Magazine article The Spectator

Captain Courageous

Magazine article The Spectator

Captain Courageous

Article excerpt

Captain Cook: Master of the Seas

by Frank McLynn

Yale, £25, pp. 490,

ISBN 9780300114218

The sum of hard biographical facts about Captain Cook never increases, nor is it expected to. It is the same with Shakespeare.

J. C. Beaglehole's Life of Captain James Cook (1974), which Frank McLynn quotes often, contains most of what is known about Cook's family life and origins. As the son of a Yorkshire farm labourer, he belonged to a class that was unlikely to leave any record of his childhood. He was clever, and went to live with a Quaker family in Whitby where he worked in the shop. He went to sea in the collier trade at the advanced age of 17, and transferred to the Royal Navy when he was 30. He married seven years later, in 1762, after the Admiralty's attention was drawn by his successful charting of the Newfoundland coast. What Cook and his wife had to say to each other remains anybody's guess, nor is there any information on his own thoughts about his voyages and achievements, apart from his substantial official record.

Richard Hough wrote a decent, straightforward biography which is largely derived from Beaglehole (1994). Nicholas Thomas, in Discoveries: The Voyages of Captain Cook (2003), drew careful attention to Cook's sense of curiosity. Both are out of print. The justification for a new biography must be that advances in other studies shed new understanding on events that are already well documented. Such areas might be grouped as they relate to technical matters (ocean, climate, cartography); to the peoples Cook encountered; and, in view of his allegedly erratic behaviour on the third voyage, to psychology.

Cook was not the first person sent by the Royal Navy to explore the Pacific. Samuel Wallis and John Byron had only lately returned, but 'Byron chose to construe the entire trip as an emergency. As a voyage of Pacific discovery, his was singularly useless.'

We already know that Cook was exceptional because of his thoroughness, but McLynn is inconsistent in showing how Cook followed the Admiralty's instructions in conditions of constant emergency. Storms and dangers are not taken for granted, and there are places, such as his negotiation of the Great Barrier Reef, when the narrative becomes a tense examination of Cook's momentby-moment decisions in the light of what is now known about the dangers he faced. But while McLynn gives Cook some credit for his technical brilliance, he could have done more to explain it. For example, what exactly was involved in taking readings and making maps in extreme weather conditions, often on a violently pitching deck, or confronted by yet another group of new people who didn't understand what he was doing and from whom he wanted supplies? …

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