The Last Voyage of Captain Cook: The Collected Writings of John Ledyard. Zug, James. 2005

The Last Voyage of Captain Cook: The Collected Writings of John Ledyard. Zug, James. 2005

Zug, James (ed).
The Last Voyage of Captain Cook: The Collected Writings of John Ledyard.
National Geographic.
ISBN 0-7922-9347-9.

Issued as part of the publisher’s series of "adventure classics", this book reproduces in modern typeface most of the work by John Ledyard published in 1783 as "A Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, and in Quest of a North-West Passage, between Asia and America, Performed in the years 1776, 1777, 1778, and 1779". I say "most of" as Zug, the editor of the new edition writes, Ledyard "took the final 38 pages of his book - the voyage from Kamchatka in June 1779 to London in October 1780 - verbatim from the anonymous" journal published in 1781 and identified in 1921 as being by John Rickman.

Ledyard’s plagiarism didn’t stop there as he also used it for details and "reproduced a number of anecdotes and descriptive material". And "Ledyard borrowed fairly frequently from Hawkesworth"!

Ledyard does not figure greatly in the activities of the Third Voyage. His greatest contribution seems to have been when, at Unalaska, Cook sent him to visit some Russians nearby. Cook barely mentions what Ledyard found in his three-day trip, So Ledyard’s own account is valuable.

Nevertheless, in just over 100 pages Ledyard describes the voyage in a simple style that is easy to read. It includes parts of the voyage often skipped in modern books about Cook. However, you also miss out on some events, as there are no quotes from other people on board. Amazingly, Zug includes only nine notes expanding on Ledyard’s writing. Even worse, there is no index.

Also included in this book are

  • extracts from his letters whilst he was in Europe, 1785-7, as he tried to implement a scheme for buying furs on the northwest coast of America selling them at vast profit in Canton, returning to America with "Chinese silks and teas"
  • extracts from the journal (plus some letters) he wrote as he walked across Siberia, 1787-8, with the aim of sailing with Russian fur traders to Alaska, "head down to Spanish California, ad then hike overland to Kentucky"
  • extracts from his journal (plus some letters) of the journey to Egypt, from 1788 until just before his death, that he undertook on behalf of Joseph Banks’ African Association to "traverse the continent from the Red Sea to the Atlantic"

I found this half of the book much heavier going, especially the letters, which are much more of a ramble. They contain few references to his previous voyage with Cook. Ledyard does make an interesting comment on his attempt on that voyage to understand the Russian language, compared to what he learned as he later travelled across Russia. "I was there [Unalaska] with Captain Cook. I was walking one day on Shore with a Native who spoke the Russ Language. I did not know it. I was writing the names of several things. I pointed to the Ship supposing he would understand that I wanted the name of it: he answered me with the Words Ya Snaiu which in Russ is I know I wrote a Ship."

Ledyard later writes about how, when Cook’s head was returned by the Indians after his death, "they had cut off all the Hair" and compares it to the actions of the "antient Scythians" and the "Aborigines of America". Earlier, on 17th August 1787 at the Siberian capital of Irkutsk he records how he went "to see Some Curiosities from different parts of Siberia", including "some Sandwich Island Cloth… obtained from Capt Cook’s Ship at Kamschatka when he was there".

Zug points out there are 62 extant letters of Ledyard. Many exist only as copies in someone else’s hand. His journals are in fragments, and also exist mainly as transcripts. Despite these problems Zug believes what remains "does not obscure the essence… of one of the most original and adventurous American explorers".

Ledyard’s journal of his voyage with Cook was last printed in 1963 (with many footnotes and an index), so another version is long overdue. The inclusion of material from his later life adds to our knowledge and appreciation of this remarkable man. Zug’s recent biography of Ledyard sets these writings in context.

Ian Boreham

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 43, volume 28, number 3 (2005).

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