Captain James Cook In Atlantic Canada: The Adventurer & Map Maker's Formative Years.
Formac Publishing Company Limited.
On occasion an historical publication will appear that one wishes one had written oneself, and Jerry Lockett's superb study of the Canadian career of James Cook is just such a work. This reviewer's own small study of Cook's relationship with Canada grazed lightly over the story;1 Lockett has now produced the work that, at last, looks in appropriate detail at this period in Cook's life and career.
Lockett is an ex-Briton who lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and benefits from being a highly experienced mariner as well as an award-winning writer. But it is in the command of detail and a capacity to weave together many threads of the Cook story into a coherent picture that Lockett most approaches the standards of leading modern Cook scholars like John Robson.2 If ever a work was produced that demonstrates with clarity, pragmatic explanation, and unassailable detail the formative character of Cook's relationship with Canada, this one does.
In a subtitle Lockett describes his work "the adventurer and map maker's formative years", and he is right in doing so, for beyond the classroom of the North Sea collier fleet it was Cook's North American career that transformed him into the man capable of the destiny that awaited him in the Pacific. That Lockett lives in, and knows intimately, the storied Nova Scotian seaport that Cook knew more than any other save his home port of Whitby, is somehow appropriate. It is evident that Lockett knows intimately not only the waters that Cook sailed, but also the effect of the very shores where his skills coalesced into extraordinary competence.
Lockett has divided the book into seven major chapters that follow a logical and traditional form, that of a linear timeline. A well-reasoned introduction leads into the chapter titled "Before The Mast", which deals with Cook's early life and naval career. Well-trodden ground indeed, but Lockett knows his subject and makes extensive use of Cook's professional journals as he traces his life from scrambling up Roseberry Topping to sailing as Master in Pembroke for Nova Scotia in 1758. Unique to Lockett's narrative, however, is his insertion of conversational asides on technical aspects of the seamanship challenges Cook faced, and the other problems he faced, both natural and human. In doing so he paints a fuller picture of Cook's professional development before joining the Navy that goes beyond even the hallowed paragraphs of Beaglehole, and arguably it only could have been done by a seaman of Lockett's level of experience.
In the next chapter, "The Pestilence Of The Sea", Lockett enters into a detailed examination of that great bane of 18th Century offshore navigation, scurvy, taking as his departure point Pembroke's inability to join the assault on Louisbourg due to the impact of scurvy on her ship's company. Again, Lockett brings detailed and substantiated research into play by giving an overview not only of the nature of the disease and efforts to combat it, but the context of nutrition at sea. The remainder of the chapter gives an unremarkable account of the ship's participation in the later aspects of the successful siege, but then sets the stage, as most biographers of Cook do, for the moment of meeting between Cook and Samuel Holland on the beach at Kennington Cove: the chance encounter that would set Cook on the path to extraordinary achievement.
Lockett's following chapter, simply titled "Pembroke", is a detailed account of the siege of the Fortress of Louisbourg and its consequences, including the meeting with Holland. Where Lockett's commendable research shows again is in his ability to maintain a simultaneous overview of the course of larger events (the fall of the fortress, the despatch of naval forces to harry French settlements in the Gulf of St Lawrence, the "wintering over", and the preparations for the ascent of the river in 1759 to take Quebec) while maintaining that "chat across the chart table" on the practical seamanship problems faced by Pembroke and other ships of the fleet. Lockett has been to The National Archives in Kew, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and the chart repositories, and so is able to discuss in pleasing detail the process whereby Cook came to draw and produce his first chart, of Gaspe harbour.
The subsequent chapter, "Northumberland" (Cook's next ship) is a relatively straightforward recital of the main events of the next three years (when Cook came to know Halifax intimately). Lockett uses it for a clear and engrossing discussion of the art of navigation as it was practiced in Cook's day, which adds immeasurably to the reader's understanding of the intellectual challenges Cook faced, in addition to workaday seamanship. The chapter ends with Lockett raising the question of why Cook drafted a plan for Halifax's 1759 Navy Yard, and this opens the way for the next chapter, a detailed discussion of Halifax history and that of its unmatched harbour, with Cook's activities woven as before in amongst the discussions of anchor bearings and careening difficulties.
Lockett then turns his attention to, as he terms it, "The Great Newfoundland Survey", where he describes Cook's activities in the years 1764-67 on the Newfoundland coast, not so much as a logbook of each day's work, but as an overview discussion of Cook's continuing evolution as a chartmaker and surveyor. The successful observation of an eclipse from an islet near present-day Burgeo, Newfoundland, cemented Cook's record of achievement in relevant skills for far-flung navigation and exploration, should anyone have noticed; and the Admiralty did.
The final chapter, before several intriguing appendices on topics such as chart publication and the extraordinary number of "James Cooks" serving in the Royal Navy at the same time, is perhaps the best piece of writing in the book. As it discusses "James Cook The Explorer" it weaves Lockett's exhaustive and well-explained knowledge of navigation, astronomy and chartmaking seamlessly into an outline of the main points of Cook's Pacific voyages, explaining not so much what Cook achieved but how he was able to master a complex and imperfect science with such competence. In doing so Lockett gives us the greatest gift of the book, which is an unpretentious, satisfying and full-coloured image of Cook the navigational technician and master seaman; a welcome counterpoint to ruminations on his character and motivations. Lockett's excellent, readable work belongs on the shelf alongside Beaglehole, Robson, and others who have led the way in illuminating the life and achievements of this extraordinary Yorkshire navigator.
- Suthren, Victor. To Go Upon Discovery: James Cook and Canada, from 1758 to 1779. Dundurn Press. 2000. ISBN 1-55002-327-6.
- Robson, John. Captain Cook's War and Peace: The Royal Navy years, 1755-1768. Seaforth Publishing. 2009. ISBN 978-1-84832-033-8.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 40, volume 34, number 2 (2011).