Ice!  Exploring the Far South.  Captain Cook Memorial Museum.  2023

Ice! Exploring the Far South. Captain Cook Memorial Museum. 2023

Ice!  Exploring the Far South.  250th anniversary of the first crossing of the Antarctic Circle: Catalogue to the exhibition at the Captain Cook Memorial Museum
Captain Cook Memorial Museum. 
32 pages. 

Sometimes you just know that something is going to be good, be it the friendliness of a handshake, or the heft of a book.  In the case of this exhibition catalogue, it was the firmness of its cover, distinctly firmer than the museum’s usual cover.  It implied that this catalogue was expected to have a long life, because of the high quality of its contents, which deserved some protection.  I am pleased to say that my expectations were not disappointed.

The lay-out, the illustrations, the text, even the fine-art paper, are all of the highest order.  However, the cherry on this particular cake is the powerful essay by David Nicandri.  Whenever anybody asks me which was Cook’s toughest voyage, I have no hesitation in saying it was his Second Voyage.  That was the voyage where bitter frosts froze flaxen sails into sheets of “metal”, and a ship’s rigging into a web of ice.  Cook’s “People” served gallantly under such rigorous conditions.

In this essay we have the writer unveiling a new Cook to us.  This particular Cook was in front of us all the time, but we failed to notice what he achieved in the desolate wastes of the Antarctic.  After prov­ing that the legendary Terra Australis Incognita was no more than a legend, in its place, he added another half-dozen new islands to his map portfolio.  Same old Cook so far, until Nicandri points out how closely the Captain was studying the world of ice through which he was sailing.  Cook’s observations in the Antarctic led him to certain conclusions, which he was able to confirm when he visited the Arctic on his Third Voyage.

I fear that we might have continued to overlook Cook’s achievements had we not been living in these times of Climate Change.  Today, films about the reduction in polar ice appear on the TV news, as do those featuring the decline of glaciers around the world.  No wonder that Nicandri sees Cook’s work as laying the foundations for polar climatology and polar hydrology—he has become “Cook the Polar Explorer”!

Following Nicandri’s essay, the reader is provided with a veritable “berg” of Antarctic facts, arranged thematically so that the reader can dip in and out of the various sections; from the biographical details of the scientists and naturalists who accompanied Cook, to the section illustrating the equipment which they used during the course of the voyage.

Here and there are extracts from documents contemporary with the Second Voyage.  They include the detailed instructions that the Commis­sioners for Longitude gave to William Wales (the astronomer on the voyage), and the list of scientific instruments supplied by the Board of Longitude to enable Wales to undertake his many observations.  There are too many fascinating sections for me to list them all here; suffice to say that they provide a pot-pourri that ensures that there will be something to appeal to every taste.  There is even a page devoted to the poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  After all, was not the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge a pupil at Christ’s Hospital School where he was taught by none other than the retired astronomer William Wales!

I cannot close this review without including the following extract, which appears in the section quoting some of the writings of the Forsters’, the father and son naturalists on the Second Voyage.  “At such times I have seen the tip of the yard arm immersed in a crest of a wave.  Every wave, therefore, swings a sailor on a yard arm, through an arc of fifty to sixty feet!  One minute he seems to be hurled into the sea, the next to touch the stars”.

This catalogue deserves to be on every Cook bookshelf.

Cliff Thornton


The 2023 exhibition was staged to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Cook’s first crossing of the Antarctic Circle.  

If you do not know when that date was, you will find the answer in the catalogue on page three.

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 14, volume 46, number 4 (2023).

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