I think I am becoming a New Zealander: Letters of J.C. Beaglehole.  Tim Beaglehole. 2013

I think I am becoming a New Zealander: Letters of J.C. Beaglehole. Tim Beaglehole. 2013

Beaglehole, Tim (ed)  
I think I am becoming a New Zealander’: Letters of J.C. Beaglehole
Victoria University Press. 
ISBN 978-0-86473-902-5. 
502 pages.

Beware: This book is addictive.  You might start by dipping in and out, but you soon end up reading more than you intended, and end up wondering why you simply didn’t start at the beginning and go through to the end!


A few years ago Tim Beaglehole wrote a fascinating and easily read biography1 of his father, John Beaglehole (1901-1971), transcriber and editor of the journals of James Cook and Joseph Banks.  It included extracts from some of the many letters written by John over his life.


This book follows those “selections from letters” with a “selection of letters”.  Tim looked for those that best showed “John’s gifts as a letter writer: imaginative, witty, affectionate, idiosyncratic, forthright, biting at times, possibly unfair, but hardly ever dull.”  The letters are given chronologically, divided into five groups

  • The Student (1924-1929)
  • Depression Years (1930-35)
  • Lecturer and Public Servant (1936-48)
  • Starting on Cook and Banks (1949-55)
  • Scholar and Public Figure (1956-71)


To understand how the letters were chosen, to whom they were written, and how they have been annotated, it is worth reading the Introduction, Editorial Note, and List of correspondents.  I counted 49 people in the list, of which I recognised several as being involved in Cook and the Pacific.  Tim gives short biographical descriptions of each person, and where in the book you will find the letters to them. 


The index also lists the correspondents, but also has the people, places and organisations mentioned in the letters.  Cook first appears on page 112, and Banks on page 118 in the “Depression Years” group of letters.  That gave me a dilemma: read only the “Starting on Cook and Banks” group, or pick pages from the index, or read the lot!


I chose to get stuck in with my main interest, and then jump about.  However, my eyes alighted on the end of the letter on the previous page, and I read “I am now going to do a lot of Cook for the Hakluyt Soc., subsidised by NZ Govt”, which seemed a good introduction to the group of letters I was intending to read.


In 1950 John visited Whitby, and wrote to his wife, Elsie, “It was well worth going to Whitby.  The old part of the town doesn’t seem to have changed a great deal since young Jas Cook first sailed out of it…  What with walking round & with old maps in the Museum & yarn with the local historian I got a pretty good idea of the place.” 2 


The following month he wrote to a friend.

I’m getting an awful crush on Capt. Cook - having just completed the painful process of going through the Photostats & typescripts of his first journal & checking up on every letter of it.  Really that voyage makes most of the other Great Occasions of the 18th century seem pretty silly…  We must confess one thing, indeed, even in our bemused state of Hero Worship, a dreadful blot - no two things indeed, which sully the shining record; the gallant capt., the distinguished seaman, the calm astronomer & mathematician, raiding the whirlwind & directing the storm - or at any rate riding the waves & getting off the rocks - he the Nonpareil could not spell, he had no more idea of punctuation than my foot.  Has any other seaman ever wieghed anchor?  Has any other journal writer written seven foolscap pages without a paragraph & without a capital letter & without a full stop or comma?...  But I will say this for the Capt., that he is legible, vile spelling & all.3 


In reading the letters is important to realise the publication dates of the books John was working on.  The three volumes of The Journals of Captain James Cook came out in 1955, 1961 and 1967, and The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, 1768 – 1771 in 1963.  His biography of Cook was published posthumously in 1974.  He almost predicted the duration when he wrote in 1951,

My room at home is a shambles at the moment with Cook & Banks stuff - photographs, photostats, microfilms, typescript, books, notes.  My intolerant wife sighs deeply, & wanted to know how long this was going on.  I told her about 20 years.  That is, of course, I said, till I've finished my life of Capt. Cook.  It takes far less time to lay bricks, or even build a stable.4 


An example of his approach to research can be seen in another letter of 1951.

Well, tell me, why the devil did Cook call a small group of islands and rocks off the E. NZ coast the Poor Knights? He generally gives reasons, but here gives no reason, so I assume the reason was obvious - but it beats me; & everybody nautical, Yorkshire, literary I have consulted. I have been to Shakespeare, the Bible, Brewer, guides to Yorkshire, the Pilots for the English coast, N America, Newfoundland, Ency. Brit., cookery books. I have found out (a) there is a rock in the Bristol Channel called the Poor Knight singular (why?) (b) there is a crack in King Lear about "a poor knight" (no caps) (c) Poor Knights was the alternative name for the Knights Templars - but what would Cook know about the KT's? (d) there is a traditional German or central European or Polish dish called Poor Knights, bread fried in egg or something. Now does the BM or the RGS or the University Intellect of the UK know of any natural feature, legend, story, nursery rhyme, popular 18th-century ballad, local landmark, tragedy, comedy, tragico-pastoral comedy, proverb, sentimental song, piece of cooker, part of a ship's furniture, botanical nomenclature, legal terminology, sea-shell, or nautical jargon or nickname for any admiral or member of the Royal family that has anything to do with Poor Knights? 5


John worked on both Cook’s journals and those of Banks at the same time for many years.  The difficulties he encountered in reading their writing, and editing their words for publication can be seen in two letters from 1952. 

I have just come to the end of J Banks's journal, p.865 typescript, & the next thing will be to go all through it again & put in the punctuation, because it is not one of those things you can print just as it is; think of it, about 250,000 words, & hardly a punctuation mark from beginning to end.  But I am unjust to JB: twice, I think, he thinks, Oh I ought to punctuate this, & then he strews commas colons semicolons & commas again thicker much thicker than leaves in Vallombrosa.  I have seen Vallombrosa & know what I am talking about.  But after a page or two he gives up, the commas thin out, & soon we are adrift in the waste again.  One thing he does use is the paragraph. But his capitalisation oh God his capitalisation.6


We decided to retain caps in the Cook, & even to retain superior letters for Mr Lieut &c - again to retain the 18th century note as far as possible.  Whether that is the ultimate wisdom I'm now not quite sure, but the galleys of the first journal don't look bad.  We have been unorthodox, or experimental, there, by putting all the compass directions down into small caps - there were so many of them that caps did make the page look spotty. 

Punctuation doesn't cause me at all so much worry.  One's duty as editor is to make the text intelligible, so one must punctuate or re-punctuate to that extent; & that involves a certain amount of translation. E.g. Cook, habitually almost, uses a full point where we should use a comma; & often a dash. 7

Whilst most of John’s work was conducted at home in New Zealand, he also visited London, Sydney, etc., where the logs were kept.  He also conducted what might be called field research in Tahiti in 1952.

The hell of it is, that having tasted blood, or Tahiti, I want to go to Tonga now, & every other place Cook went to. Damn it, even in NZ I haven't been to Dusky Sound yet.  The fact of the matter is, that there is no one place in which you can edit Cook properly.  One thinks of London as being central & having all the logs & journals & charts & so on; but Tahiti & NZ, to be done properly, mean actual physical presence in NZ & Tahiti, & I'd be all the better for being wrecked somewhere on the Great Barrier Reef, or sailing round the SW coast of New Guinea - for part of which there doesn't appear even to be an Admiralty chart, by the way, so far as I can find out.8


John was heavily involved in the production of his books, including how they were titled, and how his name should appear.  He wrote in one letter, “I had thought of some such general title as The Journals of Captain Cook; but then I thought Captain Cook or Captain James Cook? & always finished up by saying Oh to hell with it.” 9  And in another letter,

Librarians have a passion for the full name, but to hell with librarians. My full name is John Cawte.  I'll ask my wife.  My title of office is long & fancy & cumbrous & on an English title-page it would have to have a geographical location attached: Senior Research Fellow & Lecturer in Colonial History Victoria University College Wellington New Zealand - even in small type it would probably look funny.  No title of honour, unless MA PhD is titles of honour, & I've rather gone off them…  Would there be anything wrong with plain J.C. Beaglehole? 10


Over the last 200 years there has been much speculation as to how Cook came to be selected for the Endeavour voyage, so I was very interested to read John’s thoughts.

It seems to me he came into it more or less by chance - i.e. when the Admiralty & the RS were casting around for a man it looked as if he might be the right sort of man, but there was no ransacking of "available" men to pick out the absolutely best one; & by great good luck he turned out to be a positive genius.11

John wrote so much it is easy to not notice the scale of individual parts. After completing the introduction to volume II of Cook’s journals, he wrote in a letter,

This is to inform you (just to keep you in touch) that by dint of flogging, goading, kicking, dragging & cursing myself I last night finished the introduction.  After which I smoked a small cigar that happened to be lying around, left over from Christmas I suspect, & told my wife I would take her out to lunch to celebrate.  42,000 words, on a rough calculation. If you'll let me keep it another year I'll cut it down to 21,000.12  

One of John’s greatest challenges was to understand Cook’s personality.

What makes me talk about it so much, perhaps, is the absence of this obviously revealing stuff about Cook, because he never seems to have thought about himself, or talked about himself & there are no private letters you can really call private, & to get a sense of any personality at all you have to keep on painfully reading between the lines and tieing up a few odd unpublished scraps one comes across; & that is what I have been doing for the last ten years.  You need imagination, & then of course you have to keep imagination tethered down.13


There is much more in the letters reproduced in this book than John’s work on Cook and Banks.  As this review is written for CCS members I have quoted only those about James and Joseph.  The others give a broader picture of John Beaglehole and remind us that he was writing other books and articles, giving talks and lectures, advising students, institutions and many people around the world, and involved in much else.  Regrettably, he doesn’t say how he got the job of editing Cook and Banks.

I was given a research job out here primarily to do Banks & Cook (if I've never told you the story of how it came about, which I think is funny, I shall tell you some day) & I'm paid a good salary.  I can't see how I can possibly take a fee from the H.S. for doing the same job, or from the Mitchell Library people, though I'm normally willing to grab all gifts of fortune without a blush.14

Finally, let me end with a quote from one of his letters about the difficulty of writing about Cook, which equally applies to this review.  “I simply couldn't put in everything interesting.” 15 



Ian Boreham



  1. Beaglehole, Tim.  A Life of J.C. Beaglehole: New Zealand scholar.  Victoria University Press.  2006.  Reviewed in Cook’s Log, page 45, vol. 30, no. 1 (2007). 
  2. Letter dated 10 January, 1950. 
  3. Letter dated 1 February, 1950. 
  4. Letter dated 4 March, 1951. 
  5. Letter dated 19 November, 1951. 
  6. Letter dated 2 April, 1952. 
  7. Letter dated 27 May, 1952. 
  8. Letter dated 3 January, 1953. 
  9. Letter dated 11 April, 1954. 
  10. Letter dated 23 May, 1954. 
  11. Letter dated 3 January, 1953. 
  12. Letter dated 4 September, 1958. 
  13. Letter dated 14 December, 1959. 
  14. Letter dated 23 May, 1954. 
  15. Letter dated 11 April, 1955. 


Originally published in Cook's Log, page 46, volume 37, number 2 (2014).

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