Nigel Rigby and Peter van der Merwe,
Captain Cook in the Pacific.
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
On the 28th June 2002 a new exhibition opened at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, UK, entitled "Oceans of Discovery". Running until the 27th April 2003, it "illustrates the fascinating story of human endeavour to explore and understand the world and its oceans" from early beginnings to date. Part of the exhibition "examines the progress during the age of Enlightenment (about 1700 – 1850) when a belief in the processes of scientific enquiry first came to the fore."
Captain Cook in the Pacific appears in the wake of this exhibition, although it has limited scope and is more a summary than an in-depth examination. However, as such it is a good starting point, highlighting the main aspects of the voyages and the main characters. It has a small but interesting bibliography and chronologies for the three voyages, a useful tool for the Cook beginner such as myself. This book outlines Cook's life and voyages in the context of his times, with many illustrations from the Museum's own collection, showing how Cook "deserves to be seen as the first modern scientific explorer of the oceans".
A fine introduction by Glyn Williams, setting the scene by describing earlier voyages into the Pacific, leads you into two chapters describing Cook's three voyages. The next four chapters deal with the scientific and artistic aspects, looking in turn at how vessels were adapted for Pacific exploration, "Experimental Gentlemen" – science and empire in the Pacific, art and artists on Cook's voyages and Captain Cook and Pacific peoples, in particular the Maoris and Tahitians.
This book stands out for me as different to many I have come across as it pays less attention to the geographical impact the voyages had, instead concentrating more on the scientific and artistic impacts. It also focuses more on other characters who sailed with Cook rather than the man himself (though naturally he features from time to time!) This book is aimed at people like me who, despite the fact I have grown up with Cook always in the house, actually know very little about the man or the voyages. I found it very readable, although the chapter on art and artists lost me a little when it started discussing methods and techniques.
The book is well illustrated, with almost half of the space being devoted to the pictures and their explanations. The only criticism I have is on the chapter concerning art as the pictures discussed often appear elsewhere in the book (although page numbers are given) and so, when reading this section, much of my time was spent flicking through the book to find the right illustration.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 20, volume 26, number 1 (2003).