Longitude and Empire: How Captain Cook's Voyages Changed the World. Richardson, Brian W. 2005

Longitude and Empire: How Captain Cook's Voyages Changed the World. Richardson, Brian W. 2005

Richardson, Brian W. 
Longitude and Empire: How Captain Cook's Voyages Changed the World.
UBC Press.
ISBN 0-7748-1189-7.

I was defeated by this book. I don't understand why it was written nor what it was saying. It worried me until I reached page 120 where I read "Readers may wonder whether Cook's questions were understood clearly by people who were not thinking in his categories." Perhaps I didn't understand Richardson's questions. Perhaps I wasn't thinking in his categories.

The opening piece had got me off to a good start. "We have all met Captain James Cook. Portraits, statues, coins, and stamps have offered his likeness for over two hundred years. But we do not simply look at him. The impact of his three voyages into the Pacific, both as a series of events and as published documents, has been much more profound - it is through him, through the ideal that his voyages represent, that we understand how to look with him at the world." As a Cook enthusiast I warmed to this approach.

Misgivings arose when I read in the next paragraph that Nathaniel Dance's portrait of Cook, painted in 1776, includes his hat that "rests on a bound book - one of the printed volumes of Cook's second voyage", which is impossible as the volumes weren't published until the following year. The book is more likely to have been Cook's manuscript journal of the Second Voyage.

I liked it when Richardson said "the printed accounts of his voyages also became the ideal representation of scientific exploration literature. More than with any other voyage, Cook's travels and writings represented how an explorer ought to give an account of the world", but reached for my dictionary when he continued "while the voyages contain descriptions of distant places, they also discuss the practical and epistemological conditions under which certain kinds of descriptions are considered to be accurate and complete."

Part way through the Introduction, and still wondering the purpose of the book, I read "The voyages and books were the intentional products of a book culture", which hadn't occurred to me before, and I'm not convinced is so. Towards the end of the sixteen-page Introduction I was no clearer when I read "Cook was a character, the narrator in fact, in a story… The focus here will be to determine how the voyages, as printed texts written in first person, with Cook as the main character, imagine the world". It hadn't occurred to me that the voyages imagined the world. I'm not convinced they do. Nor do I agree that "Cook encourages his readers to see the world through his eyes. At the very least, we become his confidants."

Then a ghastly error, "One of the anonymous books describing the second voyage, attributed to John Rickman". What? John Rickman sailed on the Third Voyage! From now on, I'm reading this book with an eye out for more mistakes, and this one is repeated throughout the book. We also get "Cook's second voyage… began in the same way that European voyages had begun for centuries. The Discovery and Adventure". What? The Discovery sailed on the Third Voyage! This mistake is also repeated.

By the end of the Introduction, I'm worried. I turned to a review by CCS member Paula Gustafson who wrote "I'm guessing the manuscript for this book originated as his PhD thesis." I quick look on the Internet found such a thesis "Richardson, Brian W. From longitude to empire: the articulations of place in the voyages of Captain Cook. Ph.D. diss., University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa, May 2001. (Political Science)." Now I understand. Academic words and concepts will appear in this book, or ordinary words used with a different, academic, meaning. Better continue and look for the positive. Which isn't difficult to find.

The endnotes for the Introduction include "A detailed historical reconstruction of the impact of the published accounts of Cook's voyages remains to be written… A concern for the historical reception of Cook's voyages. However, has been almost completely marginalized by the reception of J.C. Beaglehole's edition of Cook's voyages, which has placed so much emphasis on the manuscripts that is has led people away from a concern for the history of the books, the reprints, the reworkings, and so on."

And here is another problem I have with Richardson's comments. He uses the 1821 Admiralty edition of the Three Voyages, which are edited versions of Cook's journals (by Hawkesworth, Douglas and King, and partly also Cook), and keeps referring to the words as if they had been written by Cook. It's shorthand, I know, but it grates with me. Sometimes, Richardson compares the manuscript and published versions to good effect. "Whereas the manuscript describes Cook's relationship with the natives as if they were equals, and relies instead on Cook's reputation, the Admiralty's reworking describes a legal and authoritarian relation where Cook is the focus of the exchange. While the peaceful relations involved gifts in both accounts, the Admiralty's account also includes threats of the natives behaved improperly". And he points out how "in the versions of Cook's voyages edited by John Barrow [1903 and 1925] the division between Europeans and non-Europeans is reworked… There is very little dialogue, and the non-Europeans are almost irrelevant to the success of the voyages. Tupia, who sailed in the Endeavour… is barely described. This is significant; Tupia played an important role".

I was impressed with the explanation of "the two primary methods for determining longitude… based on information provided by timepieces or by astronomical observation." And it isn't often that someone explains, "Among its other accomplishments, Cook's second voyage was a test of both of these techniques." Thus "it became possible to determine location sporadically, without needing any knowledge of where the ship had been the day before, what direction it had travelled in, or how far." The confusing, to me, words took over. "Cook's world became a world of points connected back to the coordinate grid rather than to the coasts of continents. The difference here is crucial. Not only can Cook move round the world in a different way, he can also narrate the location of places differently". I feel I should understand. The words are familiar, but the usage is not. "To navigators who were primarily interested in coasting, the division between land and sea was also the division between knowledge and confusion, or between geographical civilization and geographical savagery."

"The narrative of the [second] voyage emphasizes Cook's existence at the edge of the world… The ice fields do not simply represent a wall beyond which further navigation is impossible; they represent the limits of human existence and representation as such. At the edge of the world words fail, and only the best painting can hope to convey an appropriate image to people who have not been there."

"For Cook, the undifferentiated, pointless space was interesting. Every point on the grid was interesting, at least the first time. In his three voyages, Cook is not only looking for land but also for ocean, and accounting for empty places in the open ocean is a key element of his success. Of course, Cook is worried about the narrative possibilities of the open ocean." Is he? Worried about the unseen dangers, perhaps. But the narrative possibilities?

The book is packed full of information. "Whether one looks at the Admiralty's edition of the voyages or Cook's manuscript journal, the people who are encountered are referred to as ‘Indians'… At some stage in the production of the account of the second voyage, however, the terms change. In the manuscript journals from the second and third voyages, cook still uses ‘Indian' throughout. In the version published by the Admiralty, however, ‘Indian' has almost always been changed to terms such as ‘inhabitant' and ‘native'."

Richardson considers how Cook described the nations he came across. "It was not enough to collect whatever information came to hand - it was also important to pay attention to where and from whom the information is collected… The enquiry involved a variety of different considerations of the island, from viewing behaviour, to collecting artefacts, to testing reactions, to asking questions. Cook's voyages are epistemological as well as navigational narratives… The goal of the voyages, then, was not only to create a complete description of the places and the peoples, but also to show how such descriptions should be produced. As a result, Cook's voyages have often been placed at the beginning of modern European anthropological discourse, as one of the first and one of the best of the early accounts of the South Pacific."

Cook, writes Richardson, "is a geographical Linnaeus." What a wonderful observation. "Separate places acquire the status of separate species: here is a place, here are its characteristics, and here is how its parts function as a whole. Thus customs, people, weather, geology, flora, and fauna are all parts of a single entity, both static and changeable."

Turning to collections, Richardson notes "people no longer travel to places in order to study the world; they travel within the collection." Collectors "accumulated artefacts from Cook's voyages without regard to location or nationality. They were interested in primitive artefacts, which meant artefacts that were not from either Europe or the Orient, and Cook's voyages probably made those sorts of artefacts less expensive than they had ever been before.

According to Richardson "Cook claims that the New Zealanders are superior to the Spaniards, a nation that Cook has little good to say of in any event… Throughout the voyages, the key European groups that are either equivalent or below the natives of the South Pacific are the Spaniards and the lower classes of England… Cook may be from northern England, and he may be from the agricultural working class, but his ideals are the ideals of the Admiralty, the Royal Society, and the landed aristocracy of southern England." What? No, I don't think so.

In a chapter on empires Richardson writes "While Cook's personal responsibility for later political developments varies from one commentator to another, some connection between Cook's voyages and the English empire is widely accepted… To equate Cook's voyages so quickly with empire ignores the fact that the concept of empire also has a history. Up until the late eighteenth century, the concept of empire was relatively general, being more or less equivalent to political control or domination."

Richardson's Conclusions take only three pages, but they didn't make any more sense to me than his Introduction. For example, "In Cook's voyages, the articulations of place weave together knowledge and power, not only creating new instances of both, but also changing the way that knowledge and power are organized." And I find it impossible to believe that "Before [Cook's] voyages, the world was uncertain and dangerous; after them, it was clear and safe."

A tough book for me to read. A difficult book to fathom. But some interesting points to discover. Cook's characteristics are sometimes summarised by the names of his ships: Endeavour, Resolution, Adventure and Discovery. Richardson's book can be summarised by some of the sub-headings within the chapters: Dangers of relativism, Persistence of extreme otherness, Transcendence of the collector and Empire as a panopticon. Back to the dictionary for me!

Ian Boreham

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 28, volume 29, number 1 (2006).

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