Cook: From Sailor to Legend.
First, this book is not a bad one, but it is not a good one either. It is just a middling sort in a long list of titles that have appeared regularly about James Cook. I should add that it is much better than last year’s effort by McLynn.1 The author in this instance, Rob Mundle, is a good writer (this book is an easy read), with a proven track record, and he has even won prizes in the past. In recent years, he has produced biographies about William Bligh and Matthew Flinders2 and I picture him a couple of years ago asking himself, “Who can I do next?” and answering, “I know, I’ll do Cook!” I wonder if he also asked, “Is there a need for another book on Cook?”
There is little suggestion that any new research has been undertaken. Indeed, Mundle cheerfully acknowledges that Beaglehole’s Life of Captain James Cook3 is his major source, though he also claims to have used other sources to bring new light on the legacy of the great seafarer. Unfortunately, he does not provide details of many of those sources, and some of the few that he does mention (Hough’s biography, Aughton’s Second Voyage book)4 don’t inspire confidence.
There is a sense that Mundle has not read recent works by Glyn Williams, Nicholas Thomas, Anne Salmond and John Gascoigne,5 all of whom have provided new insights and understanding of the time, society and conditions that Cook was operating in while not necessarily diminishing the scale of his achievements.
Despite Mundle’s claims, there are few, if any, new insights. Instead, it is largely another retelling of the Cook story, though he does throw in an occasional unsupported statement such as, in 1766, “he had been commissioned to observe a natural phenomenon, one that appealed to him immensely: an eclipse of the sun”.6 It would be interesting to know the source of that statement.
The book has a large and interesting set of colour illustrations thanks to the wonderful collections at the State Library of New South Wales and the National Library of Australia. Sadly, though, he has been let down here: the chart opposite page 230 is not by Cook; the Mortimer painting does not have Cook at its centre but Constantine Phipps;7 and the lower of the two Cleveley paintings is Matavai Bay, Tahiti, not Queen Charlotte Sound.
The author has a long history as a sailor and this comes through in regular descriptions of handling and manoeuvring an eighteenth century sailing ship. However, his knowledge of Royal Navy ranks is less sure as this passage from 1775 reveals: “The King… presented Cook with his commission as post-captain aboard the thirteen-year-old 74-gun Kent. A post-captain was a naval officer who held a commission, but not the rank, as a captain, which still applied in the case of Lieutenant James Cook”.8
A post-captain did, in fact, carry the rank of captain and, prior to this event, Cook already held the rank of commander, not lieutenant.
Mundle is Australian and the book is geared to an Australian audience. 180 pages (or about 40% of the book) deal with the Endeavour voyage, and about 70 of those pages cover the time in Australian waters. In contrast, the Second Voyage, one of the greatest expeditions of all time, warrants only 85 pages, and the Third Voyage is rushed through in 45 pages.
For example, as Mundle dashes up the Northwest coast of North America he has throwaway lines such as, “Whenever the captain observed an inlet or sound that offered a potential for a passage to the east he had it explored. One such probe took the ships 100 nautical miles up an inlet only for the beleaguered crew to discover that it ended as a river mouth”.9
I presume Mundle means the passage up Cook Inlet to near present day Anchorage. It was a crucial event in the voyage, and warrants better coverage. Also, as the author speeds through the Society Islands large errors creep in. For example, Cook’s overreaction to the theft of goats took place on Mo`orea, not on Tahiti.
No sooner has Cook died at Kealakekua Bay than the book suddenly finishes without any real assessment of what Cook and his voyages achieved. Mention is made of him expanding the world map, but there is nothing on the zoological, botanical and ethnographic results, or any mention of the effects Cook had on the Pacific. Cook and this book’s readers deserve more.
- McLynn, Frank. Captain Cook: Master of the Seas. Yale University Press. 2011. Reviewed in Cooks Log, page 40, vol. 34, no. 3 (2011).
- Aughton, Peter. Matthew Flinders: The Man Who Mapped Australia. Hachette. 2008.
- Beaglehole, J. C. The Life of Captain James Cook. Hakluyt Society. 1974.
- Hough, Richard. Captain James Cook: A Biography. W.W. Norton. 1997.
Aughton, Peter. Resolution. Cold Spring Press. 2005. Reviewed in Cook’s Log, page 29, vol. 27, no. 2 (2004).
- Williams, Glyn. The Death of Captain Cook: A Hero Made and Unmade. Harvard University Press. 2008. Reviewed in Cook Log, page 18, vol. 31, no. 4. (2008).
Thomas, Nicholas. Cook: The Extraordinary Voyages of Captain James Cook. Walker and Company. 2003. A review appears in Cook’s Log, page 14, vol. 26, no. 4, (2003).
Salmond, Anne. Aphrodite’s Island: The European Discovery of Tahiti. Penguin. 2009. Reviewed in Cook’s Log, page 38, no. 2 (2011)
Salmond, Anne. Bligh: William Bligh and the South Seas. Penguin. 2011. Reviewed in Cook’s Log, page 26, vol. 34, no. 2 (2012).
Gascoigne, John. Captain Cook: Voyager Between Worlds. Continuum Books. 2007. Reviewed in Cook’s Log, page 43, vol. 30, no. 4 (2007).
- Page 89.
- See Cook’s log, page 37, vol. 32, no. 3 (2009).
- Page 381.
- Page 409.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 42, volume 37, number 1 (2014).