In Search of Captain Cook: Exploring the Man Through His Own Words

Dan O’Sullivan, In Search of Captain Cook: Exploring the Man Through His Own Words, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd., 2008. 233 pp., illustrations, references, suggested reading, index.

Review by Mark M. Hull
Department of Military History,
U.S. Army Command and General Staff College

It is reasonable to assume that everything that could possibly be written on the life and achievements of Captain James Cook has been written. However, in this brief, thematic look at this enigmatic British explorer, Dan O’Sullivan advances an interesting perspective. He makes no effort to overturn the definitive work on Cook – J.C. Beaglehole’s The Life of Captain James Cook – and he happily avoids either of the two partisan extremes usually associated with the subject of 18th and 19th century exploration: hagiographic treatments or the all-explorers-are-racist-imperialists school. Sullivan wisely skirts the more recent, largely esoteric debate between Gananath Obeyesekere and Marshall Sahlin as to whether Hawaiian islanders reaction to Cook indicated a “Western” rationality.

Instead, In Search of Captain Cook returns to what are practically the only surviving records – the logs from Cook’s three voyages – and tries to present an accurate portrait of the explorer’s personality by measuring it against several situational templates: how Cook interacted with the officers and men of his ships, Cook’s contribution to science and health, and his understanding and treatment of the native peoples he encountered.

The process of unraveling the “real” James Cook is complicated. Aside from the logs, a handful of surviving letters, and the recorded impressions of but a few officers and men, there are scant primary sources. The traditional picture of Cook is of an almost stereotypical hero: brave, resolute, determined, and far-sighted. Even Cook’s murder in Hawaii in 1779 has an appropriately iconic feel to it. Any sense of humor or more prosaic personal trait is simply missing from the image we have. But, as O’Sullivan points out, even the best surviving sources can be misleading.

When Cook returned in 1771 from his first voyage on HM Bark Endeavor, both the Royal Navy and government were quick to appreciate the domestic public relations benefit of Cook’s words and deeds. They considered, however, that Cook’s diction needed polishing, and so the more fluent writer John Hawkesworth was hired to shepherd the book to press. Not only did Hawkesworth reword some of Cook’s more stoic and technical diary entries, but he used the works of other voyage participants (principally botanist Joseph Banks) to augment Cook, merging them all into what appeared to be a seamless whole, and presenting the completed package as the unvarnished thoughts and actions of Britain’s newest hero.

The fact is that James Cook was a self-taught naval officer, not a professional writer. He recorded his log entries in such a way as to keep an accurate record of information intended to assist other ships’ captains. Talk of tides, winds, and locations in minutes, degrees, and seconds might be essential for another seaman, but were judged to be excess for the well-read target audience. Cook was displeased with the artificial result, and during the course of his next voyage (1774-1776), he kept the public end-goal in mind. Accordingly he went through several drafts of his own log entries, gradually improving as a less-technical writer. To get even close to the truth of James Cook, then, it is necessary to plumb his original words and thoughts, not those later adapted by others for public consumption.

O’Sullivan’s statement that “Since Cook’s death there have been many Cooks,” refers to the praise or damnation heaped upon James Cook by authors living in different eras, with different axes to grind. It is an accurate assessment. Stripping away the myth – some of it started even in Cook’s lifetime – is a challenging business.

The author’s James Cook comes across as a human being, not a statue. He has likes and dislikes (he refers to the Malekulans of the New Hebrides, for instance, as “the most ugly and ill proportioned people I ever saw”), opinions – some of them prescient, some erroneous; he has a sense of obligation to his crew and the people he encounters; he operates from a singular sense of duty and purpose. While not afraid to flog offending sailors, he nevertheless provides intelligent leadership in places that could not be more remote or different from the Yorkshire village where he was born. Cook was in almost every sense a scientist, although even that word was unknown to his era. He understood the importance of diet on crew health but never made the critical link to citrus fruit (he advocated fresh meat and vegetables); he displayed a delicate understanding of diverse cultures, and the possible negative impact of Western society on those cultures weighed heavily on him despite his duty to make first contact. Cook makes errors, too, but generally ones that are understandable when viewed through an 18th century lens – and even his final error on Hawaii fits into this paradigm.

The debate over the nature and significance of James Cook and his voyages will certainly continue. In Search of Captain Cook is a welcome addition to that search for meaning.

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