HEADLESS I N HAWAII CAPTAIN COOK: MASTER OF THE SEAS
By Frank McLynn (Yale University Press 512pp £25)
FORTY-FIVE YEARS ago the New Zealand historian J C Beaglehole completed his acclaimed edition of the journals of Captain James Cook’s voyages and the journal wr itten by the botanist Sir Joseph Banks when he accompanied Cook on his first voyage of exploration to the south Pacific. Today the pendulum has swung against both the mariner and the scientist.
manners and patronage.
Beaglehole’s scholarship provides the frame and muscle for McLynn. There are twenty-six pages of notes and about 80 per cent of the entr ies refer to Beaglehole. McLynn has reworked the material and updated his interpretations, particularly of Cook’s third and last voyage when Cook seems to have lost his sure touch in Tonga, Tahiti and Hawaii and may have had a mental breakdown. McLynn’s dependence on other people’s scholarship, however, does not detract from the value of the book and its interest for the general reader. It sweeps majestically from the Arctic to the Antarctic, and provides an admirable study of a leader – modest, taciturn, fair but firm towards his crew – whose relentless drive to map the ocean led eventually to his collapse.
Cook’s determination and skill pervade the biography. He was an unusually big man for that time (six feet tall) and apparently he could not swim. He was thirty-nine when he set out on his first voyage in 1768. For the
Banks, a dedicated and acquisitive botanist, has been portrayed as an imperious intellectual thug more interested in lording it over the Royal Society and stealing merino sheep from Spain for King George III. Cook has been vilified and blamed for everything that went wrong in the Pacific following European contact. He was the ‘fatal impact’ and his extraordinary maritime skills and achievement in mapping the Pacific Ocean dur ing his three voyages have been largely overlooked. As nationalism has increased among the islands’ indigenous people, the anti-Cook war cry has become louder; he is little celebrated in the region today. While Cook has faded from view, a serious body of scholars has been investigating Polynesian society in Cook’s time, seeking an explanation for the misunderstandings that led to the fatal confrontation between Cook and the Hawaiians on the beach at Kealakekua Bay.
A young Cook next eleven years, until his death at the age of fifty, Cook was continuously at sea, with only two breaks ashore preparing for his next voyage.
By the end of his second voyage in 1775, when he was forty-six, he had established without question that an inhabited continent did not exist at the bottom of the world. Befitting his achievement, he was elected to the Royal Society. Respected and admired by his countrymen, he was awarded a s inecure at Greenwich that would have kept him prosperous and comfortable for the rest of his life; he was restless on land, however, and rejected this handsome retirement in order to rush back to sea. We see a different Cook on his third voyage when he s earched for the Nor t hwest Pa s s a ge be tween t he Pacific and the Atlantic. A portrait of him painted by William Hodges in
Frank McLynn has sought to redress the balance and has written an accessible and exciting popular biography. However, McLynn doesn’t much care for Joseph Banks, who was only twenty-five when he joined Cook on the Endeavour for the expedition that mapped New Zealand and the uncharted east coast of Australia. Apart from Banks’s sexual escapades in Tahiti, McLynn records him blasting away with his guns at any bird or animal he wanted for his collection. He sees class antagonism in Cook’s relationship with Banks and in Cook’s attitude towards his Admiralty superiors (Banks was the son of a wealthy country squire, Cook the son of a farm labourer). The antipodean Beaglehole noted these differences as a simple matter of eighteenth-century the year before his departure, which is reproduced on the cover of this book, is a grim and powerful psychological study of a driven man. On this final voyage he worked his men harder and seemed to push everything and everyone to extremes. He punished twice as many of his crew as he had on the previous two voyages combined. He lashed Polynesians for pilfering from his ships and sometimes cropped their ears. He had never imposed such harsh measures before. Cook also shocked his officer s when he obeyed a Polynesian priest’s order to str ip to his waist during a religious ceremony.
At this stage, McLynn suspects, Cook’s violent and seem-
LITERARY REVIEW April 2011
ingly irrational behaviour, his long silences and his fearsome decisions at sea stemmed from a bipolar nature. Beaglehole attributes Cook’s behaviour to exhaustion. Other writers go further and compare Captain Cook to Melville’s Ahab or Conrad’s Kurtz – solitary figures going mad. McLynn’s gripping final chapters lead to the shocking climax of Cook’s death. Following a year exploring the Arctic, Cook returned to Hawaii and sailed around the island for nearly seven weeks, battered by storms and high seas, not consulting his officers, and refusing to seek a safe anchorage. When he did land, the reception from the Hawaiians was aggressive. After repairing his ships, Cook sailed away but returned unexpectedly a week later to deal with a damaged mast on shore. The Hawaiians were even more hostile.
In the early morning of 14 February 1779, as Cook attempted to recover a launch that had been stolen by islanders during the night, he was bludgeoned, stabbed and forcibly drowned on the beach. The islanders cut up his body and those of the marines who died with him and burned the pieces on a sacrificial pyre. Under threat of bombardment from the expedition’s two ships, the Hawaiians handed over some of the remains. Burnt flesh was still on the bones six days later.
The description of Cook’s body parts reads like an inventory: skull and scalp with one ear attached, thighs, legs, arms, right hand, jawbone, feet and his two shoes. The Hawaiians kept Cook’s smaller bones for their mana – that prestige, power and magic which the natives believe to reside in them. They were valuable relics of a semi-divine being. To order this book for £20, see LR Bookshop on page 29
DRIVEN TO SUCCEED
HIS FATHER’S SON: EARL AND TIGER WOODS
By Tom Callahan (Mainstream 284pp £10.99)
IN THE LATE 1990s, Tiger Woods accomplished a feat many thought impossible – he made golf look cool. Athletic, intense, charismatic and black, he seemed to reinvent a game that had previously been the domain of conservative white guys who looked more like mortgage brokers than world-class athletes. Watching Woods storm the sedate greens of Augusta, one could imagine a whole new generation taking up clubs – kids who would otherwise only have stepped onto the golf course to cut the grass.
What is most valuable about veteran sportswriter Tom Callahan’s gossipy, insightful study of Woods is how it places equal measures of credit and blame for the Tiger phenomenon upon the player’s father. By all accounts Earl Woods, who died in 2006, was a complicated man. A gifted college athlete, he was commissioned as a US Army officer after graduation. He later became a Green Beret and served two tours in Vietnam, where he was ‘a combat specialist … who had taught psychological warfare (and practised some of it at home).’ According to Callahan, he was also ‘a world-class braggart’ and a habitual philanderer who abruptly left his first wife for Tida, the Thai woman with whom he would have a son in 1975.
Earl was supremely dedicated to that boy, who was named Eldr ick but known as Tiger. After the l ad showed very early signs of golfing skill, Earl made the development of that talent his life’s mission. His efforts quickly bore fruit: before his third birthday, the prodigious child was fussed over by Bob Hope on a nationally televised chat show. (Although Callahan reports that
And t hen, i n 2009, Tiger wrecked his car while fleeing his Florida mansion in the middle of t he n i ght , h i s c l ub-wielding Swedish wife i n hot pur s u i t . Stor ies of compulsive adulter y s oon emerged, f o l l owed by a humiliating public apology and a course of behaviour modification at the Gentle Path rehab clinic. Endorsement deals worth many millions evaporated. Woods took a f ive-month break f rom golf . Since returning, he has struggled to regain his previously peerless form. And he certainly has not looked very cool.
A chip off the old block
Jimmy Stewart, who was also on the show that day, was saddened by the spectacle of the youngster.) The paternal hucksterism continued unabated as Tiger climbed to the top of the sporting world, and was perhaps never so cringe-making as when Tiger met Nelson Mandela in 1998. ‘It was the first time Tiger met a human being who was equal to him, who was as powerful as Tiger was,’ Earl preposterously remarked.
Despite the bombast, Earl was undoubtedly a s k i l f u l gol f i ng mentor. Although never a very good player himself, he was able
LITERARY REVIEW April 2011