The Fatal Voyage: Captain Cook's Last Great Journey.
There have been many biographies of Cook written, and many books about his First Voyage, and a few specialist ones that covered the three voyages in separate volumes. But Peter Aughton is, I think, the first person to write three general books about Cook and his journeys, one for each of the main voyages. They have been written so they stand on their own, as well as being read one as a series.
Most of the problems of the first book1 have been overcome, and the lively style of the second book2 continued.
This book begins with Cook's return from the Second Voyage to his family. "The father that returned to them was an older man than the one they remembered from three years ago… His face was more weathered and lined than when he left home. He still had a full head of hair but it was receding at the temples and three years of tropical heat and Antarctic cold had made him much greyer." A good description to make up for the problem that, as Aughton points out "We have no record of his emotional homecoming." As readers we have to decide whether we want the writing to be descriptive and, thus, speculative, or dry and factual.
Much of the first chapter is taken up with the exploits of Omai, who had arrived in England the previous year. Aughton says that "Everybody referred to Omai as a Tahitian when in fact he was born on the neighbouring island of Huaheine", which is a pity, as the good first point is ruined by the incorrect second part: Omai was born on Raiatea.
The second chapter is a good account of previous attempts to find the North West Passage, preparations for the Third Voyage and sketches of the main people on the Resolution and Discovery. I'm not sure Charles Clerke would like his problems to be described as "a touch of drama", though he might like the description of him as a "good-natured man [who] foolishly stood surety for the debts of his brother Sir John Clerke." Surprisingly, there is no explanation as to how he managed to leave prison. An example, perhaps, of an over-reliance on using the works of Beaglehole and not the results of recent research3.
Aughton is not afraid to give his opinion of Cook and his actions. At Kerguelen Island "we see James Cook exercising his worst fault. He did not consult his officers in an emergency, he made up his own mind and kept his officers in the dark about his plans." The stay at Kerguelen was only four days, and the description of the visit covers four pages of the book. Yet there is a, relatively, large map of the place, with the ships' course given and 33 places named. But none of these places appear in Aughton's description. What a waste of a good map. John Taylor has produced several other maps that appear, such as a great one of Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet on the Alaskan coast. But again, the description of the visits takes no notice of the map and uses none of the names that appear on it. Very puzzling.
In re-telling such a well-known story as Cook's, it is very easy to say what happened without any explanation of why. Occasionally, we get that extra piece of information. At New Zealand "William Bayly was able to set up his observatory on the same spot he had used on his previous visit. Bayly hardly needed to check the longitude, it had been measured from this point many times before but he did want to know the error in the ship's chronometer". Amongst the many islands of Tonga "It was usually the smaller ship, the Discovery, which led the way, this was not because she was more expendable of the two but because she was better than the Resolution at clawing off a lee shore and she could also sail in shallower water."
At one point along the Alaskan coast "The Resolution had sprung a leak in her buttocks - this was the name given to the stern of the ship adjacent to the rudder.4 " A helpful explanation. But what a pity there is no explanation for the ship's cheeks, which appear only six pages earlier.
Aughton tackles the thorny issue of how the Hawaiians regarded Cook head on. "The Hawaiians had decided that Captain Cook was a god who had arrived from another world to visit them. Cook made no objections. He played his part as the god Erono whilst his men obtained the supplies they needed." Aughton is very sure of himself over Cook's death as well, despite the several and conflicting accounts. He quotes from David Samwell and then says, "The account of cook's death is close to the truth. Captain Cook was close to the lava edge waving the boats to come in to assist when he was hit from behind with the club. He staggered forward. Then he was stabbed in the neck with an iron dagger made in his own forge. He fell face down in the water."
The book is enhanced with an index, something that is missing too often these days. It must be difficult to produce, so we can forgive the occasional slip. Snug Cove appears (pages 115 and 116) but Cook Inlet does not (page 119).
There are no deep insights in this book nor in the ones of the other voyages. But they make a good set, with more information in them than in most biographies.
- Endeavour: the story of Captain Cook's first great epic voyage. 1999. Reviewed in Cook's Log, page 1694, vol. 23, no. 1 (2000).
- Resolution: Captain Cook's Second Voyage of Discovery. 2004. Reviewed in Cook's Log, page 29, vol. 27, no. 2 (2004).
- See Cook's Log, page 1815, vol. 24, no. 1 (2001).
- See Cook's Log, page 24, vol. 26, no. 2 (2003).
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 26, volume 29, number 1 (2006).