CAPTAIN COOK: MASTER OF THE SEAS
By Frank McLynn
Yale University Press, $35, 480 pages, illustrated
These are hard times for the reputations of great explorers. Columbus is charged with introducing diseases to the Caribbean that effectively depopulated some islands. The westward movement of European settlers in America is held responsible for the gradual eradication of native American cultures.
No legacy has been harder hit than that of the famous English navigator James Cook. Once considered the greatest explorer of his day, Cook is best remembered in some circles for having introduced venereal disease to Polynesia. But he is now rescued, to a considerable degree, by a first-class biography by a prominent British historian, Frank McLynn.
Cook was born into poverty in 1727, the son of a farm laborer. Apprenticed to a ship owner in Whitby, he learned the trade of a deckhand and soon earned a master's warrant. In 1755, Cook made an important career change, enlisting in the Royal Navy as a mere seaman. Mr. McLynn can only speculate as to Cook's motivation, for the navy was rarely a path to glory for those without social connections.
Cook again earned a master's warrant, however, and between 1759 and 1767 charted portions of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. The accuracy of the charts he made brought him to the attention of the Admiralty, and he was chosen to lead a voyage of exploration to Tahiti and Australia. Cook was not picked for his charm. Mr. McLynn describes him as "Tall, handsome, slightly built, with a dark brown complexion, he often seemed in a world of his own and later would often sit at a table with his officers without saying a word."
Cook's ship, a 369-ton converted collier named Endeavour, sailed from Plymouth in August 1768 on a voyage to the South Pacific that would last 33 months. Although the British established good relations with the Tahitians, the continuing voyage to Australia and the East Indies saw Endeavour holed and nearly sunk on the Great Barrier Reef. The trip was a scientific success - Cook demonstrated that Australia and New Zealand were not connected - but Endeavour was not a happy ship. Thirty-eight of the ship's complement of 94 died in the course of the voyage, many from malaria.
What kind of a commander was James Cook? In the author's words, "as a captain he insisted on a high level of discipline and efficiency, but he was no martinet and did not go looking for trouble. He knew the likely sources of trouble from below decks: food, shore leave, grog, women." On Endeavour, Cook kept the lid on "a hundred men cooped up in a 97-foot-long vessel, with no room in which to swing a cat. ... His crew was half-drunk half the time; the grog ration was generous."
In July 1772, Cook undertook a second voyage to the South Pacific - this time with two ships, Resolution and Adventure. He probed the Antarctic south of Africa, charted the coast of New Zealand, and again visited Tahiti. The aspect of Tahiti that most impressed the British visitors was the "unbridled sexuality" of the Polynesians. Cook took a "very relaxed view" toward sexual intercourse between his sailors and the Polynesians, but at times it threatened discipline aboard his ship.
Thanks to Cook's new appreciation of antiscorbutics and the importance of airing his ships, Resolution's sailors suffered few of the health problems that had plagued his earlier voyage. In the course of a three-year voyage, the Resolution suffered only three fatalities.
Cook's third and final voyage of discovery began in 1776, and was a search for the long-rumored Northwest Passage from Europe to the East. In the Resolution, accompanied by an escort, Cook explored the central Pacific and discovered the Hawaiian Islands. He reached the North American coast in March 1778 and charted it as far north as the Bering Strait, but there was no Northwest Passage.
Returning to Hawaii, the British voyagers at first encountered a warm welcome. But relations with the natives soon cooled as sailors reacted to repeated instances of theft. The British ships left Hawaii without any confrontation, but when a damaged mast forced Resolution to return, the atmosphere turned hostile. Cook was not at his diplomatic best; when one of his boats disappeared, he led a war party to seize a royal hostage against return of the boat.
The Hawaiians resisted, showering Cook and his sailors with stones. The British retreated to the beach where Cook was helping launch boats when he was clubbed and then stabbed to death in the surf. Three sailors died with him on Feb. 14, 1779.
Mr. McLynn's assessment of Cook is a generous one. "On his voyages he added Hawaii, New Caledonia and the New Hebrides to the map and the corpus of knowledge. He established the outer limits of Antarctica, adding to his polar laurels by exploring the Bering Sea and the southerly limits of the Arctic Ocean. An incomparably brilliant surveyor, he circumnavigated New Zealand and published a map of the two islands which is staggering in its accuracy."
However much we may regret the impact of European visitors on Pacific societies, James Cook should not be made the culprit. If his sailors had not brought venereal disease to Polynesia, the next ship would have.
John M. Taylor's books include a biography of his father, "An American Soldier: The Wars of General Maxwell Taylor" (Presidio, 2001).
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