A set of the first editions of the Voyages of Captain Cook is an imposing thing in any library. The official accounts of his three voyages translate into eight quarto volumes, accompanied by a folio of detailed engravings. Like James Dean, whose stellar three-film career was ended by a car crash, James Cook achieved a trio of notable feats before coming to grief on a distant shore. The set is sometimes supplemented with an extra plate capturing the moment of Cook’s killing on Hawaii. Nowadays the price of a complete set is about that of an entry-level Porsche.
The bindings are usually of English speckled calf, often with fully gilt spines. The books are a pleasure to behold, the text generously laid out and printed in a large typeface, suitable for reading by the dimmest of candlelight at a country house library desk. Yet I have never read further than a few paragraphs in, and I doubt that many modern collectors trouble to do so.
On the orders of the Admiralty, the narratives, based on the utilitarian logbooks that all British naval officers were schooled to keep, were gussied up for official publication by professional ghostwriters. A huge advance was paid to John Hawkesworth, a friend of Samuel Johnson, to edit the account of the first voyage, which was published in 1773. He proudly blazoned his name across the title page but was heavily criticised by the fleet’s captains for changing their texts and by prudes for including too much sexual detail. The accounts of the second and third voyages, published in 1777 and 1784 respectively, were entrusted to a safer pair of hands in the shape of Dr John Douglas, canon of Windsor and St Paul’s. Whatever their literary shortcomings, the books were pored over by contemporary readers with the same awe and excitement as television viewers in the 1960s following the moon landings felt.
Antiquarian books are hardly the most zeitgeisty commodity, but occasionally books and anniversaries collide. In 2019, sets of Cook’s Voyages were sailing off the shelves, to the extent that booksellers struggled to keep up with demand. The fresh interest was generated by the 250th anniversary of what was generally called, until only recently, Cook’s ‘discovery’ of New Zealand. The islands, of course, had already been discovered, as Cook realised when Māori inhabitants came to greet him, upon which his marines opened fire and killed one of their leaders.
It seems possible that the gunless locals were offering their British visitors a ceremonial challenge, an ancestor of the haka that the New Zealand rugby team performs before international matches. England’s Lancastrian captain smirking at the All Blacks’ arm-slapping, tongue-poking display before their recent Rugby World Cup semifinal was a faint echo of a similarly flint-eyed Yorkshireman’s response a quarter of a millennium earlier.
What was a bluff English sailor doing out in the big wide world? There was a certain amount of botanising, and a contribution to international science was made by measuring the transit of Venus, but Cook’s primary instruction on each of his three voyages was always the same. He was first and foremost a hydrographer – from the Greek for ‘water’ and ‘to write’. On the discovery of any land or island, he was to note its exact position by latitude and longitude, make a survey of the coastline, including bays and harbours, and take soundings of the surrounding seas. Cook was no man of letters, but as far as the Admiralty was concerned, he was writing these territories into being, literally putting them on the map, naming and claiming them for Great Britain. No need for him to advance inland; Britain’s imperial power would fill in the details later.
Cook’s naming has not always endured. Botany Bay in Australia still bears his brand, though the insulting Poverty Bay, the name he gave his equivalent landing place in New Zealand, has largely been discarded. In honour of the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, Cook christened the Hawaiian archipelago the Sandwich Islands. As that nobleman already had the distinction of having Britain’s greatest contribution to gastronomy named after him, this was hardly fair, and the native name eventually prevailed.
In 1966, the war correspondent Alan Moorehead characterised the local effect of Cook’s voyages in the title of his book The Fatal Impact. The subtitle referred to the ‘invasion’ of the South Pacific. Moorehead cited the biologically and socially destructive importation of exotic diseases, tobacco and alcohol, and claimed that materialistic values, practices such as prostitution and the introduction of an alien new religion caused demoralisation and a breakdown of existing social bonds.
It’s not like this was news. In 1898, H G Wells said that his science fiction horror The War of the Worlds was inspired by the question of what would happen if Martians did to Britain what the British had done to the Tasmanians. But nothing annoys a professional historian more than an amateur’s publishing success, and postcolonial revisionists have taken offence at Moorehead’s portrayal of innocent ‘primitives’ ruined by debased and diseased Western intruders, accusing him of patronising the islanders and ignoring their agency. Regardless, Moorehead’s thesis seems to have taken hold: Penguin reprinted his book in their Classic History series in 2000, and in his novel Cloud Atlas (2004), David Mitchell relied on his basic argument to create the Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.
Faced with a hero with feet of clay, what is a poor bookseller to do? The old routine of praising Cook – perhaps to a well-heeled captain of industry who fancies himself an intrepid leader – involved hailing him as a record-breaker: so many miles sailed, coastlines charted, latitudes reached, territories claimed and so on, all without losing a man to scurvy.
In our postcolonial age, this will not pass. We recently exhibited a set of the Voyages at an arts and antiques fair. I had written a label to display next to the books and was surprised to see a scrum form around it. A woman said to me, ‘You’ve called it Cook’s “intrusion” into Polynesia. Tell me honestly, would you have written your label like that ten, even five years ago?’ No, I had to agree, I wouldn’t.