Archive: Cook the Books and Other Naval Journals and Diaries; Documents from Our Naval Heroes Go on Display for the First Time, as Simon Baker Discovers
Byline: Simon Baker
History buffs are being given the first-ever opportunity to see original journals, diaries and logs penned by Britain's most celebrated naval figures.
The hand-written documents by captains James Cook, William Bligh and Admiral Lord Nelson are being displayed in a new exhibition which opened this week at the National Archives in Kew, south west London.
They include a poignant prayer written by Nelson shortly before he ventured to sea for the Battle of Trafalgar, where he died in October 1805.
Visitors will also be able to view the log book written by Captain Bligh in which he describes mutineers - led by Fletcher Christian - hounding him from HMS Bounty in 1789.
The naval historian who has compiled the collection for the exhibition said the documents would give the public an insight into the minds of three figures with contrasting characters and reputations Andrew Lambert, professor of naval history at King's College, London, said: 'These documents illuminate the fascinating stories of Cook, Bligh and Nelson.
'They also show how closely the lives of these iconic naval heroes overlapped and intertwined, shedding new light on their relationships with one another.'
He said the lives of the three individuals - who had 'immense' respect for one another - epitomised why Britain had such a grip on the world's oceans 200 years ago, creating a lasting legacy relevant to today.
'Essentially, it goes back to who we are and where we come from and it helps to show why there is this distance with people in continental Europe,' he said.
The section of the exhibition devoted to 'The Immortal Nelson' paints a picture of a genius of naval warfare whose posthumous image was crafted into that of a god.
But excerpts from his last notes before sailing towards the Battle of Trafalgar reveal a very human character who may even have sensed that he had reached his last fight.
In it, he describes how he departs from his home 'where I left all which I hold dear in this world to go serve my King and Country... if it is His good providence to cut short my days upon Earth I bow with the greatest submission in relying that He will protect those so dear to me...'
Other documents on display include examples of writing by Nelson before and after he lost an arm as well as an intricate battle plan of Trafalgar produced after the conflict.
Original documents by Captain Cook include journals containing his pinpoint descriptions and sketches of the 'new' worlds of the Pacific Ocean which he charted and discovered.
'When he started, the Pacific was a wild, threatening ocean and when he finished people knew how long it was, what it looked like and who was there,' Prof Lambert said. …