Cook's Pacific Encounters: The Cook-Forster Collection of the Georg-August University of Göttingen.
The National Museum of Australia.
This book of just over 100 pages, each slightly larger than A4 in size, was produced as a catalogue to accompany the Cook-Forster Exhibition held from July 1 to September 10 at The National Museum of Australia, Canberra [see Cook's Log, page 41, vol. 29, no. 3 (2006)].
It is an excellent book, being extremely well produced with clear sharp coloured illustrations on almost every page, an easily read font, some interesting essays and a wealth of information about a large number of the exhibition items and at its price great value for money. While it has numerous references to primary sources, which could interest researchers, it should be remembered that the book is intended to be bought by those with an interest in our friend Captain Cook.
The three essays, each of about 12 pages, cover Cook's voyages to the Pacific (by Michelle Hetherington, a curator of the National Museum of Australia), the history of Göttingen Cook-Forster collection (by Brigitta Hauser-Schaublin, Curator of the collection) and what I thought was a very stimulating essay Collecting from Collectors: Pacific Islanders and the spoils of Europe (by Jennifer Newell, a curator at the British Museum). She writes that the Islanders were both collectors and traders and, as result, it was much easier for Cook to acquire not just collectible items but supplies as well.
Enlightenment Europeans visiting Pacific Islands were quintessential collectors, with a legendary passion for gathering material evidence and souvenirs of their travels. What is not so often recognised is the equal enthusiasm for collecting among the people the Europeans were visiting… The passion to acquire exotic objects was therefore mutual.
There were practical advantages to possessing these new objects and materials. Iron nails provided finer, more resilient points for carving, drilling and tipping fishhooks than coral, stone or wood.
In New Zealand, where I live, we are frequently reminded that land was bought by Europeans in exchange for blankets and glass beads. That has led to a belief that the early Europeans "ripped Maori off" or, in other words, got the land for less than what it was worth, particularly when we look at the value of land today. The point is made that a used bed sheet to us today and probably in Cook's time was worthless but to a Tahitian when made into a formal garment it was the height of fashion. How many other women would have even seen this new fabric let alone owned a dress made from it?
The writer comments on situations where this was not true, as in Vanuatu.
I was disappointed that no reference was made in the book to the fact that the indigenous people of Australia seemed to show no interest in Cook at all, and at no time tried to learn from him and his ship. It has always interested me that at times the locals seem to act as if the Endeavour just was not there. The Maori on the other hand seemed to be eager to learn what they could from Cook and his ship. I appreciate that the aboriginals are a nomadic people, but Cook did see some canoes, though he thought badly made. So at least some people went out to sea. Also, interestingly, there are no exhibits in the Cook-Forster collection from Australia.
In the book's introduction reference is made to the fact that Cook visited Australia only once and for only about 20 weeks out of some eight years of exploring. Yet Cook is still regarded as a hero in that country; I think less so than in New Zealand, where Cook is usually mentioned in newspapers several times a year.
For me a highlight of the book was that it is profusely illustrated in clear, sharp coloured images. There are something like 390 items in the exhibition nearly all of which are illustrated. Fifty items which the organisers describe at Collection Highlights are each given a full page of which the bulk is taken up with a coloured photo of the exhibit; then a short brief detailed catalogue description of the item; and then in most cases an interesting description about the item such as what it was used for, where it was found and what it is made from. Almost all of the other exhibits are illustrated by small images (about 2cm x 2cm) accompanied by a catalogue description of the item.
This book is worth buying. I shall enjoy reading and looking through it for many years. I am just disappointed that the exhibition will not be coming to New Zealand.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 40, volume 29, number 4 (2006).