The Compassion of Captain Cook.
Connor Court Publishing.
The many books written about James Cook and his explorations range from supremely scholarly studies to popular history works written by adventure authors or by those with a superficial interest in maritime history. The fact that many students of Cook have found his personality to be impenetrable by a scholarly perusal of the surviving documents, and have had to portray him through inference from his actions, has not been lost on Christopher Heathcote, an accomplished and respected art historian, critic and writer. His writings have included several definitive studies of the history of Australian art.
Heathcote’s interest in Cook was stirred by the contemporary controversy over Cook’s career and voyages, in which, as the preface of his book states, “severe claims are circulating about his motives in exploring the Pacific, and how he conducted himself there”. Heathcote clearly objects, as he states further, that “people who style themselves as progressively-minded now ignore altogether the scientific importance of these expeditions, and can call for the removal of public memorials to the navigator-scientist”. With his heart thus clearly worn on his sleeve, Heathcote plunges into the debate from an entirely new angle: that of the appreciative art historian, who seeks clues and verifications in surviving art from past eras. He points out that “writers of history can devote scant attention to pictures, treating them as ornaments to adorn a book”. For Heathcote, art can serve a far better service than mere ornamentation.
In this concise and well-written little work, Heathcote spends time introducing the reader to important parts of Cook’s life, and then sets out to examine the historical value of two surviving works of art, the sketched “Portrait of a New Zealander” by John Webber from life in 1777, and “The Death of Captain Cook”, a large studio painting that Webber completed in 1782 following his return to England. The 1777 portrait, drawn at the express request of Cook, was of the Māori chief Kahura. He had been identified to Cook as the leader of a massacre of a boat’s crew from Cook’s companion ship Adventure. Cook openly forgave Kahura, much against the wishes of many of Resolution’s company, who wanted to see revenge taken against Kahura for the killings, and to the astonishment of the Māori who expected Cook to do so. For Heathcote, this act reveals much about Cook’s character. The scene of Cook’s death records in meticulous and accurate detail the tragic event on the shores of Kealakekua Bay, Hawai`i, on 14 February, 1779.
Using both works of art as a starting point, Heathcote provides initially a well-written summary of highlights of the expedition, and then goes into a detailed discussion of regulations and procedures that may have affected Cook’s decisions in these events. More profoundly, Heathcote demonstrates that the experiences of the expedition showed Cook to be far more than his modern detractors now claim. “A sensitivity was revealed here that struck students as so modern, and morally enlightened. The individual revealed... doesn’t match perceptions now circulating. Believing one must seek to understand other peoples in the light of their circumstances, Cook did not pass judgment on native cultures”.
Heathcote ends his clearly admiring work with a suggestion that even modern discussions with indigenous peoples could benefit from a viewpoint as wise as Cook’s seemed to be. It is hard to disagree with that thought.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 26, volume 47, number 1 (2024).