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Lost Stories in the Discovery of Antarctica
By John Harrison
ParthianCopyright © 2012 John Harrison
All rights reserved.
The Master Craftsman:
James Cook (1728–1779)
VOYAGE I (1768–1771)
VOYAGE II (1772–1775)
VOYAGE III (1776–1779)
A ditch-digger's son becomes one of the greatest navigators of his own age, or any other age, and is sent out three times to look for the one land he does not believe exists.
In a locked, unlit village shop, the gangly youth eased himself out from under the counter where he had slept the night. He was the son of a farm labourer who had left Scotland when it was reduced to desolation after the crushing of the Jacobite rebellion of 1715–16, and moved to the straggling hamlet of Marton in Yorkshire, in north-east England. Two years later, the labourer's wife gave birth to a son, James, who at eight years old was already helping his father clean ditches and cut hedges. A reputation for honest muscle earned the father a job as bailiff to the local Lord of the Manor, Thomas Skottowe, at a larger village: Great Ayton. Skottowe saw something in the boy and paid for him to attend school. To his humble parents, apprenticing James to a shopkeeper in the nearby fishing village of Staithes was a way to rise above a life of physical drudgery. But to Cook an apprenticeship to a draper-cum-grocer was just a genteel jail. One day a lady paid for goods with a brilliant silver shilling. When the shop closed, the youth read on it the letters SSC: South Sea Company. He put it in his pocket and replaced it with one of his own. The shopkeeper William Sanderson noticed it missing and accused Cook of theft. Cook's fervent denials were accepted, but Sanderson's lack of trust rankled, and Cook's pocket already held the shiny promise of another world. He asked to be released from the apprenticeship to go to sea. Sanderson agreed and Cook was bound as a seaman apprentice for three years with the Quaker family of John Walker of Whitby, a town famous for its ruined monastery, its whaling, and, for me, as the port where Dracula enters England.
The Walkers gave James a room of his own and paid his fees to attend sea school in the town. At this time London's hearths and furnaces devoured over a million tons of coal a year, much of it supplied by north-east England in a thousand sturdy, blunt-bowed colliers known as cats, carrying six hundred tons of coal. He first sailed in February 1747, aged eighteen, becoming a Master Mate in 1755, when he was offered his own command: the Friendship. But Cook's ambition had been shaped by reading the accounts of the great explorers of the Pacific. War with France was looming and he might be pressed into the Navy. With great courage he decided to meet fate on his own terms. He turned down promotion to a merchant captain and signed on as an Able Seaman in the Royal Navy. The Navy was so short of experienced men that Cook made First Mate in less than a month. He learned surveying during the successful war to break French rule in Quebec, and after the war he was tasked with surveying the islands off Newfoundland which the peace treaty had ceded to France. A century later Admiral Wharton said of Cook's charts 'their accuracy is truly astonishing.'
In Cook's day, the supposed southern continent Terra Australis Incognita, lying in temperate latitudes and ripe for exploitation, was an idea that would not die. Cook doubted its existence long before he ever sailed south. The man described as 'one of the greatest navigators our nation or any other nation ever had' spent much of the rest of his life looking for something he doubted existed, but proving that conviction would re-write the map of the world and make him immortal. The Antarctic passages of his voyages would be forceful expeditions pressing as far south as was humanly possible, but he did so in a period of history when the earth was suffering a miniature Ice Age and it was the worst time in two centuries to be doing it.
The first problem he faced was the envy of a rival: Alexander Dalrymple. He was the creature of the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, the man who had so frustrated clockmaker John Harrison, the genius who solved the longitude problem. Maskelyne recommended that the expedition should be led by Dalrymple, a scientist and East Indiaman captain who was later the first Chief Hydrographer; he was also vain, cussed, and a man with a genius for backing the wrong horse. He was convinced his career would be crowned by charting the Terra Australis Incognita, which his readings of old and often dubious charts and memoirs convinced him was a known fact.
Dalrymple shot himself in the foot by demanding absolute overall control of the expedition. The Navy had made one famous exception to the rule that the senior Naval officer was the overall commander. The first Astronomer Royal, Sir Edmund Halley, had been given absolute control to observe a transit of Venus in the Pacific. Chaos ensued and mutiny threatened. Halley was Maskelyne's immediate predecessor as Astronomer Royal, so it was idiotic to imagine the lesson had been forgotten. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Edward Hawke, made his oppositions plain enough even for Dalrymple, declaring 'I would rather cut off my right hand than sign such a commission.'
Cook shared his cabin with the naturalist, the twenty-five-year-old son of a rich, land-owning agricultural improver who had made a fortune draining the marshy fenlands of east England: a man who had employed numberless ditch-diggers and labourers like Cook and his father without ever knowing their names. Young Joseph Banks owned an estate near Lincoln worth £6000 per annum. He could have bought both the expedition ships out of a year's income and still have had cash spare to live like a gentleman. At Eton College, bored with Greek and Latin, he walked home from a swim in the river through a flower meadow and decided to study the beautiful flora. Oxford had no botanist, so he paid for one to move there from Cambridge. The whim became a stellar career. Once on board he impressed Cook with his diligence. Nothing was beneath his attention. He even noted that the weevils in the ship's biscuits were three species of the genus Tenebrios and one of Ptinus, but the white Deal biscuit was favoured by Phalangium cancroides.
The orders governing the expedition read comically today, governing as they do transactions with people and places which often did not exist; it is the bureaucracy of Never Never Land. If Cook found Antarctica, he had to take possession 'with the consent of the natives.'
For a ship, he chose a Whitby cat, renamed the Endeavour. The cruise took them to the main island of Tierra del Fuego where Banks showed his disdain for superstition by shooting a wandering albatross. Despite this, the Horn was a millpond. They sailed for the heat of Tahiti where the astronomers would observe the transit of Venus across the face of the sun, a rare and irregular event that allows accurate calculations to be made of the distance from the earth to the sun. Their next orders were to go to 40° south, heading into the south-west sector of the Pacific. To appreciate how good Cook's gut instincts were about Terra Australis Incognita, you have to look at the diaries of the other officers on his two ships to see how long, and how longingly, they clung to the romance of a temperate continent. Every time they go ashore in New Zealand, Banks refers to it as a visit to the continent. He calls his party of believers 'the Continents' but refrains from calling the opposition the Incontinents. They all but circumnavigate the North Island, but the officers refuse to accept it is an island until Cook goes back north to Cape Turnagain where he had begun. Although the weather was poor for much of the time, making surveying difficult, when the explorer Julien Marie de Crozet, a fine navigator himself, sailed these waters with a Cook chart he 'found it of an exactitude beyond all powers of expression.'
When Cook reached home he had been 1074 days away from his wife Elizabeth, whom he had left pregnant and with young children. But he first visited the Admiralty, before going home to find their baby had been born and died, and another child was also dead. Within one month he was preparing to leave on a circumpolar trip. There were still southern latitudes where Terra Australis Incognita might have been skulking since the Flood. Cook didn't believe it was there but he reasonably conceded that there were latitudes to the west of Cape Horn so little visited that sizeable land masses could have been missed.
Cook made two more Whitby cats famous: the Resolution, 462 tons, with 118 men, accompanied by the Adventure, 336 tons, with 82 men under Captain Tobias Furneaux. There were names already famous on board, and famous names to be. The Able Seamen included George Vancouver, aged fifteen, later to explore the Pacific NW Coast. AS Alex Hood, aged fourteen, was cousin to two admirals: Hood and Lord Bridport. Dalrymple didn't even make the long-list, but he had been busy redrawing the world from his desk. While Cook was away he had published a new chart of the southern oceans showing the extent of Terra Australis Incognita, incorporating the few sightings of land which could be given any credence, such as the French navigator Lozier Bouvet's claim to have seen a snowy headland on the first day of 1739 and named it Cape Circumcision. Dalrymple's chart was shoddy work, based on a map by Abraham Ortelius: a masterpiece in its day, but now nearly two hundred years old. In his early thirties, Dalrymple was already a young fogey.
Their best chronometer was justifiably famous: K2, the commercial rebuild of the John Harrison masterpiece H4 that won him the £20,000 prize for solving the longitude problem. Its error was less than one second a day. One of the scientists was Johann Reinhold Forster, a fan of Dalrymple and an overpaid complainer with the sharp hunger for recognition and respect which only the truly insecure display. But his son Georg was altogether better company. The handsome Banks was missing; grown vain while he was the toast of London society, especially its women. He sulked about the choice of small ships again, and flounced off to botanise in Iceland. Cook's expedition would make four passes south and come within half a days' sailing of seeing Antarctica, never, of course, knowing it.
In Cape Town, they heard the sea gossip. The Breton noble Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen-Trémarec with two French ships had recently put into harbour, with orders similar to Cook's to hunt for the southern continent. They had returned from the seas where Cook was heading, and claimed to have discovered land at 48°S, and coasted along it for 180 miles. They had seen a bay in which they hoped to anchor but when their boats were sent in to sound for an anchorage, a gale blew up and the ships stood off, abandoning the men ashore. Cook's lieutenant Charles Clerke fumed that there existed no circumstance so bad that Kerguelen had to abandon his men. Clerke was a man whose candid diaries make you long to have worked with him. He comes across as witty, earthy, pragmatic and humane. One officer summed him up like this: 'Clerke is a right good officer, at drinking and whoring he is as good as the best of them.' Cook was too preoccupied wondering whether the French had stolen a march on him to criticise their personnel policies. Kerguelen, despite the distance between him and the shore, was sure it was a land of plenty. The motto of believers in the southern continent was Often Wrong: Never in Doubt.
On 22 November 1772, Cook headed for Bouvet's Cape Circumcision. Bouvet claimed to have sailed for twelve hundred miles along a shore covered in snow and ice but with land beneath. His pilot thought it was nothing of the sort, but fools make work for wise men. By late November Cook began to see icebergs. Nothing prepares you for your first sight of large icebergs. In dull light the turquoise blue shines out brilliantly. They can look as if violet lamps have been lit in the recesses. The largest I have ever seen took three hours to steam past; it was twenty-nine miles long (forty-six kilometres) but was only a broken fragment of a much larger one. In mid-December Charles Clerke reported horrible fogs 'so thick we can scarcely see the length of the quarterdeck' and out of the murk came bergs which towered over the ship. He reported one as big as St Paul's Cathedral. Even the taciturn Cook took a moment in his diary to appreciate the grandeur of seas so fierce they broke over the tallest icebergs, but his responsibilities soon resumed precedence over aesthetics: the scene 'for a few moments is pleasing to the eye, but when one reflects on the danger this occasions, the mind is filled with horror, for was a ship to get against the weather side of one of these islands when the sea runs high she would be dashed to pieces in a moment.'
It would soon be midsummer, but the weather was getting worse. Ice smothered the rigging; a rope as thick as two fingers became as broad as your wrist and would not run through blocks and pulleys, so sails and yards could not be moved. Men were continuously employed hacking off ice, and clearing it from deck. If they did not keep pace, the weight aloft would capsize the ship. At least most of the livestock died and everyone enjoyed fresh meat.
By 13 December they were at 54°S, the latitude where Bouvet saw his coast, but the weather had driven them 354 miles east of his location for Cape Circumcision, so Cook tried to force his way south, into the pack. He tried for four weeks before the weather eased on 15 January and he enjoyed gentle breezes and serene weather for five consecutive days. Fresh water was a problem; in Antarctica most of it is frozen. He expected most of the sea ice would be saltwater, but tested it by bringing brash ice on board in rope slings and baskets and melting it. All the ice was fresh water. In two days they made more water than they had taken on at Cape Town. The wittiest account comes from an Irish gunner's mate called John Marra who concealed his journal from the enforced collection at the end of the voyage. 'I believe [this] is the first instance of drawing fresh water out of the ocean in hand baskets.' The reason is that when seawater freezes, the salts do not freeze with it, so freezing purifies water just as boiling does. By killing seals and birds, they could be self-sufficient in the south: vital if extensive voyages were to be conducted so far from known land. Cook was the first to prove this could be done.
His perseverance was rewarded when they pressed south once more and punched their way through the pack. At noon on 17 January, at around 40°E he wrote 'we were by observation four and a half miles south of [the Antarctic Circle] and are undoubtedly the first and only ship that ever crossed that line' – which must have raised eyebrows over on the Adventure. The next day thirty-eight icebergs could be seen from the masthead and later in the day at 67°15'S a wall of ice barred their path. He was blocked seventy-five miles from the continent.
There was still a Breton bubble to puncture. In good seas they cruised for a week with remarkable ease right across the land seen by Kerguelen the previous year. Charles Clerke relished it. 'If my friend Monsieur found any land, he's been confoundedly out in the latitudes and longitudes of it for we've searched the spot he represented it in and its environs too pretty narrowly and the devil of an inch of land is there.'
They headed east but on 8 February the two ships were separated in fog and forced to abandon searching for each other, and head for their agreed rendezvous in Queen Charlotte Sound, New Zealand. Captain Furneaux in the Adventure used the separation to head rapidly north and hightail it directly to New Zealand. Cook used it to push south once again, this time lacking a support vessel to come to his aid, but there are hints that Cook feels safer without Furneaux's assistance. On 10 February he was passing south through 50° of latitude when they saw many penguins in the water, raising hopes of land. A week later they were treated to shows of the aurora australis. Later in the month they suffered a gale which brought sleet and snow. It's the most miserable mix of all; few garments are warm when wet. The night had enough light for them to see huge icebergs all around and pray for daylight, but when it came they were even more scared as it spelled out just how dangerous their position was. One four times the size of the ship exploded into four pieces just as they were passing.
Forster Senior whined about the 'whole voyage being a series of hardships such as had never before been experienced by mortal man.' The rest reacted in the ambivalent way that typifies most first impressions of Antarctica: awe, fear and beauty.
Excerpted from Forgotten Footprints by John Harrison. Copyright © 2012 John Harrison. Excerpted by permission of Parthian.
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