Captain Cook: Explorations and Reassessments. Williams, Glyndwr. 2004

Captain Cook: Explorations and Reassessments. Williams, Glyndwr. 2004

Williams, Glyndwr (ed).
Captain Cook: Explorations and Reassessments.
Boydell Press.
ISBN 1 84383 100 7.

It has taken two years to produce this book of the conference, with the same name, held at Middlesbrough. Thirteen of the papers presented then have been rewritten to take advantage of the different medium with, for example, extensive footnotes, though Cliff Thornton will be disappointed to see his name miss-spelled (page 19, note 17). Glyn Williams has taken the material from the varied presenters and ensured a consistency for the general reader who will enjoy this book as much as anyone who attended the conference.

Rosalin Barker gets the book off to a cracking start with a description of the men and ships of Whitby’s fleet when "Cook began his seafaring". It was the sixth largest fleet in England, though it "carried comparatively little trade to or from Whitby". Though little is known of what happened to James Cook at this time, Barker has spent many years trawling through the records of the shipowners, etc., and paints a wonderful picture of what it must have been like for him. Amongst other things I learnt were "When, during the Severn Years War, Cook served in Canada, he would have seen familiar Whitby ships, and men, serving in the transport service." And, "The scurvy grass, wild cabbage and wild celery (or lovage), all grow on Whitby cliffs"

Richard Allen looks at the possible Quaker influence on Cook, drawing on the "hitherto unexplored Quaker records of the Scarborough and Whitby Quaker meetings" concluding that many people have "read too much into Cook’s Quakerly characteristics. It could be argued that Cook’s life does not demonstrate anything other than a commitment to his job". Though he points out that "many aspects of his life epitomise the Quaker virtues".

Andrew Cook has turned his wonderful visual talk at the conference into a great written piece on how "Cook’s first voyage was properly the Royal Society’s expedition", though not the others. The story of how the Royal Society initiated and planned the voyage to observe the Transit of Venus in the southern hemisphere is told well, with appropriate quotes from the minute books, etc. Dr Cook’s recent researches shows how many Fellows met for dinner with non-Fellows at the "Royal Society Club, or the Club of the Royal Philosophers" at the Mitre Tavern in London. After the voyage Banks became a member of the club, and Cook attended as a guest.

Stuart Murray considers the written records from the voyages and how "the desire on the part of the journal keepers to be descriptive reveals time and time again the limits of language at the moment of culture contact." As an example Murray compares the way several people on board the Endeavour recorded the events on 19 July 1770 at Endeavour River. Though the similarities are striking the differences are very illuminating.

Anne Salmond points out that for the last decade of his life Cook "had spent much of his time in Polynesia, where reality and the self were understood quite differently", and considers how Polynesia changed Cook so much that on the Third Voyage "he became increasingly volatile and violent, and his men called him ‘Tute’, his Tahitian name, and spoke of him as a Polynesian despot."

Pauline Nawahineokala‘i King looks at the Native Hawaiian attitudes towards Cook, and Daniel Clayton considers Cook’s arrival at Nootka Sound. John Robson compares the Pacific voyages of Cook and Bougainville, in particular the charts produced, concluding that "Bougainville left the map of the Pacific much as he had found it… Cook, on the other hand, drew the map of the Pacific as we know it today".

Robin Inglis describes the French and Spanish voyages that followed in Cook’s wake, and Simon Werrett explains the reactions of the Russians to Cook’s final voyage, arguing that "enthusiasm for Cook and voyages of discovery was restricted to scholarly circles, failing to penetrate to the court and government".

Sujit Sivasundaram compares the martyrdoms of Captain James Cook and Reverend John Williams; the latter was a Pacific missionary killed in Tonga in 1840. Andrew Lambert describes his time on the Endeavour replica as one of the six historians in the "BBC project to retrace part of Cook’s first Pacific voyage". To join the ship "we rowed out some three miles", which taught him his first lesson: "In the eighteenth century everything took a very long time". Although he had to leave early, suffering from pneumonia, his "reflections on Cook were profoundly affected by the experience of this trip".

Glyndwr Williams ended the conference with a reassessment of Cook following his death, but the expanded chapter does not end the book, coming instead just before that of Lambert, which is a shame. In the book’s Introduction Williams touches on a point he made at the conference: "the unexplained disappearance of Cook’s journal that (presumably) he kept during his last days". Regrettably he says no more about it in this book. Instead he gives an expanded history of the attitudes to Cook since his death: in Britain and France, by those who knew him (such as George Forster) and those that did not, by the editors of his journals (John Douglas and John Beaglehole), by his biographers (Kippis, Young and Beaglehole), by the inhabitants of places Cook visited (Australia, New Zealand and Hawai‘i), by historians and anthropologists.

Like the conference, this book has something for everyone. Better than the conference, this book provides more information, the chance to re-read passages and consider their deeper meanings, and, of course, lasts considerably longer. It was worth waiting the two years.

Ian Boreham

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 37, volume 28, number 1 (2005).

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