Captain Cook: master of the seas McLynn, Frank. 2011

Captain Cook: master of the seas McLynn, Frank. 2011

McLynn, Frank. 
Captain Cook: master of the seas.
Yale University Press. 
ISBN 9780300114218.

So we have another biography of James Cook. At first glance the book looks impressive. It is thick (nearly 500 pages) with a large section of colour illustrations and fifty pages of endnotes. The publisher is one of the most impeccable American academic bodies with a fine track record, while the author is an academic historian with twenty or so books to his name. So where did it all go wrong?

In dealing with Cook, one man represents both a tremendous benefit and, at the same time, a huge problem. John Cawte Beaglehole lies at the heart of Cook scholarship. His editions of the journals of Cook's three Pacific voyages published by the Hakluyt Society represent some of the foremost historical research of the twentieth century while his magisterial Cook biography, published after Beaglehole's own death remains the definitive work on the explorer. As such, all writers coming after Beaglehole, including this reviewer, draw extensively from his works.

However, Beaglehole did not get everything right, missed some things and his coverage of Cook's life before the Pacific is not nearly as good as the Pacific part. Later writers have also taken Beaglehole to task for some of his interpretations, for example his negative attitude to Johann Reinhold Forster.

Anyone attempting a new biography, therefore, has a daunting task in front of him or her, given Beaglehole has covered most things. What could or should we expect from such a new work? New information for a start not available to earlier writers; and new perspectives or interpretations of existing information assuming a better understanding of past events now exists. So does McLynn offer either of these in his book? Sadly, the answer is a loud no.

As stated above McLynn is the author of many books already. His Wikipedia entry calls him an author and journalist, so he knows how to write, and this book is very readable, flowing along at a merry pace. Wikipedia also lists his previous books including biographies of such diverse people as Charles Edward Stuart, Henry Morton Stanley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Napoleon, Carl Jung and Marcus Aurelius. Cook is the latest in a long line. But that body of work suggests something else: that McLynn is a butterfly writer flitting from subject to subject and that he acquires a superficial knowledge of a subject, writes a book on it and then moves quickly on to his next project.

That this is the case with his Cook book comes across strongly. There is a lack of feel for matters surrounding Cook and there are just far too many errors for anyone who had studied Cook properly. For example Elizabeth Cook's father was Samuel not John Batts while her cousin, not her brother, was a watchmaker. It was Nathaniel Portlock, not Porlock, on the Third Voyage and James, not William, Patten who saved Cook's life on the Second Voyage (and there are many more of these mistakes). One or two errors could be explained away by poor proof reading, but there are just too many for this excuse to hold.

Beaglehole is least successful when covering Cook's early life and McLynn is equally sketchy over this period. He manages to introduce several unproven anecdotes, including the South Seas Shilling story at Staithes, before usually dismissing them as being without substance. He even suggests Thomas Skottowe may have been Cook's real father! And an incident at Quebec that happened to Thomas Bissett (nearly being captured by North American Indians while surveying in a small boat) is applied incorrectly to Cook.

Chapter 2 begins on page 18 with a reproduction of a chart of Halifax Harbour by James Cook. Unfortunately for McLynn, the chart is by a different James Cook. Proper research would have revealed to him that three James Cooks operated as Royal Navy masters in Nova Scotia in the 1760s and all drew charts. Similarly, the first illustration in the book, opposite page 172, purports to be the first portrait of James Cook dated 1759. Now, the three accepted portraits of Cook by Dance, Webber and Hodges do not resemble each other very much but this portrait (allowing for it being about 13 years earlier) looks nothing like any of them. It would be interesting to know on what evidence this portrait can be said to be of Cook.

McLynn can write, but I find it somewhat pretentious that he litters his text with so many foreign phrases; examples, including via dolorosa, coup de theatre, fidus Achates, bien pensant and coup de foudre, crop up regularly. Linked to that he adds accents to French names (La Pérouse) but largely ignores them in Pacific words so that Hawai`i appears as Hawaii and M?ori appears as Maori (M?ori is also a plural so there is no need to put M?oris). Given that we no longer put Otaheiti for Tahiti it seems strange that Omai continues to appear when the man's name was Mai. McLynn also likes throwing in long or obscure words such as fuliginous (dusky), anfractuous (winding or circuitous) and nugatory (futile or worthless). They add little or nothing to the text.

McLynn proceeds to criticise Cook for not understanding the complexities of Tahitian society. One of the pluses of the book is that McLynn does provide an explanation of that society, but he is able to do so with two hundred years' hindsight. Sadly, he does not give similar backgrounds to Tongan and M?ori society, which were equally complex to the outsider. Cook was no anthropologist, so to expect him to grasp these matters in a matter of a few weeks and with the added problem of not being able to freely converse because of language is unrealistic.

Having conducted myself some research on James Wolfe, the "victor" at Quebec in 1759, I do not pretend to be a particular admirer of the general. McLynn, though, positively detests the man and every mention is accompanied by a vicious put down. On the other hand, Cook is compared several times with the explorer of Africa, Henry Stanley, whom McLynn obviously admires. The following strange comment occurs on page 1: "In both men the early years and subsequent trial of surviving the snobbery of their 'betters' left a legacy of subterranean rage, more easily visible from an early age with Stanley, but in Cook's case slowly germinating with ultimately fatal results."

To my mind, McLynn could not be more wrong in understanding Cook, and does little in the book to substantiate his statement. To use a twentieth century expression, Cook was a working class tory. He accepted how society was, even taking comfort from it, and would have been appalled by later events like the French Revolution had he lived to witness them. He believed in hard work and, through it, the possibility of some advancement. His ultimate downfall owed nothing to a "subterranean rage" about class. This piece from McLynn sets a tone for the book which should make the reader wary of what is to follow. Other throw away assessments appear.

Throughout the book, McLynn dwells upon gales and also 100-foot waves. Indeed, 100-foot waves warrant a separate appendix. Ships' logs of the period dutifully recorded the weather so every wind or calm was mentioned. However, this was long before Beaufort had developed his terminology for different winds and Cook and others used gale for any moderate to strong wind. Anyway, for Cook storms were a fact of life and represented one of the many risks of going to sea.

Ian Boreham, when asking me to review this book, said that if I did not like it (and, by now, you have probably detected that I do not) I needed to recommend another biography and that I could not nominate Beaglehole.

That was a difficult request, and my suggestion is not really a biography in the usual sense. However, John Gascoigne's book, Captain Cook: voyager between worlds is a must, providing, as it does, a fresh insight into assessing and understanding Cook's achievements. And, if you have any money left, then grab a copy of James Cook and the exploration of the Pacific, the extended catalogue of the exhibition that has been touring Europe lately. Some of the accompanying text is poor but the illustrations are wonderful and help bring the voyages to life.

John Robson


  1. Gascoigne, John. Captain Cook: voyager between worlds. Continuum Books, 2007. Reviewed in Cook's Log, page 43, vol. 30, no. 4 (2007).
  2. James Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific. Edited by H. E. Bödeker, Chr. Feest, B. Hauser-Schäublin, R. Joppien, A. L. Kaeppler, G. Krüger. Thames and Hudson. 2009. Also published in German and French. Reviewed in Cook's Log, page 45, vol. 33, no. 1 (2010).

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 42, volume 34, number 3 (2011).

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