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Captain courageous

The sum of hard biographical facts about Captain Cook never increases, nor is it expected to.

7 May 2011

12:00 AM

7 May 2011

12:00 AM

Captain Cook: Master of the Seas Frank McLynn

Yale, pp.490, 25

The sum of hard biographical facts about Captain Cook never increases, nor is it expected to. It is the same with Shakespeare. J. C. Beaglehole’s Life of Captain James Cook (1974), which Frank McLynn quotes often, contains most of what is known about Cook’s family life and origins. As the son of a Yorkshire farm labourer, he belonged to a class that was unlikely to leave any record of his childhood. He was clever, and went to live with a Quaker family in Whitby where he worked in the shop. He went to sea in the collier trade at the advanced age of 17, and transferred to the Royal Navy when he was 30. He married seven years later, in 1762, after the Admiralty’s attention was drawn by his successful charting of the Newfoundland coast. What Cook and his wife had to say to each other remains anybody’s guess, nor is there any information on his own thoughts about his voyages and achievements, apart from his substantial official record.

Richard Hough wrote a decent, straightforward biography which is largely derived from Beaglehole (1994). Nicholas Thomas, in Discoveries: The Voyages of Captain Cook (2003), drew careful attention to Cook’s sense of curiosity. Both are out of print. The justification for a new biography must be that advances in other studies shed new understanding on events that are already well documented. Such areas might be grouped as they relate to technical matters (ocean, climate, cartography); to the peoples Cook encountered; and, in view of his allegedly erratic behaviour on the third voyage, to psychology.

Cook was not the first person sent by the Royal Navy to explore the Pacific. Samuel Wallis and John Byron had only lately returned, but ‘Byron chose to construe the entire trip as an emergency. As a voyage of Pacific discovery, his was singularly useless.’ We already know that Cook was exceptional because of his thoroughness, but McLynn is inconsistent in showing how Cook followed the Admiralty’s instructions in conditions of constant emergency. Storms and dangers are not taken for granted, and there are places, such as his negotiation of the Great Barrier Reef, when the narrative becomes a tense examination of Cook’s moment-by-moment decisions in the light of what is now known about the dangers he faced. But while McLynn gives Cook some credit for his technical brilliance, he could have done more to explain it. For example, what exactly was involved in taking readings and making maps in extreme weather conditions, often on a violently pitching deck, or confronted by yet another group of new people who didn’t understand what he was doing and from whom he wanted supplies? How were the instruments looked after? Where was the paper and ink kept?

McLynn makes a brave effort to unravel for us the intricacies of religion and politics in the Society Islands, Tongan Archipelago and Hawaii. Others do this better (Nicholas Thomas, for one) but in a biography, rather than a study of his impact, emphasising these matters carries an implicit judgment on Cook for not acting on information which he did not have. Should he have foreseen the consequences and kept out of the Pacific altogether? McLynn writes, ‘If Cook had understood the deep undercurrents on the Sandwich Islands, he might have decided not to go there.’ Thanks, but he could not have understood them; he was not a God, after all. There remains the uneasy feeling that his death may have been the result of just another exhausting emergency that might have been resolved, like all the others, and entered Cook’s Journal with his usual laconic understatement. Although ethnographic hindsight is necessary for an explanation of why Cook died, it can have the effect of skewing events so that they are all seen in the light of what happened later.

The problem is more acute with retrospective remarks about psychology, especially with regard to the third voyage. Cook was well aware of the inferiority both of crew and equipment, and this caused persistent problems which McLynn acknowledges. More disquieting are the observations by other officers, and circumstantial evidence, that something was amiss with Cook himself, so that the disaster at Kealakekua Bay was an accident waiting to happen.

In this murky arena, McLynn jabs with unhelpful assertions. Cook is several times described as a ‘control freak’ (this even appears in quotes once, but who is he quoting?). He is a ‘despot’ on the third voyage because he punished people more often, without due recognition that a successful voyage depended on his authority being absolute. He is criticised for ‘dogged determination’ and ‘arrogant stubbornness’, for being ‘chillingly ambitious’ and exhibiting ‘bipolar behaviour’. Although not necessarily untrue, these are loaded epithets that need to be examined and applied with extreme care.

Cook may have had faults, but if he is damned for them then he is damned for his virtues too. They were essential to his genius, which is why he is interesting. If we find this hard to accept, it says more about us than about Cook. McLynn’s biography is well researched and respectful, but while he notes many of the extraordinary difficulties that Cook faced, he does not do justice to the continuing, contradictory demands that lie behind the achievements. As with Shakespeare, it remains dumbfounding that a human could do what Cook did.

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