Captain James Cook and the Search for Antarctica. James C. Hamilton.  2020

Captain James Cook and the Search for Antarctica. James C. Hamilton. 2020

Hamilton, James C. 
Captain James Cook and the Search for Antarctica
Pen & Sword History. 
ISBN: 978-1-52675-357-1. 
303 pages. 


James Hamilton is a long-standing member of the Captain Cook Society.  His articles and reviews have graced the pages of Cook’s Log on many occasions.  It was around 2014, when James came across the on-line resource known as CORRAL (Colonial Registers and Royal Navy Logbooks),1 which contains images of many of the original handwritten journals of Captain Cook, and some of the journals and log books of his officers from his three voyages.  Hamilton immediately recognised the potential synergy that might be derived from analysing separate accounts of the same voyage.  And so began his years of research that ultimately resulted in the book that is the subject of this review. 


The title of the book is an interesting choice.  Any mention of the words “Cook” and “Antarctica” immediately brings to mind the Captain’s second voyage of exploration.  But this book is far more than just an examination of the Second Voyage, as the writer includes those locations from the First and Third Voyages which also relate to his theme, e.g. the Sub-Antarctic regions of Tierra del Fuego, and Kerguelen.  In his Introduction, the author explains that he has treated as interchangeable the terms “Antarctica”, “Southern Continent” and “Terra Australis Incognita”. 


Hamilton starts his Introduction by telling the reader, “There are three reasons to publish this book”, and then goes on to elucidate each of these reasons.  It is typical of the author’s methodical, step-by-step approach to all of the subsequent sections of his book.  At the start of each chapter the reader is reminded which part of the voyage is about to be considered, how it will be analysed, and which primary resources were used in the author’s analysis.  As a result, the reader is never lost regarding where he/she is in the sequence of Cook’s explorations.  This modular approach is encountered time and time again throughout the book, and for me, is a welcome characteristic of this author’s style. 


The Contents page prepares the reader for what is to follow.  The author has divided the book into five parts, each concentrating on a different aspect of Cook’s explorations.  Each of these parts contains some of the book’s 16 Chapters. 


The first part of the book is an overview of Cook’s voyages.  Chapter One introduces the reader to the three voyages, and to Cook himself.  Chapter Two considers the history of the concept of Terra Australis Incognita, and of the 18th century approach to its discovery.  Chapter Three reviews the ships that Cook used in his expeditions, as well as the composition of the ships’ companies.  This chapter also considers the provisions taken on the voyages, and the range of scientific equipment used. 


The second part of the book considers Cook’s first visit to Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn in 1769.  Chapter Four covers this visit, by dividing the exploration into eight sub-sections. 


In the third part, the reader sails with Cook as he crosses the Antarctic Circle in search of the Southern Continent.  A separate chapter is devoted to each of the three occasions on which Cook crosses this latitude.  Another chapter examines in great detail what happened to Resolution and Adventure when they became separated in a thick Antarctic fog.  A fifth chapter examines the second separation of the ships by a storm as they attempted to return to Queen Charlotte Sound, New Zealand, via Cook Strait (October-November 1773).  Although the historical consequences of this separation were of great significance, this event took place in New Zealand, which is not a Sub-Antarctic region.  So, I am not sure why the author chose to analyse this event in such detail. 


The fourth part of the book examines Cook’s visits to the Sub-Antarctic regions.  Chapter 10 is devoted to Cook’s second visit to Tierra del Fuego in late 1774.  Chapter 11 covers Cook’s visit to South Georgia, and the South Sandwich Islands.  This chapter is an expanded version of the author’s two articles published in Cook’s Log in 2011.2  This part of the book also includes (as Chapter 12) an account of the post-voyage dispute regarding J R Forster’s claim that prior to leaving England in 1772, he had been promised the sole rights to publishing the official account of the voyage.  This is an interesting diversion, and is reminiscent of the problems that arose between John Hawkesworth and Stanfield Parkinson regarding the publication of their accounts of the first voyage.  This chapter is an expanded version of the author’s article published in Cook’s Log in 2010.3  I describe it as an “interesting diversion”, as I fail to see what this post-voyage argument has to do with the story of Cook’s search for Antarctica!  Also, I would have thought that it fitted better in Part 1 than the part devoted to Sub-Antarctic Regions. 


In the final part of the book, Chapters 14 and 15 examine the advances in natural sciences that were achieved during the course of Cook’s exploration of the Antarctic.  These chapters cover a wide range of subjects in addition to the flora, fauna, and geology of the locations that were visited.  Here we are reminded that it was Cook who first postulated on the origins of “Ice Islands” (Icebergs), after witnessing ice calving from a glacier at Possession Bay, South Georgia.  These two chapters are expanded versions of the author’s two articles published in Cook’s Log in 2012.4 


A final chapter considers what has happened to these Antarctic regions in the 200 years following Cook’s visits. 


Hamilton has included some useful appendices in his book.  Appendix A comprises all of the instruc­tions that Cook received from the Admiralty for his three voyages of exploration.  Appendix B is used to explain the difference between officers’ journals and ships’ log books.  It is a very useful section for the general reader, especially for those who plan to examine the original records via CORRAL.  The reader is introduced to the structure and content of daily records in the log books.  The legibility of these hand-written records is sometimes made more difficult by the use of naval terms, and the frequent use of abbreviations for some words.


There is an extensive series of footnotes for each chapter, plus the two appendices.  The Bibliography bears the author’s hallmark, being divided into five sections listing Primary Sources (journals and maps), Primary Sources (log books), Secondary Sources, Online Sources, and Novels and Videos. 


It is a rare treat to find full-colour illustrations in a book about Cook.  The eight pages of illustrations contain 32 assorted images, and are a welcome addition.  A number of these illustrations are reproductions of postage stamps, reflecting the author’s interest in philately and his personal thematic collection of Cook-related stamps—as declared in the book’s Introduction.  Hamilton can be forgiven for including Plate 14 as an illustration of Resolution and Discovery in Queen Charlotte Sound.  After all, those are the words that are printed on the stamp.  In fact this image is not the work of the artist John Webber, but of John Cleveley, and is based upon a sketch of Matavai Bay, Tahiti, made by his brother James Cleveley, who was the carpenter in Resolution


And last but certainly not least... at the end of the author’s Acknowledgements, he concludes with the statement that “any errors or faults with this book are mine alone”.  Having read the book from cover to cover, I found only one major fault—the author had not had the draft of his book independently proof read!  The problem with a writer proofing his/her own work is that that errors that were missed when typing the text are rarely spotted when you re-read what you have written.  It is as if the brain becomes blind to its own errors.  As a result, I regret to report that I found James Hamilton’s book littered with numerous mistakes, ranging from minor “typos”, to errors in transcribing from the original records.  It is a great shame that this book, which otherwise has been produced to the highest standards in presenta­tion and content, suffers from this serious shortfall. 


Cliff Thornton



  1. The following link is to the page in the CORRAL website which lists many of the British explorers’ ships’ logs and related journals. Scroll down to the find the name of the ship that interests you.
  2. Cook’s Log.  2011.  Vol. 34, no. 1.  Pages 3-9. 
    Cook’s Log.  2011.  Vol. 34, no. 2.  Pages 3-9. 
  3. Cook’s Log.  2010.  Vol. 33, no. 4.  Pages 34-39. 
  4. Cook’s Log.  2012.  Vol. 35, no. 3.  Pages 3-8. 
    Cook’s Log.  2012.  Vol. 35, no. 4.  Pages 4-8. 

    Originally published in Cook's Log, page 43, volume 43, number 4 (2020).

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