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Undiscovery: Writing a Dissertation


In 2015, David Chaplin, a relatively new member of the Captain Cook Society, completed a dissertation on Cook titled, Undiscovery: Captain James Cook’s final letter to his wife, Elizabeth; A Forgery.  In doing his research and writing, David relied heavily on the CCS web site.
I found the CCS website invaluable during the research and writing of my dissertation.  I discovered it early in the process when I was trying to track down the Muster Book for Endeavour.  My focus later changed to the Third Voyage, and I found vital information as to James Boswell and Samuel Johnson, as well as Elizabeth Cook and William Watman.  It was not my only source; I was saturated in the subject, and surrounded by books also, but I constantly referred to the site to confirm or contrast details.
As it is a conscious forgery, the literary theory in the Introduction was vital for my dissertation - and raised its mark significantly - but would be unlikely to appeal to non-academic aficionados.  It does make sense of some aspects of the Creative Text, however.


The dissertation, which received a first class, was presented for the degree of Bachelor of Arts, English and Creative Writing at Plymouth University.  


It is available on the CCS web site.1 


Background to the Dissertation


My first ever school report, aged 5½, says that I only ever stayed still for stories.  The word my teacher used was “rapt”.  I have never lost that feeling.  I fell in love with the idea of the eighteenth-century sailing ships at the age of eleven, when I discovered C.S. Forester’s Hornblower series.  My father encouraged me with Alexander Kent’s Bolitho series.  Later I was lucky enough to pick up Patrick O’Brian’s Aubery / Maturin stories very early, so I have first editions of many of them.  In the early nineties I discovered the Conway Maritime Press Anatomy of the Ship series, which deepened my comprehension of the ships themselves.  One of the first I bought was for Endeavour.  About thirty-five years ago, my father also gave me a hardback copy of Alistair Maclean’s biography of Captain Cook.2  It sat unread on my shelf for years, yet I never threw it away as I was curious about Cook.  He lived adventure, yet not war.


In this way I have had a life-long fascination for the seafarers and the naval architecture of eighteenth-century ships, of the hardships of existing in a wooden sailing ship that is constantly falling apart, with only the skills, efforts and fortitude of its captain and crew to wrest its fate from the violence of wind and ocean.


For the final year dissertation of my English and Creative Writing degree at Plymouth University, I wanted to explore the potentialities of this defining period that created the British maritime empire.  I could have written of Nelson’s iconic “Band of Brothers”, or of naval heroes such as Edward Pellew, Lord Cochrane or even Nelson himself, but I wanted the idea of adventure without the glorification of war.


My first draft was set during the Endeavour voyage, and was narrated by Sydney Parkinson, a Quaker, and the voyage’s main artist.  I found Parkinson’s humility and genuine piety comfortable to write, even though I do not share his beliefs, and his ignorance of actual seafaring matches my own.  As an observer, in many ways, he was ideal.  I had him expressing Cook’s humanity and leadership over the sauerkraut and bewailing the grog issue, especially after the death of his fellow Scot, the Quartermaster Alexander Weir, in Funchal roads.3  I ascribed the cause to alcohol induced carelessness and leave Parkinson much affected.  However, the narrative arc for Parkinson leads to his death from dysentery in the Indian Ocean.  To all accounts, he remained unafraid to his end, which attracted me as a story-teller, yet ultimately I felt that my interpretation of his character would become too morally upright for me to sustain his narration.  It was too easy to become “preachy”.


My dissertation supervisor, Min Wild – who also loves sea stories of the period – asked me an important question, “What is new about your creative piece?”  I must admit that it threw me completely.  “New?” I thought.  “She wants new?  It’s nearly two hundred and fifty years ago!”  I knew what she meant, though.  What had not been written before; what could I bring into existence?


The image of an elderly Elizabeth Cook sitting at her hearth and slowly burning all of her husband’s letters immediately sprang to mind.  Re-creating these, at least in part, became my intent.


From there, it was a case of choosing which voyage to focus on and why.  It made sense that the extended letter could become lost after Cook’s death.  That made me choose his final voyage.  Then I needed to have an idea to write about.  Nearly all fiction of the subject just cycles through what happened – this, then that, etc.  Hanging my tale off the information that Cook might have been ill, and his illness was causing him to get progressively out of control emotionally became my central theme.  


I was conscious from the start that I was making it up.  Cook is such a historical figure that I felt I needed to tread carefully.  I was also aware that I was going to be heavily reliant on Cook’s extant writings—his published Journals.  The way he wrote, his syntax, spellings and Capitalisations were highly idiosyncratic, even for the eighteenth-century.  I was also going to need to lift a lot of his own words from his journals, which put me very seriously in danger of plagiarism—the academic bogey-man! 


It was for this reason I came up with the idea of a conscious forgery.  It gives a great weight of literary theory, which was important academically, and gets me out of the firing line of those who disagree with my precepts.  Nice touch, I thought.  Also, writing this in as a sub-text was a lot of fun—a sort of detective element for the literary and historical cognoscenti.  Writing is an immersive process and the irony of openly creating a forgery gave me chuckles out loud, sometimes in public. 


As a penniless student, my book purchasing budget was tiny, and also had to cover my other modules.  I still managed to buy half a dozen useful second hand reference books, the most important being the Penguin edition of The Journals by James Cook himself, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog and Mr Bligh’s Bad Language.4


Plymouth University library supplied a shelf-full of background reading, including the two biographies I used by Richard Hough and Nicholas Thomas.5  I found it interesting that Hough pushed the idea that Cook was ill, and that his increasing violence and loss of emotional control was caused by his illness, whereas Thomas ignored the illness, and rubbished the change in personality.  I navigated between them, selecting what I wanted and ignoring the rest.


I suppose I could have dug further and read more—one always can.  Yet I had to complete my research and write my dissertation in only seven months.  This may sound a long time, but I can assure you it is not, especially when the dissertation is only one of five modules.


Writing my text was hugely entertaining, yet really quite complicated.  I needed all my reference books all of the time, and was surrounded by them.  Although the internet was invaluable for checking a vast wealth of detail – for which the Captain Cook Society website was pre-eminent – I could not possibly have had enough screens or browser tabs open and available.  I also like the physical reality of books, as they reinforce my idea of what I am doing.  If you have ever got stuck into a page-turner and could not put it down – even late at night – and then felt bereft when it ended, you can magnify the feelings to the power of ten for the writer.  Adrenalin bends time, fatigue goes unnoticed, fascination is accentuated by the uncertainty of what is coming next.


David Chaplin


  1. www.CaptainCookSociety.com/portals/ccs/Files/Undiscovery.pdf
  2. MacLean, Alistair.  Captain Cook.  Collins.  1972. 
  3. Cook’s Log, page 953, vol. 16, no. 3 (1993). 
  4. Edwards, Philip.  The Journals of Captain Cook.  Penguin Books.  1999. 
    Salmond, Anne.  The Trial of the Cannibal Dog.  Allen Lane.  2003. 
    Dening, Greg.  Mr Bligh’s Bad Language.  Cambridge University Press.  1994.
  5. Hough, Richard.  Captain James Cook: A biography.  Hodder & Stoughton.  1994. 
    Thomas, Nicholas.  Discoveries: The voyages of Captain Cook.  Allen Lane.  2003. 


Originally published in Cook's Log, page 26, volume 38, number 4 (2015).

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