Fish and Ships!  Food on the voyages of Captain Cook.  Captain Cook Memorial Museum.  2012.

Fish and Ships! Food on the voyages of Captain Cook. Captain Cook Memorial Museum. 2012.

Fish and Ships!  Food on the voyages of Captain Cook
Captain Cook Memorial Museum. 


This 66-page book, with over 80 illustrations, was produced to accompany the exhibitions held at the Whitby museum in 2011 and 2012.  In line with books published for previous exhibitions held there, it serves as a great reminder for people who visit, and stands alone for people unable to attend. 


Fish and chips is one of Britain’s favourite meals, whether eaten in restaurant or café, or bought at a take-away place for consumption at home or whilst walking.  The meal tastes especially good in Whitby!  The title “fish and ships” is a wonderful play on words and is used to great effect to link the two exhibitions.  In his foreword, Glyn Williams points out “Diet, health and discipline might attract less attention than charting new coasts, but they were as important in explaining Cook’s success.” 


The exhibition held in 2011 had the sub-title: “A journey round the world at Captain Cook’s Table”, and focused on what food the sailors took with them, and this book has two essays on how food was provided to ships, and Cook’s approach to diet and disease. 


Janet Macdonald explains that food was issued to ships by the Victualling Board, part of the Admiralty, describes some of the livestock carried on board Cook’s ships, and explains the role of the purser.  There is also an important section on how food was cooked and served in ships, which wasn’t as I imagined. 


The front cover of the book shows a sailor fishing from a ship’s gun in January 1775.  Whilst the ship is not one of Cook’s the impression is that many of his men would have fished in the same way. 


Brian Vale in his essay examines the part played by Cook in the story of understanding and conquering scurvy.  As well as describing the confusion over what James Lind recommended when, and to whom, there is also the matter that Cook had to carry out various tests for the Admiralty and the Sick and Hurt Board.  “It must have been clear to Cook that it was McBride’s remedy that commanded the priority” so, naturally Cook declared it “the best medicine I know” at the end of the Endeavour voyage. 


The 2012 exhibition is called “Eating the Exotic: Food on a voyage with Captain Cook” and focuses on food in Polynesia. 


Nancy Pollock describes the food found in Tahiti and New Zealand, and why Cook and his men had to understand “the ideology behind food” including tapu and mana.  She ends by making the great point that “Travel not only broadens the mind but also sharpens the taste buds.”


Simon Werrett’s essay is the most startling, covering an aspect that I’ve not come across before: pyrotechnics.  He describes the three displays at Tahiti by Bougainville for entertainment, followed by Cook’s use of fireworks during his Second and Third Voyages.  Werrett believes “on some occasions, fireworks on Cook’s voyages were used to assert European superiority” as well as entertainment or even as part of a competition with the natives to produce the best entertainment.  However, on 2 February 1779, the day before their departure from Hawai`I, a firework display was held after which many islanders “appeared increasingly hostile”.  Werrett thinks “Fireworks were clearly not the only cause of antagonism to Cook, but may been a contributing factor” to the “events leading to Cook’s death”. 


The two catalogue sections show Sophie Forgan has put together an amazing group of objects that “bring to life the practical side of Cook’s voyages”. 


Ian Boreham

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 48, volume 35, number 3 (2012).

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