To mark the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s first voyage, the British Library is mounting an exhibition. William Frame and Laura Walker’s handsome volume accompanies the show. The tales of Cook’s epic wanderings have been told many times before and while the versions here are fluent and highly informative, the book’s greatest appeal lies in the splendid array of illustrations. Maps, charts, journals, paintings and artefacts all feature and some of the images – notably the works of William Hodges, official artist on the second voyage – are a real treat.
The authors also do a fine job of capturing the intellectual and cultural landscapes of 18th century Europe: the passion for scientific exploration, the prevailing assumption that trade was a beneficent, civilising force, and the enduring tension between regarding peoples in the far-flung corners of the world as noble savages while intruding, often disastrously, on those civilisations.
Welcome digressions are offered into the science of cartography (of which Cook was a skilled practitioner) and the perils of scurvy, and the reader emerges with a rounded sense of the complex encounter between Europe and the South Pacific: still, in this era, ‘primarily an imagined place for Europeans.’
The historical reputation of James Cook has, quite rightly, shifted in recent decades, and it is no longer reputable to lionise him as an imperialist hero. Still, there is some scope to admire his pluck, even if some of his shipmates did not always approve of his antics. One of them, witnessing Cook’s involvement in ritual ceremonies on Tonga, was ‘not a little surprised to see Captain Cook in the procession of the chiefs, with his hair hanging loose and his body naked to the waist… I could not help thinking he rather let himself down.’ I suppose every crew has a killjoy or two.
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