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