Byline: John M. Taylor, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
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. …