Captain James Cook: Seaman and Scientist Finnis, Bill. 2003

Captain James Cook: Seaman and Scientist Finnis, Bill. 2003

Finnis, Bill.
Captain James Cook: Seaman and Scientist.
Chaucer Press. 
ISBN 190444914.

Sailing the world's oceans, waves once plied by Captain Cook, may be the dream or even the fantasy of some CCS members. Bill Finnis and his wife accomplished that feat during a six year trek in their 12 ton Hillyard, Didycoy, covering seas traveled by Cook during his voyages, particularly in the Pacific Ocean. The author states this book is a narrative of Cook's life from a sailor's point of view. The author's familiarity with sailing and his observations about oceanic currents, winds, sailing techniques, and the dangers inherent with sailing close to shore for purposes of observation as well as difficulties in piloting craft through passages among numerous and sometimes treacherous coral reefs of Pacific islands bring useful perspectives to Cook's voyages of exploration.

The book is organized into 23 chapters that provide a chronological approach to Cook's life. An introductory chapter covers Pacific exploration from Magellan to Cook, although it does not include several of Cook's contemporaries (e.g. la Pérouse, du Frense, Crozet, or Kerguelen) whose voyages mirror some portions of Cook's travels. The early Whitby collier and Royal Navy years are covered briefly with greater emphasis allocated to the three voyages. The text contains some of the author's photographs of Pacific Islands or other points of interest, reproductions of Cook portraits as well as paintings by Sydney Parkinson, William Hodges, and John Webber. Charts of Cook's route among Pacific Islands, a useful graphic of prevailing Pacific winds, and other drawings are interspersed throughout the text.

I acquired this book especially because of its subtitle, squot;Seaman and Scientist," since I am interested in Cook's journals as sources for scientific information. Finnis provides numerous examples of Cook's abilities as a seaman during his first years in the Royal Navy and then as navigator in charge of the three voyages. For example, Finnis points out that during the First Voyage, Banks and others wanted Cook to sail well into inlets or bays to seek out naturalist phenomena rather than take the much smaller cutters for exploration. Cook cautioned that, as ship's master with broader responsibilities for safety, he knew the prevailing winds might prevent the ship from safely sailing out of newly discovered New Zealand or Australian inlets. The author's explanation of sailing techniques and principles well serve the reader in such instances. He also advises readers on seasonal variations while sailing in the Pacific as well as other similar insights.

The author's enthusiasm for sailing and Captain Cook is clearly shown in the chapter covering Endeavour's 1770 encounter in with the Great Barrier Reef. Finnis recounts experiences from his 18 month sail along the reef in Didycoy. He provides considerable interpretation regarding actions by Cook and company to break Endeavour free from the Reef, repair the ship, and pilot the ship away from the Queensland coast, through the Reef, and into the open ocean. Other examples of Cook's navigational skills include overcoming obstacles such as coral reefs during the return to Tahiti in 1773, those approaching Owharre Lagoon at Huahine, and in Vaitahu Bay at Tahu Ata, one of the Marquesas Islands.

With regard to science, the 1769 Transit of Venus is covered in a few paragraphs that provide useful explanation and graphics regarding the purposes of the transit's observation. However, in covering the three voyages, the author's observations or conclusions regarding the work of Sir Joseph Banks, Daniel Solander, J.R. Forster, George Forster, and Anders Sparrman are often very general in nature. The scientists appear in the book mostly as minor characters, their activities noted, as are a few of their occasional conflicts with Cook. While the book is a life of Captain Cook, the contribution of the "scientific parties" contributed much to our understanding of the First and Second Voyages.

The problem of accurately determining longitude and the use of the chronometer by sailors are well- explained by the author, drawing information from Dava Sobel's book, Longitude. For example, Cook's ability to pinpoint longitude is compared to less accurate charts prepared by Bougainville, Cook's French contemporary, in sailing among the islands of the New Hebrides.

Cook's efforts to prevent scurvy, as well as other steps to improve the health of sailors during long sea voyages, are covered in portions of several chapters. The book chronicles Cook's methods and the failure of these to be followed by Captain Furneaux in Adventure. The author suggests that Cook clearly and definitively understood anti-scorbutic foods were the key to prevent scurvy. Other studies of scurvy emphasize Cook's experiments with a variety of methods (anti-scorbutic and otherwise). Neither Cook nor the Admiralty was convinced that a single solution, the presence of Vitamin C in the diet, would both prevent and cure scurvy. In other words, Cook's important efforts to prevent scurvy may not have appeared as conclusive to Captain Cook as Finnis appears to assume. Moreover, the cure of scurvy and its prevention were not fully understood until after Cook's death.

The text contains no footnotes or endnotes. The book contains a glossary of nautical terms, a bibliography, and an index. The index is not comprehensive. The various graphics are useful to the reader in recounting Cook's Pacific travels. The bibliography contains approximately three dozen mostly secondary sources, including Beaglehole's Life of Captain James Cook.

The only primary sources are the Beaglehole editions of Cook's journals and the journal of Joseph Gilbert (Master, Resolution, Second Voyage). The journals or accounts by Banks, J.R. Forster and George Forster are not cited in the bibliography suggesting they were not utilized by the author. These accounts might have been occasionally referenced in a book that emphasized the scientific aspects of Cook's voyages. In terms of total detail, the author provides more information on Cook's seamanship than on scientific activities.

The author accomplishes his purpose in writing a Cook narrative from the point of view of an experienced sailor. This approach to Cook is similar to that taken by Captain Alan Villiers in his book Captain James Cook. This oversize book is rather handsomely produced, well-written and the narrative moves at a reasonable pace. My quibbles with bibliography, footnotes, or the index should not obscure the conclusion that the book is often enjoyable reading and the author's perspectives sailing in the Pacific or elsewhere provide interesting insights for the reader.

This book is useful as an introductory general narrative about Captain Cook for most any reader interested in Cook and navigation.

James C. Hamilton

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 44, volume 34, number 3 (2011).

Leave a comment

your email address will not be published

Thank you for your response. It will be evaluated by a moderator and published.