Cook's sites: revisiting history. Adams, Mark and Thomas, Nicholas. 1999

Cook's sites: revisiting history. Adams, Mark and Thomas, Nicholas. 1999

Mark Adams and Nicholas Thomas.
Cook's sites: revisiting history.
University of Otago Press.
ISBN 1877133825.

In 1992, Bernard Smith, the eminent Art Historian, published the sequel to his classic work European Vision and the South Pacific called Imagining the Pacific. In this vein, the book under review, Cook's sites could easily be retitled Re-imagining the Pacific (or at least New Zealand).

Cook's Sites is a handsome work and part of a growing number of books examining the impact of culture contact on both participants. In this case, it was between the visiting British ships under Captain James Cook and the local Maori people who inhabited the islands now known as New Zealand. The book examines the effects, both as they occurred at the time and in the longer-term.

Captain Cook visited New Zealand (Aotearoa) on several occasions between 1769 and 1776. On his First Voyage, he circum-navigated both the main islands making landfall and contact with the local people at several locations but finding a favoured spot at the northern end of Te Wai Pounamu (South Island), which he called Queen Charlotte Sound (Totaranui). He would return to this location on both his subsequent voyages.

In 1773, he returned to New Zealand on his Second Voyage, and having just spent several weeks in the extreme cold of the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, he was keen to land at the first possible opportunity. Approaching from the southwest, Cook brought HMS Resolution into Dusky Sound, an inlet on Te Wai Pounamu that he had been reluctant to investigate on his First Voyage. He would stay here several weeks.

Cook's Sites concentrates on the visits Cook made to Dusky Sound and to Queen Charlotte Sound and examines the impact that the visits made on all concerned. The book, though, is two, loosely connected, parts running in parallel, in which Nicholas Thomas has written the text and Mark Adams has taken marvellous photographs.

Thomas has used passages from the journals of persons on board Cook's ships including Cook himself, Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg, Joseph Banks and James Burney. He has then proceeded to reinterpret the events, the sites and encounters from a present day perspective.

The other part of the book, and by far, the better part, comprises photographs taken by Adams. He has set out to show, through a number of beautiful black and white panoramic landscape photographs, the locations visited by Cook and recorded by the artists on Cook's ships. Several of the paintings by William Hodges (Second Voyage) and John Webber (Third Voyage) are included in the book for comparison.

Sadly, even though this book is slightly larger than A4, many of the photographs are spread over three or four sides, and the book cannot always do them justice. Even so, the photographs are splendid, especially of Dusky Sound, which, given its isolation, has hardly changed from the time Cook visited. It is interesting that the works by Hodges, used here for comparison, are those that Hodges reworked into paintings back in Europe. The more evocative wash seascapes that he painted as the ship entered and left the Sound are not reproduced.

The Voyages of Cook were notable for being among the first in which artifacts and zoological and botanical specimens were collected to be taken back to Europe. In Europe, they were dispersed into Museums and other private collections throughout the continent. The last part of Cook's Sites deals with this dispersal, specifically to Museums and Libraries in Oxford, Kew, Berlin and Gottingen, and it is the most disappointing part of the book. Photographs of the interiors of some of the buildings, which house Cook-derived specimens are not very effective and add little or nothing to the work. The parallel text by Thomas about the authors' visits is brief and, again, adds very little. A book entitled James Cook: gifts and treasures from the South Seas, edited by Hauser-Schaublin and published in 1998, deals in a more informative way with the Cook material in one particular Museum at Gottingen.

The book, through its photographs and pieces of text, prompts the reader to think about the locations and re-imagine the events that took place 200 years ago. It mostly succeeds and overall Cook's Sites is a very welcome addition to the Cook and New Zealand library.

John Robson

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 1695, volume 23, number 1 (2000).

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