Nicandri, David L.
Captain Cook Rediscovered: Voyaging to the icy latitudes.
David Nicandri’s Introduction to this elegant volume summarises the arguments that he develops at length over the next 400 pages. Briefly, they are a counter-blast to the conventional expositions of Cook’s voyages that have dominated biographies of the explorer since the publication of J.C. Beaglehole’s authoritative and posthumous volume in 1974, and which see the main achievement of those voyages as their exploration of the idyllic South Sea islands from Tahiti to Hawaii. To begin with, Nicandri points out, Cook spent more time in icy latitudes than in tropical waters, and in his estimate was “a polar explorer of the first rank”. In this context Cook’s controversial Third Voyage “was not a continuation of his earlier voyages to the South Pacific, nor a fatal mistake, but a crowning navigational achievement”.
The book’s first chapters, brought together in a section headed Prequels, cover familiar ground: Cook’s early years on a Whitby collier and in the Royal Navy, his training as a cartographer, his superb charts of the Newfoundland coast, and his appointment to the Endeavour voyage. In his account of Cook’s command of Endeavour Nicandri is at pains to identify similarities between the oddities in Cook’s behaviour then and those on his Third Voyage, when for some he had become “a violent and irrational man”. Elsewhere Nicandri finds a parallel between his Cook’s vituperative criticisms of Russian charts on his Third Voyage, and the entry in his Endeavour journal condemning those “who publish to the world the rude sketches of the Navigator without telling what authority they have for so doing”.
The book’s next chapters, brought together under the heading A Frozen World, take us to the heart of the matter with their account of Cook’s Second Voyage, generally accepted as one of the greatest of all seaborne expeditions. In his three years away Cook demolished the theory of a great southern continent in temperate latitudes, took Resolution closer to the South Pole than any other vessel had ever been, and crossed the Antarctic Circle no fewer than three times, twice in the far reaches of the Pacific, once in the South Atlantic. It was a remarkable achievement for a small wooden sailing vessel. In Resolution Cook also visited New Zealand and Tahiti again, and touched for the first time on Easter Island, the Marquesas, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, but for Cook the islands and peoples of Polynesia were no longer his priority. With the exception of a few islands, “no discoveries of importance” remained to be made in the tropics, he wrote, and by the end of the voyage it was ice and how it was formed that dominated his thinking. Of visual evidence there was no shortage. Early, on his first crossing of the Antarctic Circle, Cook noted icebergs “two miles in circuit and sixty foot high”, while one day on the second crossing 186 icebergs were sighted from the masthead, all the size of a vessel. Discussing and arguing with the Forsters, father and son, Cook came to his own conclusions, as he dismissed the fashionable argument that sea ice was formed by the break-up of rivers. Much of this was to play an important part on the Third Voyage, emphatically described by Nicandri as “a greater accomplishment” than the Second, although he is careful to quote Cook’s identification of himself after his Antarctic ventures as one “who had ambition not only to go farther than any one had been before, but as far as it was possible for man to go”.
The chapters on Cook’s final, fatal voyage take up half the book and form its most original and, it must be said, contentious part. Following Beaglehole, most of Cook’s biographers argue that he should never have sailed on his Third Voyage, where his instructions (almost certainly self-composed) ordered him to reach latitude 65° N. on the northwest coast of America, “taking care not to lose any time in exploring Rivers or Inlets”. As Cook slowly crossed the Pacific his patience ran out as his timetable slipped, and his exasperation was marked in the islands of Polynesia by floggings, cropping of ears, and the destruction of huts and precious canoes. He was, such scholars insist, physically and mentally exhausted. Nicandri will have none of this. He points out that few of those in Resolution who criticised Cook’s behaviour had in fact sailed on his previous voyages, and so were in no position to make comparisons. He concedes that Cook “had tired of counting islands”, but insists that this “does not mean that he was tired of discovery”, as his time along the northwest coast was to show.
In March 1778, Cook sighted the “the long looked for Coast of New Albion” in latitude 44° 33’N., where Francis Drake had been almost 200 years earlier, and no Englishman since. He was still thousands of miles from his target area of 65° N., where he hoped to turn east in open water towards the distant Atlantic. As the ships began their long trek north along the coast the entrance now known as the Strait of Juan de Fuca was passed unseen in the gathering darkness, but Cook recorded that it was a “pretended” strait and that “we saw nothing like it, nor is there the least possibility that iver any such thing exhisted”. Farther north, and again out of sight of land, he was equally dismissive of openings supposedly discovered by the fictitious Bartholomew de Fonte in 1640. In fact openings did exist, and though they did not lead to a Northwest Passage, it seems strange that Cook made such emphatic denials of their reality before he was able to investigate the coastline. For Nicandri there was no problem, for the reports were “so preposterous” that they “strained credulity”.
As the ships reached Alaskan waters they investigated two large openings that were named Prince William Sound and Cook’s River (today’s Cook Inlet), but neither offered a way north to the promised ice-free sea. There was no sign of the island of “Alaschka” shown on Staehlin’s Russian chart, with its promised passage north along its east coast. Instead the ships were forced southwest along the tongue of the Alaskan peninsula until they could turn northwest and reach Bering Strait. This was a monumental discovery, and as the ships passed through their companies glimpsed open sea ahead, “free of land and we hope of ice”. But, in mid-August 1778, came the most disheartening moment of the entire voyage, as a great mass of ice filled the northern horizon. Its size, Cook pointed out, made nonsense of the fashionable assumption by “Closet studying Philosophers” that oceanic ice represented a single season’s break-up of the shallow frozen rivers of the northern lands.
For weeks the ships sailed back and forwards between the North American and Asian landmasses hoping to find a gap in the ice, until Cook realised that as winter approached he had no alternative but to retreat through Bering Strait. Once back in familiar waters Cook lashed out at Staehlin’s chart that had so misled him. “A Map that the most illiterate of his illiterate Sea-faring men would have been ashamed to put his name to”. To some historians Cook’s final voyage was a disappointment and a failure, but Nicandri points out how impressive the single season of exploration in foggy and ice-strewn waters had been. In a few months Cook had made dozens of observations establishing the latitudes and longitudes of the salient features of the northwest coast. He had touched on the coast of modern British Columbia and charted the Alaskan coastline. He had closed the gap between the Spanish probes from the south and the Russian trading ventures in the north. Although Cook did not realise the insular nature of much of the coast, with its maze of straits, inland waterways and islands, his charts showed for the first time the general shape and position of the northwest coast of America. Nicandri insists that those biographers who assert that by now Cook was weary of discovery have overlooked his decision that after wintering in the Hawaiian Islands he would return to Bering Strait the next summer.
This is not a book for the beginner, but for Cook specialists it offers much food for thought. Few will change their minds entirely on reading Nicandri’s arguments, but for many (including this reviewer) the book will make them look afresh at the well-worn accounts of Cook’s three voyages.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 40, volume 44, number 2 (2021).