating to read of Ledyard's various quests and difficult not to like him. Along the way Gray points out that Cook's crew "received no individual recognition in his journals unless they had died or had somehow failed in their duties", so Cook's description of the mission he sent Ledyard on to visit some Russians makes him stand out.

In two of the ten chapters Gray diverts from "a tale of Ledyard's life to an analysis of a specific aspect of his thought or behavior." In chapter four Gray writes about journal keeping on Cook's ships. According to James Burney, Ledyard had petitioned his superiors before the voyage for an appointment as the official historian of the voyage. Later he presented Captain Charles Clerke with a specimen of his writing. Burney's own attempts at writing are illustrated in this book with a sheet from his journal written "in tiny script on Chinese rice paper", which I'd never seen before. Gray also includes in his biography a reproduction of a page from "the Resolution's paybook" listing the marines. Beneath Ledyard's name is "a small notation recording his promotion to sergeant". Something else I'd not seen before.

Ledyard published his journal of the voyage in 1783. It was the first book in America to be protected by a new copyright law and Gray describes how that came about and its importance. According to Gray the writing is a typical mingling by Ledyard of "speculative natural history with romantic prose". It is one of the few journals that included questions about Cook's leadership.

Gray notes that the tattoos Ledyard obtained at Tahiti later marked him "as a distinct sort of gentleman" though in Russia there were people who thought the marks were "the appellation of wild men". Gray concludes that Ledyard's principal assets were "his experience, his intellect, his candor".

There have been two other recent biographies of Ledyard, so is there any value in a third? Yes, is the answer.

Reviewer: Ian Boreham

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 47, volume 31, number 3 (2008).

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