Lay, Graeme. James Cook’s Lost World.
Some five years ago Graeme Lay decided to satisfy his interest in James Cook by combining his own south Pacific experiences and success as a novelist, short story and travel writer to undertake a fictionalized account of Cook’s career and voyages.1 “Converting James’s life into a fictional version”, Lay noted, “enabled me to venture into his mind and provide what I hope are plausible motivations for his actions, both noble and ignoble”.2 The result was a trilogy of novels over the remarkably short span of three years, 2013-2015: The Secret Life of James Cook; James Cook’s New World; and our subject here, James Cook’s Lost World.3
“All fiction writing”, Lay has written further, “stands or falls on two crucial elements, characterization and conflict... characters must be completely credible... there must also be meaningful conflict between the... characters to bring dramatic tension to the narrative”.4 James’s relationship with Elizabeth, his wife, is a constant theme running through the novels, but Joseph Banks becomes the protagonist’s leading foil in the first book and, inevitably, Johann Forster in the second. In the third one the tension, indeed conflict, is principally between Cook and himself. He is depicted in generally unhappy health, and at various times frustrated, intolerant, angry, cruel—a man at war with himself suffering increasingly diminished capacity. Following near disaster on rocks off the Alaska peninsula we find him slumped in his cabin reliving the moment,“his actions had been unwise, even reckless, and everyman aboard must be aware of the fact. Lying on his back now, he pressed his hands to his aching belly. There would be little sleep again tonight. Am I going insane?”5 At this point something like what became the disaster at Kealakekua Bay appears inevitable.
One can immediately appreciate the attraction of the novelist to the unraveling of his hero. But it is hardly a new approach to the James Cook of the Third Voyage; rather it reflects the dominant narrative presented by Cook’s biographer and editor John Cawte Beaglehole, which has been largely sustained in Cook historiography for over half a century.6 Beaglehole’s narrative purposely had a heroic quality to it; his hero having risen, the final, dramatic fall and death has to be explained. Thus the evolving weariness, punctuated by “failures” and erratic behavior, anger and violence that lead to Hawaii in early 1779. Beaglehole’s case was, and remains to many, compelling, but it was informed by an underlying and strongly-held opinion that Cook should never have embarked on this last expedition.
Many of the voyage’s problems highlighted in the dominant narrative can be blamed on the delay of a year in getting to the Northwest Coast and Alaska. Cook was basically tired of the south Pacific and ambitious to get to the Arctic. Incidents commonly cited to demonstrate Cook’s “changed” persona, such as the failure to explore Fiji, violence at Moorea, and problems with a “mutinous” crew off Maui can, however, be interpreted from a variety of angles, but Lay doesn’t use his novelist’s freedom to provide a more nuanced view of his protagonist. Instead of new insights we get merely another treatment of the orthodox view of Cook’s Third Voyage almost entirely through the lens of Kealakekua Bay. When this is done – working backwards – it becomes too simplistic to connect the dots, and to see Cook in a hopelessly downward spiral, Lear-like, Kurtz-like.7 This picture of Cook as angry – internally and externally – violent, tired, distracted and diminished breaks down almost completely during his time in American waters. No-one reading the journal for this period, and especially his 1778 letter from Unalaska to the Admiralty with its accompanying chart, can legitimately suggest that Cook is displaying diminished capabilities. He is frustrated by the Russian charts but, once in the Bering Sea, he is energized, and when he hits the ice at 71°N he doesn’t just give up; rather he doubles down, and spends a full ten days crossing from America to Asia in the hope of finding a way through. On Unalaska, he is not going mad en route to an inevitable denouement in Hawaii; rather he is crystal clear in his determination to see out the mission, “I intend to... return to the North... and the ensuing summer make another and final attempt to find a Northern passage”.8
One of the disappointments of Lay’s approach to the Third Voyage is the amount of time he devotes to the North Pacific (outside of Hawaii). Part One of his novel (84 pages) quite legitimately sets up the voyage. The writing is uniformly engaging, and the action moves well as the pages turn over easily. Cook returns home triumphant from the Second Voyage, his portrait is painted, and he becomes a fellow of the Royal Society. But soon, finding retirement not at all to his liking, he is willingly manipulated to set out again for the Pacific for a third time. James’s imaginary interactions with Philip Stephens, the Admiralty Secretary, and with Elizabeth are some of the best parts of the novel. There is the nice touch of Cook visiting Charles Clerke in debtor’s prison.
Somewhat surprisingly, however, the author eschews the chance to recreate the famous dinner party at which Cook declares his willingness to command the expedition to find the Pacific portal, and to navigate the supposed passage back to the Atlantic. In doing so Lay misses the chance, I think, to explore the extent to which the Northwest Passage engaged opinion in late 18th century commercial and maritime circles, and how well this fitted in with own Cook’s ambition. He goes on the Third Voyage not only for the challenge, and the promise of further wealth and fame, but also because he believes the Pacific to be his ocean; he is determinably territorial. Lay deals with the issue of the publication of journal of the Second Voyage, but is not correct in suggesting that the matter was solved by Christmas 1775. Also, Douglas, Cook’s editor, was still Canon of St. Paul’s at this time, and not a Bishop for another decade.
Part Two of the book (101 pages) traces the voyage from July 1776, through the south seas and its various island encounters. Here, Lay uses a double technique to tell the story: personal letters to Cook’s wife and the main narrative. He punctuates the latter with conversations Cook has with a cast of companions, including Gore, Bligh, Anderson, Clerke, King, Williamson, Omai, Bayly and Burney, and native leaders such as Kahura, Finau and Tu. The device is generally successful, providing the letters to Elizabeth that she will burn at the end when she hears of her husband’s death, and the dialogue allows Lay to develop his ideas about Cook’s character. He handles well and persuasively the Kahura issue about the murder of Furneaux’s men at Grassy Cove in 1773.
Although I appreciate the novelist’s need for tension, and Williamson in the accounts of others is hardly a sympathetic character, I found Cook’s relationship with him here to border on caricature. This continues in Part III of the book, when Williamson is dressed down almost like a schoolboy in front of the headmaster for the killing of a native on Kauai, and it too conveniently ignores a professional, if never warm, relationship; in the Bering Sea Cook sends Williamson ashore to get an idea of the Alaskan coast, and to take possession, and even grants him the favor of naming Cape Newenham after a friend.
One of the relationships that is underdeveloped is that of Cook and Webber, and this extends into the American Northwest Coast, Alaskan and Asian sections of the voyage covered in Part Three. On the Third Voyage, Cook was determined to fashion his own account of the expedition so as to keep the interfering work of any editor at arm’s length. Webber appears in Lay’s account, but only on the periphery; it is clear, however, that Cook saw him as a vitally important companion in the development of a set of paintings and drawings to complement the narrative. Webber was specifically used to illustrate people, places and events. Thus we see anchorage scenes such as Queen Charlotte, Nootka and Prince William Sounds, numerous key portraits and key events, such as the Natche in Tonga; human sacrifice in Tahiti; the visit to Yuquot at Nootka; the meeting with the Chukchi at St. Lawrence Bay and the “sea horse” (not elephant) hunt. This says much about how Cook saw his own role in determining the scope of the publication and the shaping of his legacy.
Part Three (145 pages) is the longest in the book. However, it takes in the discovery of Hawaii, all the American spring, summer and fall of 1778, the return to Hawaii, Cook’s death, and the reconstruction of a couple of scenes when James King reports to the Lords of the Admiralty, and then visits Elizabeth Cook to deliver her husband’s letters. I may have some serious qualms about some of Lay’s interpretation of people, events and Cook’s “decline”, but both scenes are well done, and the latter is moving. These final sections are followed by a useful glossary, primarily mini-bios, that complement an illustration of Resolution and Discovery in the Arctic Sea, and a Third Voyage route map at the beginning of the book.
As the story reaches North America, one senses that Lay leaves his comfort zone. There are errors. First, in the author’s references to Spanish exploration north of California; although Cook knew that Spaniards had been on the coast, he had no sense of the details, such as the reference to Juan Pérez made by Cook in his initial letter to Elizabeth; the date of 1766 is a typo as Bodega y Quadra was on the coast in 1775 (and again post-Cook in 1779). Secondly, Lay has the “geography” of Nootka wrong in that there is no settlement for the ships’ companies to have seen “log huts along the shore” when the ships anchored in Ship Cove, and “Nuu-Chah-Nulth” referred to later on as being a name given to Cook by Maquinna, is actually a mid-20th century appellation. It would also be true to say that the concept of the later fur trade was not present in March 1778; furs were traded for by the British, but essentially for comfort and warmth, and only later in Kamchatka and Macao was the “accidental” gathering of these furs found to be so profitable.
Unfortunately Cook’s visits to Yuquot, the main settlement of his new friends, during two launch trips around the entrance to the sound (not deep into it), are not discussed in any detail, such as Cook’s realization of the Mowachaht’s keen sense of property rights when, in an amusing exchange, he was forced to pay (a number of times) for cutting grass for the goats, and Webber lost all his buttons before being allowed to sketch a house interior.
Finally, it is a pity that Lay didn’t work into some dialogue the anecdote provided by James Trevenen as the group rowed back to the ship. He wrote, “We were fond of these excursions, altho’ the labour on them was very great... this kind of duty was more agreeable than the humdrum routine on board the ships... Capt. Cooke also on these occasions, would sometimes relax from his almost constant severity of disposition, & condescend now and then, to converse familiarly with us”.
Farther north in Alaskan waters, the person who gave Cook the coins for use in acts of possession, was Dr Richard Kaye, not Keye, somewhat confusing in that Cook named the island off Mount St Elias with the latter spelling. Unfortunately Lay, in his brief mention of the Chugach natives of Prince William Sound, makes no use of Cook’s keen interest in their watercraft, and the link he made through his reading of David Crantz’s History of Greenland that there might well be a maritime communication with the North Atlantic. In Cook Inlet no mention is made of the pressures he felt from cabinet geographers – an interesting subject surely – and there is nothing on his encounters with the Dena’ina, which proved that he had preceded the Russians into the waterway.
If one of Lay’s purposes with this novel was to explore Cook’s thinking on a number of subjects and issues, and to provide answers to questions, here are a couple: Why did he not take a Russian translator given that he was planning to go to Kamchatka, would probably meet other Russians and, as was proved, was something he sorely missed when meeting Gerasim Izmailov on Unalaska? And, Why did he put so much store for so long in what were incomplete and misleading Russian charts? There are answers to be explored and Lay’s “take” on these subjects would have been interesting. It may seem unfair to criticize an author for what he leaves out, as not everything can be covered in a book of this nature. However, I believe that the North Pacific and the Arctic aspects of the voyage, being the core purpose of the entire endeavor, merited a bit more research, coverage and interpretation. It seems that we are hurrying back to Polynesia.
James Cook remains an enigma. Because we have to rely so much on his official writings rather than a wealth of private or personal papers, he is essentially very difficult to know as opposed to appreciate for his skill, discipline and achievements. Graeme Lay has embarked on a worthwhile, even brave, voyage in his trilogy. I disagree with his central theme in James Cook’s Lost World, although I understand his reasons for it.
If his novels serve to introduce the casual reader to Cook, his life and voyages, bravo; and if members of the CCS find in his dialogues approaches that elicit a response, “That’s an interesting idea, I hadn’t looked at Cook that way”, or the reaction, “Well, that’s not the Cook I imagine or think I know”, then there is not much more than any author could ask for.
- Cook’s Log, page 33, vol. 36, no. 4 (2013).
- Press release re James Cook’s Lost World: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015
- Lay, Graeme. The Secret Life of James Cook. Fourth Estate. 2013. Reviewed in Cook’s Log, page 46, vol. 36, no. 3 (2013).
Lay, Graeme. James Cook’s New World, A Novel. Fourth Estate. 2014. Reviewed in Cook’s Log, page 20, vol. 37, no. 4 (2014).
- The Spinoff, an on-line magazine. See http://thespinoff.co.nz/22-09-2015/books-how-to-write-a-best-seller/
- Lay’s italics.
- For example Richard Hough’s Captain James Cook: a Biography (1994) and, more recently, Frank McLynn’s Captain Cook: Master of the Seas (2011).
- The references here are to the central character in William Shakespeare's King Lear, who is driven to despair and madness by seeking unsuccessfully to manipulate family relationships; and to Colonel Kurtz, colonial trader in Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, whose corruption results in a messianic deterioration into madness.
- The National Archives (TNA), Kew. ADM 1/1612, folio 539.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 34, volume 39, number 2 (2016).