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Books About James Cook’s Voyages

December 13, 2013 in general history, History, Pacific History

Captain James Cook only held the position of post-captain for the last four years of his life, but he will be remembered for his voyages of discovery in the South Pacific and beyond.  Today he has been critiqued by indigenous people for the legacy that his travels brought to places such as Hawaii and Australia, which led to colonization and displacement of native populations on, but the same token, Cook was not the vengeful explorer than many other Europeans had track records for being.  Cook often had admiration and respect for indigenous peoples, and he even expressed remorse and hurt when he his sailors had brought venereal diseases to isolated regions, such as the Hawaiian Islands.  Cook tried to prevent infected men on his ship from engaging in conjugal relations for this reason, but this was often beyond his control. Cook was also recognized for ameliorating incidents of scurvy on his expeditions by provisioning his men with fresh produce, but he also could go into a fit of rage when a sailor refused to eat part of his provisions. Thus, Cook was a man who cared deeply about the sanitation and health of his crew, but he was not above flogging for cases of insubordination when it came to small things, like not eating an allotment of meat. Cook was literally about running a tight ship, and his protege William Bligh would later try to emulate his commanding style with far less positive results.

Sir Joseph Banks was an aristocrat with an interest in science, and he went on Cook’s first voyage, where he learned about breadfruit. Later the push to gather breadfruit plants and transport this fruit-bearing plant from Tahiti to Jamaica would be supported by Sir Joseph Banks, and this idea never would have come about if it had not been for his accompanying Cook on his first voyage.  This was all in the future when Cook embarked on his first expedition in 1768, but these events illustrate the connection between Banks, Cook, Bligh,and the eventual mutiny on the HMAV Bounty, which is probably the reason I find James Cook fascinating.

During Cook’s three voyages the transit of Venus was documented, it was proven once and for all that there was no large southern continent that kept the globe in balance, and the hope of discovering a Northwest Passage was finally abandoned. Cook’s cartography skills created detailed maps of the coastlines of Australia, New Zealand, and many Pacific Islands, which he claimed for the British Empire, and he even sailed as far north as Alaska. Despite his far flung and note-worthy voyages, on the third and final voyage Cook was killed in a dispute in Hawaii over attempting to take a local chief hostage in hopes the Hawaiians would return some of their equipment stolen from the ship.  It  turns out Cook was not killed because he was a fallen god, even though this theory has long been regarded as the reason for his murder.  Cook was most likely killed over the tense interactions between his crew and the Hawaiians, but the short documentary clip below offers a bit more explanation as to what may have really happened.

Captain Cook was a talented navigator who made a significant contribution to the history of exploration, and his mapping of Australia was the catalyst that led to the colonization on this continent, even though this was largely Banks’ idea.  From what I gather via my reading, in Australia Cook is often regarded as being similar to George Washington or Thomas Jefferson in the US, but he also is considered to be somewhat of the villain in that his explorations of Australia led to the aborigines being dispossessed of their land.  Thus, he is not quite the shining icon previous generations made him out to be, but just like our founding fathers, he had his flaws and achievements.  There are several books that I read that discuss Cook’s travels in depth, and here is a tidbit about each:

Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz.

Tony Horwitz is a journalist, but he is also known for having empathy towards how others interpret events. Horwitz will speak to anyone and everyone, and this man is never biased or curt. When he wanted to learn more about New Zealand gang members and how they viewed Cook’s legacy, he went and spoke with a few and found out many were mixed raced men who did not feel they fit in with mainstream society. Next, Horowitz recounts speaking with official leaders or kids smoking pot in Tahiti, which illustrates how this man will talk to anyone!

One fascinating thing about Horwitz is that around the time of the Gulf War he wrote the account of his travels in the Middle East in the book Baghdad Without A Map, and actually spoke to Muslims in hostile situations, such as attending the funeral of the Ayatollah Khomeini. In one breath people were telling Horwitz they hated America, but in the next they were asking him if he had ever been to Disneyland, and sharing how it was their dream to go there. Just as with the Baghdad book, in Blue Latitudes Horwitz’s journalistic and people skills allow us to glimpse into the minds of the modern day residents of the places Cook visited to discover how they view this man.

Horwitz visits many different Pacific Islands in his travels and provides the novice with a good introduction to the history and cultures of each place he stays in, which basically followed Cook’s travels, so there is a little bit of everything in here. The most intriguing aspect of the book is when Horwitz uses Cook’s journals to show the admiration he had for the aborigines in Australia, thus illustrating he was not completely the brash explorer many regard him to be.

Horwitz endeavors to learn more about what people have to say about this renowned explorer, so whether you love Cook or hate Cook, you kind of have to be in awe of all the places he visited and charted after reading this book.   If you want to learn more about Captain Cook and his adventures with an engrossing and first hand feel, then I suggest you read this volume.

The Extraordinary Voyages of Captain Cook by Nicholas Thomas

This historical text is a detailed examination of Cook’s voyages, and offers anthropological insights into the people this British expeditions encountered. The volume has fascinating moments, such as Cook’s observations about the starkness of the land on Easter Island, and including a ink drawing of the famous moai on Easter Island, which was created by Johann Forster.

Thomas’s historical account is very detail oriented, and a bit more critical of Cook than other authors have been.  I enjoyed reading his insights, but also felt perhaps some of the judgments about Cook were slightly biased, especially considering this explorer was a man of a different time.  I am not justifying the outcome of the age of exploration, but just feel that Cook was a man who could be admired when it came to his knowledge of geography, and his sense of equality, which probably had to do with his origins as a farmer’s son.  Cook had shortcomings, but in my opinion, there were other explorers who were far worse.

Cook always made sure his men received adequate provisions with fresh vegetables to ward off scurvy, which is something  that Thomas points in this book.  It is quite voluminous, and probably not recommended for someone who is just learning about Captain Cook, or who wants a more engaging read.  However, I do find this text to be a good reference on Cook’s voyages.  The index is comprehensive, and you can find many small details about his journeys by referencing it.

The Bounty by Caroline Alexander

This historical text probably seems unrelated to those who want to read more about James Cook, but it is definitely of interest for those who yearn to learn more about William Bligh, and what inspired him to become obsessed with hygiene and regimen on the HMAV Bounty. Once again we meet Joseph Banks, who is connected to Cook since he also sailed aboard the Endeavor.  During that voyage Banks had admired the quality of the starchy fruit produced by breadfruit trees in Tahiti, and came up with the far fetched idea of gathering seedlings to transplant in Jamaica.  Unfortunately, it was not simply a grandiose botany experiment, but the Royal Society’s rationale behind this was that it would make a cheap source of food for the slaves working on plantations in the Caribbean, which is one of the more unsavory aspects of the entire Bounty expedition.

William Bligh used many of Cook’s commanding strategies on the Bounty, but we learn that things dis not always go very well.  Bligh did not possess the charisma that Cook had with his men, and things definitely go South after the departure from Tahiti leading up to the mutiny on on April 28, 1789. This book is not about Cook, but history buffs will enjoy connecting the dots between Cook, Banks, and Bligh.  As I have long said, there would have been no famous mutiny on the part of Fletcher Christian if Banks had never sailed with Captain Cook and become mesmerized with breadfruit.  Bligh was appointed sailing master of on Cook’s last expedition, and he was also critical of how others handled the skirmish that resulted in Cook’s death.




2 responses to Books About James Cook’s Voyages

  1. It is good to learn more about Captain James Cook and his many contributions to Pacific exploration. I had heard of Captain Cook many different times in various contexts, but your article helps me to see a more coherent picture of his exploits and accomplishments and their place in the general order of things.

    • Captain Cook was a pivotal character in British exploration history, and considered a founding father of Australia, so I think in some ways he is similar to our own founding fathers here in the US.

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