Frame, William, and Walker, Laura.
James Cook: The Voyages.
British Library. ISBN 9780712352901.
Also published by Bateman, ISBN 9781869539870, and by McGill-Queen’s University Press, ISBN 9780773552869.
What makes James Cook stand out from most of the Pacific explorers who went before him, and from many of the ones who followed, are the visual and textual records he brought back to Europe, both in quantity and in quality. Added to which were Cook’s ability and attitude towards exploring.
He would make sure the job was done properly, unlike earlier sailors such as John Byron, Samuel Wallis and even the admirable Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, who actually led the first scientific expedition to the Pacific—not Cook. They managed to pass through the ocean without really seeing anything but water—mind you, that is very easy given the large size of the ocean and the very small size of the islands. Cook bounced around like a pinball finding and locating many islands. From his visits came marvellous documents that offer us such an insight into life in the Pacific in the late eighteenth century.
Many items associated with Cook’s voyages have now been put on display in an exhibition hosted at the British Library, London, in 2018.1 I understand the exhibition comprises many images of maps, artworks and journals from the British Library’s collections, but sadly, while it would be wonderful for me to fly over to Britain and see it first-hand, that is not likely to happen. So for people like me this book will have to suffice. I have been told that not all of the images reproduced in the book are on display at Euston Road, and not all of the images in the exhibition are in the book. Initially, I expected the book to be a catalogue of the exhibition but, instead, it turns out to be a work that, while obviously referencing that exhibition, also attempts to stand alone. To a certain extent, it succeeds.
The book is full of all sorts of images, many in colour, and many in sepia tones—140 in total. There is a variety of types of images, both from the voyages and from subsequent reworkings: portraits, landscapes, charts and journal entries. The images are organised in chronological order, and linked by text.
So why do I feel a little disappointed? All the usual images are there and, perhaps, that is my problem. To a large extent, the selection is predictable, and many of the images have been reproduced many times before. A chance has been missed to bring out and highlight something different.
The exhibition is called “the Voyages” and so concentrates on that part of Cook’s career. But surely more coverage could have been made of his childhood (the St. Cuthbert’s baptism record?), his life on the North Sea (a muster roll with his name on it?), his early Royal Navy time (his drawing of the Brittany coast?) and, especially, all the formative experience in Newfoundland (a chart or sailing directions?). Instead, we get a huge section on the First Voyage, which receives, to my mind, a disproportionate amount of space. Granted, without it there would not have been a second one, but both the second and third voyages are short changed here and rushed through.
I realise Tupaia has only received due credit in recent years, but do we need virtually every piece now attributed to him when William Bligh, William Ellis, Edward Riou and Thomas Edgar from the Third Voyage and Peter Fannin from the second one have nothing reproduced? I understand the exhibition has the original journals from the First Voyage by Joseph Banks, James Cook, Zachary Hickes, Robert Molyneux and William Munkhouse. So why does the book reproduce pages from only those by Cook and Munkhouse? The Second and Third Voyage journals fare even worse. Natural history has also fared badly with only a few zoological and botanical images.
Despite my reservations about the book I would urge everyone who has the opportunity to do so to visit the exhibition to see all these objects on display. Such an opportunity will not come around again very soon. Perhaps, the British Library can be prevailed upon to have some if not all the items made available to museums in New Zealand, Australia and North America for them to show.
See page 12.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 28, volume 41, number 3 (2018).