Commonly regarded as the greatest sea explorer of all time, James Cook made his three world-changing voyages during the 1770s, at a time when ships were routinely lost around the English coast. He made history by making geography sailing through previously unknown southern seas, charting the eastern Australian coast and circumnavigating New Zealand, putting many Pacific islands on the map, and exploring both the Arctic and Antarctic. His men suffered near shipwreck, were ravaged by tropical diseases, and survived frozen oceans; his lieutenants including George Vancouver and William Bligh became celebrated captains in their own right. Exploits among native peoples combined to make Cook a celebrity and a legend.
Cook is not, however, viewed by all as a heroic figure. Some Hawaiians demonize him as a syphilitic rascist who had a catastrophic effect on local health. Indigenous Australians often see him as the violent dispossessor of their lands. Nicholas Thomas explores Cook's contradictory character as never before, by reconstructing the many sides of encounters that were curious and unusual for Europeans and natives alike. The result of twenty years' research, Thomas's magnificently rich portrait overturns the familiar images of Cook and reveals the fascinating and far more ambiguous figure beneath.
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About the Author
Nicholas Thomas is a professor of anthropology at the University of London. A native of Sydney, Australia, he has traveled extensively in the course of his Pacific research and has curated several exhibitions on the history, art, and culture of Oceania.
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CookThe Extraordinary Sea Voyages of Captain James Cook
Chapter OneCook's maps
Despite the cold, a good many people stand about idly in Tower Hill, a broad and open space in the middle of a congested city, a place at once grand and squalid, depending on whether you glance towards the fine buildings along its western side, or the dunghill beside the ditch. The Tower of London itself is formidable, and most of those who stand about seem to be waiting on it, as visitors do. Now, early in the afternoon, on 14 December 1767, a group of Dutch travellers, unostentatiously wealthy, gathers itself together and turns towards the gate, to pay sixpences and see the wild beasts and the jewels. They will find the lioness Dido extraordinary and the old stones dull. Others wait their turn. A couple of sharp men lean on the wooden rails before the ditch. They are there to look after visitors, if they have a chance, in their own way. Some naval officers emerge from Trinity House and walk towards the river, indifferent to the sharpers and foreigners alike. Another man comes out of the same building and walks towards the postern-gate; he has the look of someone who knows this part of the city without being of it; he is from elsewhere, but is no foreigner. He is an oddly proportioned man, tall, with a small head and a pronounced nose. He walks a little oddly too, briskly enough, while planting his feet as if the stones were liable to sway.
He enters a bookseller like others - leather-bound volumes behind the display windows, and bills headed 'Today is published ...'- yet in fact different to any other. The premises of Mount and Page are devoid of Latin poetry, sermons and treatises on taste. There are no political tracts, no novels, not even any pornography. Mount and Page are maritime publishers, the maritime publishers of the town. James Cook is comfortable, and not just because he is out of the cold. He does not own more than a dozen of these books and charts, but he has his own name on a few of them, and has at one time or another studied more than he can recall. He is in a library of his own accomplishment.
I do not know that Cook visited his printer, John Mount, on any particular day in late 1767. But I do know that he must have visited on some occasion, probably several, around this time. And when he did visit, he would surely have browsed Mount's stock, which included The Mariner's New Kalender, The Seamen's Daily Assistant, The Principles of Mr Harrison's Time-Keeper and a formidable number of other works. He would surely also have chatted to Mount, who was in the thick of maritime gossip, who is likely to have heard that Cook had almost lost his ship, the Grenville, near the Nore a few weeks earlier. If the subject came up, Cook would have been embarrassed, but would have been obliged to explain that his vessel had struck a sandbank, that he had been unable to sail her off, that the crew had secured the ship as best they could and headed for safety in her boats before venturing back the next day and refloating her. Not much had been lost, other than a canoe from Newfoundland that Cook had been asked to bring back for a gentleman naturalist, a man he did not know, one Mr Banks. Cook would no doubt have been keen to move the conversation on. Mount had published his Directions for Navigating on Part of the South Coast of Newfoundland; Cook has now brought his sequel, describing the island's west coast. He fishes the manuscript out of a bag. Mount - who maybe finds Cook's spare prose strangely engaging, looks forward to marking up the script, seeing it set, seeing it printed - scans the pages. As he does so, Cook recalls his words and the places that his unliterary words have laboured to describe. Cape Anguille, St George's Harbour, Long Point, Foxes Island, Foxes Tail, the river Humber, Bonne Bay, Keppell Island, Ingornachoix Bay ... The highlands, their enveloping woods, the red and white cliffs and the salmon streams of that transatlantic summer come back to him. He remembers eating broiled cod on the beach with fishermen, fleeting moments with some Indians and the satisfying repetition of his exercises: putting out the flags, taking the angles, sounding the bottom, feeling the fine grey sand that came up off the bank. His Directions report the measurements rather than the meals or meetings, the passages, rocks and entrances, the bearings and distances and not the habitations and happenings.
Cook's Directions were adjuncts to his charts. By 1767 he had been in the Royal Navy for twelve years. The first three or four had been samples of conventional naval experience. As was often the case during the eighteenth century, Britain and France were at war and Cook, like many others, joined cruises from Plymouth and Portsmouth into the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic, to harass French shipping. He'd spent days inspecting rope and badgering men who were supposed to be repairing sails and shifting stores, odd mornings on the warm shingle, watching seamen drinking with port women, and evenings with moronic midshipmen, who rattled dice and recited awful poetry. In late 1757 he joined the Pembroke and the following year that ship formed part of the north American fleet. Cook had a bit part in the Canadian campaign that culminated in the surrender of Quebec and the deaths of both generals, Wolfe and Montcalm, in September 1759. It was along and around the coasts that made a sort of funnel into Quebec that he became less a conventional seaman and more a specialist in the arts of surveying. His chart of Gaspe harbour, the site of some French settlements on the Gulf of St Lawrence, was engraved and printed for Mount and Page; he did further work of the same sort between Quebec, Halifax and Newfoundland until the end of the summer of 1762. That October he was in England, for the first time in almost five years. He made the time to get married to one Elizabeth Batts, of Barking, whose dead father was a Wapping man. It would be a sailor's marriage: early in 1763 Cook was appointed surveyor and would be away in Newfoundland for five successive summers. He worked around the south-east from the main settlement of St John's, in the north in the Strait of Belle Isle that separates the irregular landmass from Labrador, then along the southern, and finally along the western coasts. Now, to you and I, Newfoundland perhaps seems remote and obscure. Then it belonged to a theatre of superpower contest and was the base for the richest fishery that Europeans knew. Its lands, shores and waters were disputed not only between European states, but between Beothuk and other native peoples, which Cook noticed and understood but did not report or analyse. Between voyages, he was back in London. He presented the Admiralty Lords with their charts, called periodically on the engraver Larken, on the cartographic engraver-publisher Thomas Jefferys at Charing Cross and on nautical printer-booksellers like Mount and Page.
Naval men and fishermen were not the only Europeans around Newfoundland in the 1760s. There were also a few Moravian missionaries, who were shipped about and supported by the British and who in return gave the navy reports about the so-called Eskimos and Indians. Their journals describe tense and difficult encounters between 'Fisher people' and locals. They try to prevent excesses on the part of whites and try to explain whites to natives. They are vulnerable not only because they are unarmed imperialists, but also because they don't know quite where's where.
We went to the Indians & enquired of them how they called the Bay in which they lived? answ: Kankerlarsoak & also the name of the great Island which lies in the middle? answ Kisseksakkut ... After Dinner we went again to the Indians; When we shewed them the Chart they understood it, & directly pointed, each of them, to the place where their respective Houses stood. They told the names of the Islands &. They also shewed the place where the Ship that sometimes comes to them Anchored, & even pointed out the different anchoring Places in the Bay; We, as well as S Thomas who was present, were entirely convinced that Esquimaux Bay as its called in the french chart is the place of their abode.
Here, the collective journal of four of these men gives us a sense that on this September day in 1765, understanding was made out of recognition, conversation and translation. Imperfect French and English maps, probably of the same places, but with different names, were read against each other. Somehow, the Inuit immediately grasped European ways of representing places and spaces on paper. A man with an olive face and straight jet-black hair, who knows the colour and turbidity of the water in this channel and that, who knows the smell of the trees in this place and that, the soft soil full of pine needles here and the loam there, sees a flat and alien picture which, however, makes a kind of sense. He is able, even, to elucidate this European chart for Europeans. Such geographic knowledge as was made on this occasion emerged from meetings that were luckily friendly (many were not), from questions that were no doubt incompetently expressed in languages new to foreigners, and from the movements of fingers and faces.
Cook's geography did not belong to this register of uncertain human talk and gesture. It was mathematical and uncommunicative. Cartography did not proceed by consultation. Cook trusted techniques and instruments rather than people who had no particular reason to trust him. He surveyed without asking, because he had been trained to do it that way, but also because, around Newfoundland, he seemingly had no choice. The native people, the Beothuk, were few in number and kept their distance. Joseph Banks, who also visited Newfoundland in 1766, recorded their ill-treatment: 'Our people who fish in those Parts Live in a continual State of warfare with them firing at them whenever they meet with them & if they chance to find their houses or wigwams as they call them Plundering them immediately tho a Bow & arrows & what they call their Pudding is generaly the whole of their furniture.' He wrote that the Beothuk were dextrous with the bow, made birch-bark canoes, and took scalps in a different, more extreme way than those he designated 'the Canadians' - stripping their victim's whole face rather than just the top of the head. The best of Banks's remarks is his unembarrassed conclusion, 'So much for the Indians if half of what I wrote about them is true it is more than I expect.' Rarely did travellers acknowledge so readily that travellers' tales were what they told.
Cook's maps had to occupy a different ground altogether to Banks's teasing reports that offered then deprived his reader of serious notes on manners and customs. The charts start out as precise graphic documents, wonderfully big ones that are six or ten feet a side, yet intricate in their features, lines and inscriptions. In principle, we might suggest, the chart is the opposite of the traveller's tale. The latter is all event and story, and is bound up with human improbability; the former is supposedly independent of any and all stories, a simple and absolute record derived from voyages, sometimes showing a ship's track, but telling none of its transactions.
Later on, however, Cook's maps acquire a part in a story, his biography. In popular accounts of his life, and in modern scholarship, it became conventional to regard them as proofs of this surveyor's increasing ability. They gave him deserved recognition in naval circles, and justified the inspired choice of the Endeavour 's commander. Equally, they can be seen as advances in a north Atlantic maritime history. They were printed, not only as individual sheets, but in compilations and portfolios such as The North American Pilot. The sea would always remain an uncertain domain, but these elaborately detailed printed papers gave coasts and banks and passages and rocks definite shapes and locations. Ships' masters would henceforth have a better sense of where they were, and voyages would become safer. It makes complete sense to describe Cook's maps and his navigational directions in these terms - if one is in the business of tracing destinies. This surveyor had spent the better part of his thirties engaged in exercises in measurement and applied geometry, working magic on rugged and intricate coastlines, reducing a shoreline as torn as an awful wound to points and lines on paper. Like many other eighteenth-century technicians and scientists, Cook indeed produced a new kind of accurate knowledge that suddenly showed up his predecessors' efforts for their amateurishness. He changed the way this part of the world could be dealt with; it tipped a wavering balance in favour of mariners and against the hazards of the sea and shore. It also tipped another balance, diminishing the purchase of those native peoples, and giving map-bearing Europeans a decisive advantage. Cook's findings were not merely personal. Thanks to the engraver's burin and the printing press, they could be synthesized, reproduced and sold on both sides of the north Atlantic. Subsequently, no trader or naval man was in the situation of the Moravians; he did not need to ask a native person which place was which.
In London, a fortnight after Cook had called at Mount and Page, the Poet Laureate's 'Ode to the New Year', was performed before their majesties at St James's Palace. For their sake, we can only hope that the music was a little more lively than the obsequious verses of William Whitehead.
No more shall George, whose parent Breast, Feels every Pang his subjects know, Behold a faithful Land distrest, Or hear one sigh of real Woe. But grateful Mirth, whose decent Bounds, No riot swells, no fear confounds, And heart-felt Ease, whose Glow within Exalts Contentment's modest Mien, In every Face shall smile confest And in his People's Joy the Monarch too be blest.
The poet's expectation that 1768 would be distinguished by anything like 'heart-felt ease' on the part of the King's subjects would prove wide of the mark. No doubt the weather did not help. On the first of January, it was reported that 'a poor labouring man was found frozen to death on Harrow Would Common'. On the second, 'a poor blind man' was similarly found frozen dead in Hog-lane, St Giles; on succeeding days, so were a watchman at Wapping and 'a poor middle-aged Woman' near Bagnigge-Wells. From Portsmouth it was reported that such deep snow, and such intense frost, had 'not been known in the memory of man', while boats were upset and broken by ice in the Thames. A correspondent to the St James Chronicle was one of many troubled by the crisis caused by the 'dearness of provisions', since, as he put it, 'the poor must, and yet cannot live by their labour'.
Excerpted from Cook by Nicholas Thomas Copyright © 2003 by Nicholas Thomas.
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