James Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific. 2009

James Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific. 2009

James Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific (English language edition);
Thames and Hudson, UK. 2009. ISBN 978-0-500-51516-7.  
James Cook und die Entdeckung der Südsee (German language edition);
Hirmer, Germany. 2009. ISBN 978-3-7774-2121-6. 
James Cook et la Découverte du Pacifique (French language edition);
Imprimerie nationale Éditions. 2010. ISBN 978-2-7427-9195-8.

Edited by H. E. Bödeker, Chr. Feest, B. Hauser- Schäublin, R. Joppien, A. L. Kaeppler, G. Krüger.

From August 2009 to February 2010, the Art and Exhibition Hall in Bonn, Germany has been home to over 500 objects including paintings, drawings and other ethnographic objects collected during the three Cook Voyages in the latter part of the eighteenth century. I found the James Cook und die Entdecking der Südsee (James Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific) exhibition very impressive and informative, so in many ways I did not really see how the catalogue would add much except for providing a detailed record of the objects and their provenance.

However, once the English version had been delivered to me from the publishers, I became somewhat star-struck! Not only have all the objects been beautifully depicted according to the region they came from (with full explanations of the context in which they were collected) but, more than that, the book has over 26 essays written by eminent scholars, many of whose writings I have consulted over the last few years.

The book is divided into two main sections: the Essays and the Catalogue.

The Essays are organised in four group: James Cook, Enlightenment, Endeavour and Encounter. The scholars have summarised key material from within their area of expertise. All of the themes reflect up-to-date thinking on different aspects of the Cook voyages and their legacy for Europe and for the Pacific Islands.

The catalogue section is organised by region and beautifully reproduces the items in the exhibition, with lively descriptions and useful commentary. It also includes a section on James Cook and his fellow travellers as well as a section on the ships and equipment.

The Cook voyages and their aftermath continue to be a rich area of study and interpretation for academics, and the topics are never devoid of controversy. The first essay, "Captain Cook's Three Voyages of Enlightenment" by Adrienne Kaeppler, is a brief but comprehensive account of the voyages, with some biographical context about Cook. It sets the scene perfectly for the subsequent essays. Kaeppler headed the team of curators who put this exhibition together and is a leading social and cultural anthropologist, with great knowledge of the Pacific region and its people.

Like a telescope pivoting on the deck of a ship, the subsequent essays hone in and look at the impact of these same three voyages from different viewpoints.

Although they celebrate Cook and his accomplishments, the essays also look to cut through some of the glorification which has surrounded the legend of Cook. An example of this approach can be seen in the second essay written by Nigel Rigby, "James Cook's Navy" where he briefly concludes that "Seamen moved between the merchant and armed services relatively frequently, as did officers", and explains that although Cook and his accomplishments were immense, the route which got him to the navy was not in itself particularly remarkable.

The subsequent essays in the first part touch on the ambivalent impact that contact with the Cook expeditions had for several of the Pacific people and the continuing dilemma this poses for their descendants in New Zealand, Australia, Melanesia and Hawaii. The section concludes with an essay from Anne Salmond, "The Death of Cook", which revisits the fatal moment and the subsequent controversy which has endured more than two hundred and thirty years. This one event has been the subject of countless images, and is constantly being revisited with new explanations as contemporary areas of study emerge and social anthropologists look to reinterpret the customs and events of the indigenous people. Salmond concludes the essay by accepting that there is no one explanation for the death of Cook and in the end "It was a cross-cultural collision of forces that killed him".

The unfinished painting by Zoffany, The Death of Captain James Cook, which appeared in the exhibition and is reproduced in Salmon's essay, is a perfect example of how this tragic moment became a rich subject for the artist who sought to perpetuate the myth by setting it in an apparently classical setting, with some observers even commenting on how the head-dress of the natives recalled classical Greek helmets.

I have to admit that even though I had studied this image and also looked at images of Hawaiian dress, it was not until this exhibition and the beautifully illustrated catalogue that I came to fully appreciate the complexity of these items, and to realise that Zoffany was painting an actual headdress, or feather helmet mahiole. This object was probably collected by the artist John Webber, who travelled on the last voyage, and is depicted in the exhibition and catalogue. Webber and Zoffany are known to have shared much information over this subject. Interestingly, it was Webber who created the mostly widely reproduced image of the event in the eighteenth century, where Cook is seen at the water's edge, holding up his hand up in a heroic gesture to cease fire, as a local warrior prepares to stab him in the back. That image was greatly favoured by the Enlightenment publicists, but, interestingly, it is not actually referred to in the exhibition or the catalogue. By this omission, it is as if we have moved on the discourse from all the myth-making and glorification back to empirical evidence and actual artefacts to tell the story in a sober and inclusive manner, from many points of view simultaneously.

In order to keep this review concise I will not be able to comment on all the essays, though I would like to point out that all aspects of the voyages are covered, from the conflicts that arose, the role of the scientists and artists who accompanied the voyages, the impact on geography and cartography, how native lands and people were observed through a European eye, as well as discussions on depictions and interpretations of gender.

The last essay is written by the eminent German art historian, Rüdiger Joppien, who quickly takes us through the breadth of material that was drawn or painted during the course of these voyages and which formed the basis of so much our western learning in the aftermath of these expeditions.

I hope others will find as much treasure amongst these pages as I have.

Marilena Netty

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 45, volume 33, number 1 (2010).

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