Sea of Dangers: Captain Cook and his rivals. Blainey, Geoffrey. 2008

Sea of Dangers: Captain Cook and his rivals. Blainey, Geoffrey. 2008

Blainey, Geoffrey. 
Sea of Dangers: Captain Cook and his rivals.
Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books. 
ISBN 978-0-670-07223-1.

The title of this book doesn't fit the contents. It is the interesting story of how James Cook in Endeavour and Jean-François-Marie de Surville in St Jean-Baptiste came to round the northern tip of New Zealand at the same time, and what happened next. And, according to Blainey "the French ship was almost within sight of Botany Bay and Sydney Harbour months before the British ship arrived there."

Blainey interleaves the stories of the two voyages as much as he can, given they didn't start at the same time.

The book starts with Cook's birth on 27 October 1728 in Marton and takes us through Staithes, Whitby, Quebec, his marriage, Newfoundland and his appointment to Endeavour. Life in the ship is described, the purpose of the voyage, and the scientists Banks and Solander. Then the voyage is covered: Madeira, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Horn and Tahiti up to the reading of the secret instructions. A total of 50 pages.

Then it is de Surville's turn. He was born on 18 January 1717 in Port-Louis in Brittany, France. He went to sea at 10, visited China, became a captain "in a merchant ship and then in a naval vessel". The story takes us through the Seven Years War, India, his marriage, two sons, Madagascar, Mauritius and Réunion. A total of 2 paragraphs covering 48 years of his life. What a disappointment. I wanted to know more about these years leading up to the voyage than is covered in this book. And there is more that can be told about him as I found out by looking at two of the sources used by Blainey.

De Surville's story continues with the preparations in Pondicherry on the east coast of India. His instructions were so secret he never revealed them to anyone, before or during the voyage. They came from the owners of the ship, of which he was one, and from the French colonial officials. Blainey compares and contrasts with Cook de Surville's seamanship and his attitude to the health and well-being of his men. Apparently, de Surville sometimes "vexed his fellow officers by transferring scarce food from their table to the plates of sick seamen." The purpose of this voyage was trade, so the ship "was so crammed with items for sale or barter that scant space was left in several of the officers' cabins." And there were nearly 200 men aboard, more than double that in Endeavour.

As Blainey puts it, "Cook was an explorer and chart-maker, de Surville was an explorer and trader".

Blainey is good at describing how de Surville's voyage came about, though its intentions were based on false or misunderstood information. De Surville was to seek out an island of Jewish traders in the Pacific seen by the company of Dolphin commanded by Wallis. Possibly it was Davis Land, an island once seen 80 years earlier. The explanation is good and not easy to summarise in this review.

The ship sets sail and made their way to Malaysia, then up north of the Philippines to the Batan Islands, where three natives were kidnapped and carried away. As they passed through the Solomon Islands many of the crew were struck by scurvy. At one island the natives attacked them and the sailors retaliated by killing about 40 men. And a boy was kidnapped and carried away.

Blainey now digresses to tell of Tasman's arrival at New Zealand in 1642 and the naming of Cape Maria van Diemen and the Three Kings at the tip of the north island. Then he continues with Cook's arrival at New Zealand and his journey up the east coast to the Bay of Islands. Back to de Surville who is sailing south. The continuation of scurvy meant he was now desperate for fresh supplies but, fearful that the unknown east coast of Australia. might be as barren as the known west coast, he resolved to sail south until the known latitude of Tasman's New Zealand and then turn east to find it. And that is what he did. At one point some of the men could smell the land, possibly that around Sydney Harbour. Perhaps they were only 40 miles away. Blainey digresses with an explanation of how sailors could smell land, using descriptions of the fabled Captain Ahab and those of nineteenth century sailors. He then speculates on what might have happened if de Surville had turned west and laid claim to Sydney Harbour for the French. Instead they arrived on the west coast of New Zealand, but were unable to land by strong winds that blew the ship north.

Back to Cook who sails past Doubtless Bay, but was unable to investigate due to strong winds that blew the ship north. And so the ships passed each other. "Possibly for one hour of that summer day, only 25 or 30 miles were between them [and] neither captain had an inkling that the other was also exploring in this corner of the Pacific Ocean" writes Blainey.

De Surville rounded the north-east corner of New Zealand, passed North Cape and met some Maori in canoes. The first encounter was friendly. Fresh greens were obtained and trade established. By now the ship was in Cook's Doubtless Bay, which de Surville named Lauriston. The Maori were friendly and Christmas celebrated. Many of the sick recovered but, before everyone was fit, new gales sprang up and nearly drove the ship onto rocks. A dinghy was lost and taken by the Maori. The French retaliated by burning huts and nets. And a Maori was kidnapped and carried away. De Surville sailed east for South America hoping to find Davis Land and the Jewish colony on the way.

In the meantime Cook spent three weeks covering as few as 30 sea miles "determined to find the true position of those great natural signposts, the North Cape and the Cape Maria van Diemen". Blainey continues the story of Cook's voyage down the west coast, around South Island and then west to Australia and up its eastern coast.

After describing the near disaster on the Great Barrier Reef Blainey digresses into considering Cook's conduct. After considering the views of Alan Villiers, Alexander Dalrymple and J.C. Beaglehole, Blainey goes on to contemplate if "Cook at that time was prone to take risks" due to the influence of the moonlight, pointing out that "on two previous occasions he had sailed into trouble on moonlit nights". Blainey does so as part of his desire to see Cook "as a human being, performing remarkable feats".

Blainey continues Cook's story until he leaves Australia, then switches to that of de Surville searching for Davis Land. He didn't find it, nor the Jewish colony, the riddle of which Blainey considers again. Food and water became scarce and scurvy appeared again amongst the crew. Eventually the ship arrived off the coast of South America, and they sailed north for help in a Spanish colonial port. At the first port they came they fired the ship's guns but no one responded so de Surville set off in his best uniform to seek help. But the boat capsized and he was drowned, and with him knowledge of his secret orders.

Blainey completes Cook's story with the journey home to England. He also describes how at Cape Town on the homeward leg of the Second Voyage Cook met some French ships on their way to Pondicherry. One of the captains, Julien-Marie Crozet told Cook of de Surville's voyage.

The book has 24 illustrations grouped together in the middle. They are a mix of paintings, engravings and photos of some of the places described in the book. Most of the pictures are in colour. There are six maps, each of which is useful, but usually appears too late in the book, just after the passage they cover rather than being the visual means of guidance needed by the reader.

Blainey devotes more pages of this book to Cook than to de Surville, but discusses their trials and tribulations fairly.

Ian Boreham

See also Cook's Log, page 1087, vol. 17, no. 4 (1994).

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 38, volume 32, number 1 (2009).

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