Discoveries: The Voyages of Captain Cook. Thomas, Nicholas. 2003

Discoveries: The Voyages of Captain Cook. Thomas, Nicholas. 2003

Thomas, Nicholas. 
Discoveries: The Voyages of Captain Cook.
Allen Lane.
ISBN 0 713 99557 2.

Thomas is Professor of Anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and it is the interaction of people with which he is concerned in this book, the interaction between Cook and his crew (including the artists) and the indigenous people they encountered on the voyages. As Thomas explains in his introduction Cook's ". . . life is my lens, for a new look at these formative encounters" with other cultures. Thomas is not so much repeating the well known story of Cook and his exploration; rather he is examining the voyages from an anthropologist's viewpoint, being more concerned with the interaction of new cultures and people, than with the technological, geographical and navigational aspects.

Too often, when you read a biography of a long dead person, it is all too easy to keep in your mind the knowledge of what happens next. Most biographies start with the birth and end with the death. Thomas's book is slightly different in that immediately the reader is catapulted into the year 1767 and the preparations of the first voyage. As the name of the book implies, it is the voyages which tell the story; Cook's childhood and early career serve only as material which the reader is filled in on briefly, to explain how Cook got to be in charge of the Endeavour. Thomas tries to write without the benefit of hindsight, which to a large degree I believe he succeeds in.

I approached this book with anticipation but wondering why, and how, another book could be written on Cook, when there have been so many published beforehand. However, I feel Thomas adds something to the debate surrounding Cook's life as he reviews some of the aspects and events which I thought were set in stone and give them fresh consideration. After Cook's death, he was for a long time regarded as someone who had done no wrong. In recent years this opinion has been reversed, with the third voyage viewed as a trip during which Cook's mental decline is demonstrated.

Thomas considers these differing views and gives it what I consider to be an interesting summarisation. For example, "Cook's third voyage has often been seen as one marked by the growing, indeed the enveloping fatigue of the great navigator. It is supposed that Cook suffered lapses in his abilities, curiosity and decisiveness; more antagonistic commentators claim that he became detached, irrational, and violent. It is not hard to understand why the tale has been told in these terms: we like it when a great character's life exhibits a rise and fall, and may perhaps be seduced by the notion that a colonizer might collapse, like Conrad's Kurtz, into some black hole of his own evil. But Cook's voyages do not exhibit any such trend. Some of the worst violence occurred in New Zealand as early as 1769, when the man was supposedly saner. And the third voyage is marked by ups and downs, not by any sort of downward spiral." (p.376)

Cook's death is also treated in this way, with Thomas stating previous views and dismissing them; "It has been argued that something in Cook snapped, prompting him to shoot, and this led to his death. But there was nothing perverse or anomalous in his behaviour on the morning of 14 February 1779. He had fired, sometimes with small shot, and sometimes with ball, during both his first and second voyages." (p.396)

One assumes academics will produce good books but that you need a dictionary beside you! It was refreshing to read a book which was written by a normal person! Yes, it was clear that the author was an academic but it was an easy and enjoyable book to read. I have only two minor complaints; first, it would have been nice to have had some of the paintings reproduced in colour as the descriptions are so multi-coloured. And secondly, I wish someone would invent a way of snuggling up to a hardback book in bed!

Highly recommended

Ruth Boreham

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 14, volume 26, number 4 (2003).

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