Cook the Man
I have been thinking about Cook for something over twenty years; and one of the aspects of Cook I suppose I have been thinking about is Cook the Man. I don't know quite what you, or I, mean by the phrase. Do we mean Cook the private man, as distinct from a professional or public man? I know what Captain King said about him, and what Mr Surgeon Samwell said about him, and what J. R. Forster said, and William Bligh, by implication, said, and what some of the midshipmen said; and some of what they said is useful, and some—I won't say is useless, for it throws some light on them—does not throw much light on Cook. I presume we want to get 'inside' Cook, we want to pierce to some secret spring. We light with pleasure on some odd bit of information, such as that he did not like bananas. I have seen this stated as a fact, and all at once it seems illuminating—though I am bound to say I have found no support for the assertion in any of his own words. I deduce myself from some of his own words that he did not like pumpkin, and I confess that when I made the deduction I was greatly pleased: here, I thought, at last, is a ray of light. But is it a ray of light or merely a piece of amusement? The centre, the core, the truth, the essence, the innermost man, for the American movie moguls—as I have reason to know—would lie in the revelation of some desperate liaison with a Tahitian or Hawaiian or any other Polynesian princess; and of course, as there appears to be no such thing, the movie moguls have lost all interest in celebrating him. But here I ask the question, would hypothetical, or even secure, knowledge of this sort of thing— his attitude to bananas or pumpkin or the South Sea Fair—bring us nearer Cook the man than our knowledge of Cook the navigator or Cook the scientific observer? If there is one phrase that comes in like a refrain in his journals, it is the phrase, 'Geography and Navigation'. Then we might argue that Professor Badger and Sir Frederick White will tell you far more about Cook the man than I can. In the end that is the man—the sailor, the geographer, what I shall call the passionate professional.
You are not satisfied, and I am not satisfied, because, as human page 12 beings, we want not merely to be stunned by a statue, but to peer into a human being. We want a man with human attachments, failings, agonies, we want our heroes to be sometimes wrong, we recoil from excessive virtue. I myself would give the world for a letter to Mrs Cook—though I am sure that would not pass the bounds of virtue. I cannot describe my enthusiasm when I found out that the Captain swore—the pumpkins paled into insignificance. Now I think that if we read everything that Cook wrote, journals, drafts, letters, and read between the lines, and read what his men and his associates wrote, and sometimes between their lines; and if we consider all this intently enough, with carefully controlled imagination, in the context of eighteenth-century social and political, scientific and naval history—we shall stand some chance of getting inside Cook: more chance than most people, including myself, have thought in the past. Unfortunately I cannot now dictate a book to you, or quote, as I should, for two or three hours from himself. Let us take the history of the voyages for granted, though always in the back of our minds; let us even take for granted what I suspect is for Australians the principal dispensation of Providence in the eighteenth century, acting through one man—the discovery of what Cook called New South Wales.
We had better start with the outside of the man, however, not his inside: or at least with the physical man. Putting our informants together, and the portraits, we get a big man, something over six feet, large-boned, powerful, with strongly-marked features. I don't know what his parents were like—you will remember he had a Yorkshire mother and a Scottish father—but I think he must have been one of the Yorkshire types. I have seen Yorkshiremen, both academic and manual labourers, with contours, as it were, almost startlingly like his. He was good-looking in a plain sort of way. We have one contradiction in description: Samwell1 said his head was small, with small eyes, but the portrait by Nathaniel Dance, that we all know, said by Samwell to be 'a most excellent likeness', gives us a large rather than a small head, and large eyes that match the large nose, wide mouth, large forehead. Webber also gives us a large head—and a heavy, dull one. Eyes brown, 'quick and piercing', prominent eyebrows; dark brown hair tied behind, though in the Dance portrait, and the full length by Webber, he seems to be wearing a dark grey wig. His face was full of expression, says Samwell: well, yes, it looks as if it might be the face of a man with the most friendly, benevolent, and humane disposition. I use the Samwellian adjectives. But obviously it could look quite other; and that large frame stamping round the deck in a rage, those strongly-marked features and brows, those piercing eyes, denouncing incompetence or stupidity or dirt, must have been a very terrifying page 13 spectacle indeed for the sinner. What sort of voice? No one says. Presumably it could be loud: it had to compete with a good many storms, as well as with human misdemeanours. On the other hand there was the agreeable lively conversation, sensible and intelligent, there was the modesty; Samwell even says he was a rather bashful man, which I take to imply modesty again, and sensitivity, not awkwardness; and these characteristics do not argue noise. I should infer a provincial accent, some provincial turns of speech, and some provincial pronunciations, to match some of the spellings in his journals. On the physical, the visible side, then, perhaps on the audible side, a man with an original endowment of rude and plentiful good health, a country boy of strong ancestry and open-air upbringing, hard but not crippling farm work, hard work as a young seaman but with the watchful and benevolent eye of Quaker John Walker on him, so that when he came into the navy in his late twenties he had the stamina to withstand the hardships of that dreadful and noisome service. And notice that the physical endowment went with a matching endowment of mind, which was never laid to rest: in the coal-shipping trade crews were small enough to put some responsibility on every man; in the navy he was almost at once given the minor responsibility of a master's mate, and in two years the major responsibility—the responsibility for a ship—of a master; in a few years more he had the responsibility of independent command and independent scientific work as a surveyor of Newfoundland. So far as I know, he had no serious illness till the age of forty-five; and behind that illness, I should say, lay a remorseless mental as well as physical strain.
His stomach bore, without difficulty, the coarsest and most ungrateful food. Indeed, temperance for him was scarcely a virtue; so great was the indifference with which he submitted to every kind of self-denial.
At this Samwell protested. Of course temperance was as great a virtue in him as in any other man. 'He had no repugnance to good living; he always kept a good table, though he could bear the reverse without murmuring.'3 In the Arctic, in 1778, they were killing walruses for food. There were few on board, said Cook, who did not prefer walrus to salt meat. 'Captain Cook here speaks entirely from his own taste', says Midshipman Trevenen, 'which was, surely, the coarsest that ever mortal was endued with.'4 Near the Endeavour River, in 1770, wild taro was discovered: 'the tops we found made good greens and eat exceeding well when boild [it is Cook speaking] but the roots were so acrid that few besides myself could eat them'.5 Yet this was the man who appreciated so highly Tahitian-cooked dog: 'few were there of us but what allowe'd that a South Sea Dog was next to an English lamb';6 discriminated against the 'sour and disagreeable' preserved bread-fruit; was devoted to the pudding called 'poe'—'I seldom or never dined without one when I could get it'; and wrote down recipes. The same man would eat, outside ship's rations, anything he could get hold of in the way of vegetables and fruit, fish, flesh, and fowl, not just walrus but seal—a seal steak was excellent and a sea-lion cub was very palatable; not just New Zealand ducks and Tierra del Fuegan geese but anything in the way of a sea-bird—he was very partial to a young shag. He could not say that penguins were good eating: I have indeed made several good meals of them but it was for want of better victuals';7 they were, at any rate, preferable to the salt beef and salt pork that after three years came out of the harness-cask. After seeing severe fish-poisoning in the New Hebrides he insisted on trying another fish that he was warned was poisonous in New Caledonia, asserting that he had eaten it quite safely on the coast of New Holland, and was accordingly badly poisoned himself; and there is stubbornness for you. On the whole I am inclined to accept Samwell's judgment, not King's or Trevenen's. Why? Well, you will recollect that scurvy-grass and wild celery, seals, walrus, and penguins, palatable or not, were all fresh food. You will recollect what Cook was fighting against. He was fighting against that ancient terror of the sea, so much worse than winds and waves, the disease of scurvy; and he had a fighting faith in fresh page 16 food. He was responsible for the health of a hundred—more than a hundred—men. As much as any great experimenter in the human cause, he would take the lead himself. He did not want his men to go down with scurvy, and he was certainly not going down with scurvy himself.
And he knew his men; he knew the stubbornly conservative British sailor. He was a practical psychologist as well as a practical dietitian, and their stubbornness was no match for his. Well, most of the time. It was only early in his first voyage that he flogged men for refusing their ration of fresh meat. Thereafter he trusted to the force of example, to the natural wish of mankind not to be excluded from any imagined good, and to the removal of any alternative. By the time he had reached Tahiti on his first voyage he was writing his famous reflection on seamen and novelty in diet:
such are the Tempers and dispositions of Seamen in general that whatever you give them out of the common way, altho it be ever so much for their good yet it will not go down with them and you will hear nothing but murmurings against the Man that first invented it; but the Moment they see their Superiors set a Value upon it, it becomes the finest stuff in the World and the inventer a damn'd honest fellow.8
The amount of green vegetable—wild celery and so on—he got into his men by cooking it with their breakfast wheat or pease in remote parts was enormous. And the honest fellows were trained in the habit of looking for it as they wandered on shore. They did so: they learned soon enough that there was a sure way into the Captain's favour. There were stiff-necked fellows, of course, even on the third voyage, who were tempted to curse.9 All right, as long as you didn't curse the captain to his face. There were unfortunate fellows, too, on this third voyage, who could not make away with their walrus, though the majority were ravenous enough at first. Very well, said Cook, they can eat their bread—that is, the appalling ship's biscuit; and only after much persuasion would he admit that fluxes and sickness were the results not of malingering but of genuine rejection by the stomach, and give back the equally appalling salt meat. He had one or two struggles over spruce beer, brewed from the tender branch-ends of trees like the New Zealand rimu, on the model of a drink popular among North American sailors and fishermen, and won. He lost over sugar-cane beer on the Hawaiian coast in December 1778, and even the example of himself and his officers could not prevail. The episode is interesting, because we find Cook, most unusually in his journal, both denouncing his crew—'my mutinous turbulent crew'—and praising himself. Cook thought the brew was very wholesome. The crew thought it injurious to page 17 their health, and told him so in a letter. He told them the letter was a very mutinous proceeding, stopped their grog, and declared that in future they might not expect the least indulgence from him. He almost used the words of his first journal, but went on with a difference:
Every innovation whatever tho ever so much to their advantage is sure to meet with the highest disapprobation from Seamen, Portable Soup and Sour Krout were at first both condemned by them as stuff not fit for human beings to eat. Few men have introduced into their Ships more novelties in the way of victuals and drink than I have done; indeed few men have had the same opportunity or been driven to the same necessity. It has however in a great measure been owing to such little innovations that I have always kept my people generally speaking free from that dreadful distemper the Scurvy.10
I think if he had lived to revise thoroughly this part of his journal he would have deleted the whole story, as he deleted any other reference that seemed to discredit his people. And the conflict seems to have faded away. The real trouble may have been that everybody was becoming rather edgy: they all, except Cook, desperately wanted to get into port, after their arctic months, and he—stubbornly again—was keeping them out of port, to avoid too great a rush on the buying of provisions, and consequent waste; and also, so far as he could avoid it, too great a rush on the Hawaiian women. Now I reiterate my point about all this. Cook did not invent fresh food: he was not a damn'd honest fellow to that extent. Medical men with a mission, Dr James Lind, Dr William MacBride, harped on it. Sea captains in general knew about it, and got it when they could, and thought about it. The trouble was that they did not think about it enough. Cook's second in command on his second voyage, Tobias Furneaux, a very competent sailor, is a beautiful example. But only stubbornness in pursuit of his principle would have brought Cook back to England at the end of that second voyage, after an absence of three years and eighteen days, in which time—I quote him again—he 'lost but four men and only one of them by sickness'.11
Of course, remarkable as Cook's achievement was in the preservation of health at sea, and important as this was for his work as an explorer, the Admiralty did not send him out primarily to conduct experiments on diet. He was sent out on his first voyage primarily for the observation of the transit of Venus, and then to see if he could pick up the alleged southern continent, or if that failed, New Zealand. He picked up the east coast of New Holland—Australia—as a work of supererogation, a bit of extra thrown in, a bonus for the Admiralty. No one expected page 18 him to, or suggested it. He was sent out on his second voyage, on his own suggestion and his own plan, to clean up the continent problem. He was sent out on his third voyage to look for the Northwest Passage. In other words, his principal, his over-riding, his sovereign purpose was, to use the phrase he used so much himself with capital letters, Geography and Navigation. This may savour to you all too much of the public Cook, the statue in the Admiralty precincts or the Sydney Domain; but we quite mistake him if we do not realise that this, in the innermost sense, was Cook the man. Why the Yorkshire farm boy turned into that passionate professional I do not know. How he did so, at least to the outside view, is fairly plain. If we burrow inside as far as we can, we see this quality of stubbornness again. We can go back behind the great voyages to his first independent command, the schooner Grenville, surveying the Newfoundland coast. She was hardly on station in the 1764 season when a powder-horn burst in Cook's right hand and almost blew his thumb off. We know what would happen in these days: the radio would crackle away, a helicopter would be out, and in an hour or two the man would be in hospital and under anaesthetic. The Grenville got into the nearest harbour and by great good luck found a French ship with a surgeon on board; the hand was properly dressed, according to the notions of the time; and Mr Cook went back to his surveying and produced a beautiful chart. It was the professional attitude. It is what makes Cook's predecessors of the 1760s, Byron, Wallis, Bougainville, look such hopeless amateurs; yet Bougainville had the highest intentions, and Wallis looked after his men like a father. Only Carteret had that quality of stubbornness, and his reward from his masters was to be put on the shelf. Yet even Carteret had not the professional equipment. Cook did. He was the only man in the navy capable of carrying out his instructions, though the technical ones were repeated from those given to his predecessors, and probably the only man in the navy with the inclination to obey his instructions. I have sometimes wondered whether there was a sort of literalism in Cook, or whether his essence was due partly to the fact that he sprang from the respectable lower classes, whose function in life was to obey, and not from that upper class who gave instructions, and therefore knew what they were really supposed to mean; but this may be fanciful. Anyhow, let me illustrate my thesis.
Let us begin with the first voyage. It is 14 December 1769, and Cook is off the North Cape of New Zealand, in sight of it, in a hard gale for the previous thirty-six hours, with a heavy swell from the west; the gale keeps on and his canvas starts to go. He is driven out of sight of land, east, northwest, but he wants to get back and fix the position of that cape. It takes him four days. He is not standing on the cape, but page 19 is four or five miles off as far as he can judge, in poor conditions; he has no chronometer; and he is four minutes out in latitude and one minute out in longitude. He is driven off the land again, about 140 miles to the north. Then he has a hurricane, and twice has to bring the ship to; she is blown, to put it briefly, all over the place. But he is going to get the position of Cape Maria van Diemen, only a few miles from the North Cape; he sees it at last on 30 December and fixes its position, the weather having cleared, three days later, two minutes of latitude out, four of longitude. He says, moderately,
I cannot help thinking but what will appear a little strange that at this season of the Year we should be three weeks in getting 10 leagues to the westward and five weeks in getting 50 leagues, for so long it is since we pass'd Cape Brett but it will hardly be credited that in the midst of summer and in the Latitude of 35° such a gale of wind as we have had could have happen'd, which for its strength and continuence was such as I hardly was ever in before. Fortunately at this time we were at a good distance from land, otherwise it might have proved fatal to us.12
The amateur would not have clung on like that. But it was part of Cook's job to fix positions. I need hardly elaborate to an Australian gathering the stubborn persistence of his charting of the Australian coast, and the way in which, having got free of the Great Barrier Reef, he stayed by it through one of the most hair-raising episodes in the whole history of exploration, because he wanted to verify the existence of a strait between Australia and New Guinea. Let us pass to the second voyage, which was an icy one, wherein he laid the foundations of antarctic oceanography. He knew nothing about ice navigation for a start, though his ship had been stuck once for a few hours off the Nova Scotian coast in the spring of 1759. The combination of bergs, pack-ice, either in the mass or in disintegration, gales, fog, sleet, and snow should have been too much to bear, either for the body or the mind—particularly the mind of a commander. There is really only one way to come near appreciating this achievement, and that is to read it in detail, carefully and with some imagination, in Cook's own journal and the journals of his men, all of whom had not his talent for understatement; and to remember that when he uses words like horrid, horribleness, frigidness, savage, disagreeable anxiety, he is writing with no romantic pen. If he says the ship was in danger we may conclude that she was in considerable danger. He was the first man to cross the Antarctic Circle, and he crossed it three times, and where he reached his farthest south no ship has ever been since; and, having set out to circumnavigate the world from west to east in the highest possible page 20 latitude, he did so, though often enough he found himself driven west instead of east, as he became acquainted with the antarctic winds, or had to turn north through sheer necessity of extrication. As we know, he shattered the southern continent theory to bits, so far as it was a theory of a habitable land (nobody could foresee present-day goings on), though he believed that a continent of some sort did exist, and that the South Sandwich Islands, viewed fragmentarily through the fog, and 'the most horrible coast in the World', might be its northernmost extension; if anybody had resolution and perseverance to clear up the point by going farther than he had done, 'I shall not envy him the honour of the discovery but I will be bold to say that the world will not be benefited by it'.13
The second voyage gives us a further illustration. Cook had determined that the months of antarctic winter should be spent not in lying up in harbour—the very idea is violently alien to his character—but in two sweeps about the eastern and central island groups of the Pacific to make what new discoveries he could and co-ordinate the old ones. The second and greater of these sweeps was introduced by Cook's extremely serious illness at the end of February 1774, which would have been a good enough excuse to go home. He went to Easter Island, and there began a sort of parenthesis in his major theme, which in itself would have made a brilliant reputation for any other man. (Why, by the way, do we never apply the adjective 'brilliant' to Cook? Perhaps because he was so much more than brilliant.) I shall not particularise this parenthesis, I shall merely advert to his tracing of the northeastern and southern coasts of New Caledonia in September of that year. He spent a week in harbour, and made one additional brief landing; for almost the whole of the rest of that month he was at sea, on a lee shore, outside a barrier reef, in winds that had an inconvenient habit of dropping at critical times.
Friday 16th. At 3 pm it fell Calm and we were left to the Mercy of a great swell which set directly upon the reef which was hardly one league from us, we Sounded but could find no ground with a line of 200 fathoms.14
What does that remind you of? Of the Australian Great Barrier Reef in August 1770? He had the boats out to tow, 'but they were of little use against so large a swell'. The echo comes only too clearly. He charted that coast; he got round the Isle of Pines into a cul-de-sac of reefs and islets, and spent a night running from one set of breakers to another that almost turns a man's hair grey to think of it; and what did he do next morning? 'I was now almost tired of a Coast I could no longer explore but at the risk of loosing the ship and ruining the whole page 21 Voyage'; so as a preliminary to leaving it he ran further in—because he wanted to look more closely at that extraordinary tree, the Araucaria columnaris. Was he rash? No, he knew what he was about. But I think he was stubborn.
From the third voyage I take only one example, lest I weary you, his fight to make easting, against cruelly contrary winds, after he left New Zealand for Tahiti in March 1777; and I take that example because he was beaten, and lost a season, though he gained consequentially much information about Tonga and Tahiti that we are very glad to have.
I do not wish to convey an impression of an automatic man of iron. Can anyone doubt that, after the escape from utter destruction outside the Barrier Reef in August 1770, as he sat down to write at his cabin table, he had some anguish of reaction, with his head on his arms? Two days before, his utmost wishes had been crowned by getting clear of the shoals inside it; now he was happy to get back among them.
Such are the Vicissitudes attending this kind of service and must always attend an unknown Navigation: Was it not from the pleasure which naturly results to a Man from being the first discoverer, even was it nothing more than Sands and Shoals, this service would be insuportable especialy in far distant parts, like this, short of Provisions and almost every other necessary.15
And he proceeds to reflect rather bitterly on the world, on society: if you leave off your work because of its danger you are accused of 'Timerousness and want of Perseverance'; if you carry on too long, of 'Temerity and want of conduct'. Perhaps he had been imprudent, but at least he had found out something; and he turned to the shoals again. You may remember his words when he was brought up by what seemed illimitable ice in latitude 71° 10', the permanent ice-shelf, at the end of January 1774, the words on his own ambition: I whose ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go …' What follows immediately after? A confession of his discouragement: he 'was not sorry at meeting with this interruption, as it in some measure relieved us from the dangers and hardships, inseparable with the Navigation of the Southern Polar regions'.16 If we dislike to admit that our hero is ever discouraged, we shall find no comfort in his remark a year later, as, having struck five degrees south from his Isle of Georgia, he altered course east, with none but penguins, snow petrels, and whales to witness him: 'besides I was now tired of these high Southern Latitudes where nothing was to be found but ice and thick fogs'.17 We may note that he went on to find the South Sandwich Islands before he turned finally north to the page 22 Cape. If we reluct very much at the term 'discouragement', we can, of course, call it a sense of proportion; and we can then relate it to a sentiment of which he delivers himself more than once, after having considered the possibility or importance of some minor uncertain piece of discovery—his unwillingness to spend time 'searching for what I was not sure to find'.18
This quality of stubbornness is visible in a different direction. We have a less admirable side of Cook. It is not visible in his early life, or in his first and second voyages. It does come clearly enough to the eye on his third voyage. There is a paradox in it, because it appears just when he is beginning—I will not say, 'to lose his grip', that would be absurd: beginning, rather—to have less than an absolutely certain grip on every circumstance. The stubbornness may now indeed be a symptom of the little loss of grip, of a little loss in fertility of resource, in itself the result of a hidden physical and mental tiredness, hidden very likely by Cook even from himself. I have discussed this hypothesis elsewhere, and I shall not do so at length again. I by no means assert it as a fact. But the doctors who have considered his case seem agreed that his second voyage sickness, by no means as short as Cook indicates it was, was some kind of ulceration of the stomach, and he had worries and responsibility enough to bring that on. He had no fallow period between his second and third voyages, and the condition of his ship caused him concern almost from the day he left England in July 1776. He was haunted by the fear of missing that season; and the Pacific winds, that I have already referred to, sealed that loss. So when he arrived in Tonga he was not in a very fit state to withstand irritations. He was not irritated by being asked to strip to the waist as a condition of witnessing an important ceremony: he was perfectly prepared to do that, though one of his lieutenants thought it rather lowering. The principal irritation he suffered from was theft. He simply could not keep the nimble-fingered Polynesians from making off with the ship's property. He had had enough trouble on his previous voyages. He objected to killing men. He did not treasure the memory of having done so at Poverty Bay in New Zealand, when he was there in the Endeavour, though he had thought rather miserably that that might be justified as self-defence. When Lieutenant Gore, at Mercury Bay in New Zealand, snatched up a musket and shot dead a Maori who had cheated him of a piece of cloth, Cook was not pleased. 'We had now', he writes, 'been long enough acquainted with these People to know how to chastise trifling faults like this without taking away their lives.'19 He had tried all sorts of ways, from kidnapping chiefs to flogging; and now here was the confounded exasperating business starting all over again. He settled for flogging, and for weeks he flogged—a dozen lashes, two page 23 dozen, three, four, five, six dozen. When that failed, he ordered ears cropped, and had men's arms slashed cross-wise with a knife. There were those among his own men who were distressed and baffled. Was this the captain of whose humanity they had heard so much? He did not gain his end, and in Tonga there were those who remembered him without love. At Moorea, four months later, he tried a different plan, to get back a wretched stolen goat, staging a regular punitive expedition, burning houses, smashing and burning canoes, threatening not to leave a canoe on the island. This was after two days of negotiation, threats, and search; and after, not before, Cook began to feel he was making too much fuss:
I was now very sorry I had proceeded so far, as I could not retreat with any tolerable credet, and without giving incouragement to the people of the other islands we had yet to visit to rob us with impunity.20
How often, in the history of the world, has the stubborn man put forward such excuses. 'I can't well account for Capt Cook's proceedings on this occasion; as they were so very different from his conduct in like cases in his former voyages', says Midshipman Gilbert, forced more than once to be a critic.21
You may think it curious if I say after this that he was a patient man, and few people ever seem to have said it before. In temper subject to hastiness and passion, says King; somewhat hasty, says Samwell, who tends to draw on King for his phrasing. They were both men whose personal knowledge was confined to the third voyage, and Midshipman Trevenen, who gives us the account of what the men called Cook's 'heivas', or Tahitian dances, his vehement outbreaks of rage and swearing at misdemeanours or acts of stupidity, is also a third-voyage witness; and we may note that with all these heivas—Trevenen came in for one himself, that turned out to be quite undeserved—and all the hard work, this Midshipman kept his Captain on a very high pedestal indeed. It is Trevenen, in fact, who gives us the picture of the Captain, the 'despot', in the midst of heavy boat-work unbending to relate to the young gentlemen anecdotes of his earlier voyages, and at the end of the day tossing to them the ducks that had been shot. There are no accounts of heivas from the first and second voyages, so far as I know, though I can think of two occasions when some people at least held that Cook acted unjustly in matters of discipline—and more general blame came from John Reinhold Forster, who thought that he was 'a cross-grained fellow who sometimes showed a mean disposition and was carried away by a hasty temper', and displayed an 'overbearing attitude which was the result of having his head turned by Lord Sandwich', the First Lord.22 But we must remember that John page 24 Reinhold Forster, a cross-grained fellow himself, was not exactly an unprejudiced witness, and that he had a particular down on Lord Sandwich; and we should remember, too, his judgment that Cook's faults 'were more than counterbalanced by his superior qualities'.23 Still, there it is: in one period of his life, anyhow, Cook's temper blazed up very suddenly and very high, even if it subsided equally rapidly. And, says King, he showed a certain impatience in times of unavoidable rest, when he could neither act nor plan further action. Have I then created another paradox by calling him patient? I do not think so. Let us look at Samwell again: 'patient and firm under difficulties and distress' is one of his phrases. Surely patience is the other side of stubbornness, in the ice, blown off a coast, baffled day after day by head winds, and clinging on to a sovereign purpose. If you go through the journals carefully, and study his meetings with native peoples, you will find ample evidence of patience, from Dusky Sound in New Zealand to St Lawrence Bay on the Asian shore just south of Bering Strait—and not only of patience, but of tact and courage too. He could well understand that islanders should be distrustful of invaders from the sea. In spite of floggings and those astonishing acts of destruction at Moorea, there is ample evidence of patience in the process of living side by side with native peoples for weeks at a time; and patience was all the more necessary in those weeks because of the necessity of keeping British sailors, officers as well as men, from making rash and overbearing fools of themselves. Justice has to be seen to be done; and justice is founded upon patience. If another instance of patience with persons is needed, let me take the case of Lieutenant Gore. Gore was a seasoned sailor, whose first voyage with Cook was his third round the world, a good, practical seaman, though no great navigator, a sporting type who caught the first sting-ray and shot the first kangaroo, unromantic; yet Gore more than once on Cook's first voyage had his commander altering course and wasting time looking for land that only one man had sighted, and that man Gore; for Cook was not going to have it said that he had let go anything once seen. Gore had leave while the second voyage was in progress. He sailed again on the third, and ultimately brought the expedition home. In the last days of May 1778 the ships were in Cook Inlet, on the northwest coast of America, and Cook was angry with himself for spending a fortnight there looking for a passage into the Bering Sea, 'very much against my own opinion and judgment', but in deference to the opinion of'some of the Officers'.24 One of the officers stood out when everybody else was convinced otherwise, and though Gore is not named, everything points to him; and Cook spent more time to satisfy him. He knew Gore, and it seems to me that he showed patience here, even if the geographical situation page 25 was causing him a good deal of impatience. This is the more remarkable, in that his modesty rarely kept him from arriving at his decisions unaided. When he made dry biscuit the alternative to walrus meat, and cut off the grog in reply to mutiny and turbulence over the sugarcane beer, he may have showed impatience, or he may merely have acted as a disciplinarian in the cause of progress. Of course, in the end the tightly stretched string of patience broke, and Cook died.
These, you may say, are large things, aspects of Cook the great man. But where are more of the small things that make us feel in touch with someone frail and therefore humanly comprehensible like ourselves: where is—really—Cook the man? One has to answer that if Cook had had all the necessary frailties, we should not be putting the query. The aspects of the great man—I say what I have already said—are the things that make the man. I think, on the other hand, we can find that he did not live with utter continuity on the pinnacle of moral and intellectual endeavour. He has his little fragments of self-righteousness. Take his passion for accuracy, in observation and statement. Boswell dined with him once at the house of Sir John Pringle, the President of the Royal Society, and Boswell agreed with Sir John that Cook was a plain, sensible man with an uncommon attention to veracity. Sir John told Boswell how Cook was supposed by one eminent scholar to have seen a nation of men like monkeys, and Cook had corrected the report: 'No', he said, I did not say they were like monkeys. I said their faces put me in mind of monkeys.' Boswell comments, 'There was a distinction very fine but sufficiently perceptible'; and 'My metaphor was that he had a balance in his mind for truth as nice as scales for weighing a guinea'.25 Now what Cook says in his journal, truly enough, about the people of Malekula in the New Hebrides, is that they 'have Monkey faces'—but he also refers to 'this Apish Nation';26so he may very well have conveyed a clear impression that he had seen a nation of men like monkeys, whatever he thought he had said. Look at another little matter. When he was at Queen Charlotte Sound on his first voyage, he and Green had been careful in settling the situation of the place; when he came back in 1773 and 1774 he was much mortified to find from the observations of the astronomers Bayly and Wales that they had been wrong, and that he had consequently laid down the whole of the South Island of New Zealand on his chart 40' too far east, and the North Island something like 30'. The working of his mind between his log for 7 June 1773, and some date in 1775 or 1776, when he made his final revision of his journal, is interesting and even a bit comic for its struggle with the unpleasant truth—as if he were fascinated by a false accusation, compelled to harp on it all the way across the Pacific, and page 26 finally driven to admit its validity. It was perhaps lucky that he had a very high respect for Wales. He begins,
errors as great as this will frequently be found in such nice observations as these, Errors I call them tho' in reality they may be None but only differences which cannot be avoided.27
It would not much affect either geography or navigation, yet he thought he ought to mention it. He writes in his journal for November 1774, almost with the effect of a generous concession to Wales,
As Mr Wales had made so many observations in the Sound for determining the Longitude, I thought it was proper to say what the results were, otherwise I should hardly have mentioned these errors; from a supposition that few will think them of such consequence as either to affect Navigation or Geography.28
Twelve months or so later still and the wound has healed, the scar is gone. True it may be that navigation and geography stand much as they did before; but
I mention these errors … because I have no doubt of their existance, for from the multitude of observations which Mr Wales took the situation of few parts of the world are better assertained than that of Queen Charlottes Sound.29
Note that he had said exactly the same thing of the situation of New Zealand as a whole in 1770; and that he said the same of a number of other places. If Cook had a little pet vanity, it was probably over his fixing of positions. We may like to think he had at least this one, to endear him to us other children of mortality.
How well educated was he?—to ask a question almost at random. His understanding was strong and perspicacious, King tells us, rather superfluously; for anyone can see that. His general knowledge was extensive and various, in that of his own profession he was unequalled, says Samwell. Of course, we answer again, to the second part of this statement, taking his profession as discoverer and maritime surveyor, and not just as a naval person—in which case we might wonder how as a post-captain he would have fought his seventy-four, or as an admiral set about a fleet action. Where, however, did this extensive and various general knowledge take him? He was 'of an agreeable and lively conversation'. What did he talk about, apart from icebergs and men with faces that put him in mind of monkeys? What did he read, apart from text-books in trigonometry and astronomy? We know he read Anson's Voyage and Hakluyt, Maskelyne's British Mariners' Guide and Alexander Dalrymple's Historical Collection of the several Voyages and page 27 Discoveries in the South Pacific Ocean, and Samuel Dunn's Navigator's Guide to the Oriental or Indian Seas; but did he ever venture on works of the imagination, apart from Dalrymple's? Did his friend William Wales spout Thomson's Seasons to him in Dusky Sound, or offer to lend him that well-thumbed book? We do not know. He wrote a good vigorous common-sense factual prose himself. He was modest about it, and was certainly susceptible to what he considered the superior merits of men like Banks and Wales. He used their journals, as he used Anderson's, generally to round out his own, not often—though certainly once or twice—for purposes of adornment. We may take it that he had picked up a great deal of various general knowledge simply from the application of his strong and perspicacious mind to his own experience, we may take it that his leanings and education were broadly scientific, were centred on geography and navigation, but that he could cope with most of the common intellectual interests of the day. I have no doubt that a great deal rubbed off on him from men like Banks and Anderson, quite apart from the free use he made of their journals. We may be all the more surprised, then, at the tale the shocked Lieutenant King, who had been appointed to the third voyage, and had called, all excitement and respect, on the great Captain, brought to Forster. King, with some Oxford training, was to share the astronomical work with Cook, and said he was sorry there was to be no scientist on the voyage. I, for my part, am sorry to have to repeat Cook's reply, for these are no words to utter in an Academy of Science. His words were, 'Curse the scientists, and all science into the bargain'!30 At least, so we are told by Forster, and it was on hearing them that he set himself to comfort the young man by explaining Cook's character. What it does not seem to have struck Forster as necessary to explain was his own effect, as the representative of science, on Cook; what King did not know, in addition, was how much Cook had suffered from Banks, the natural historian with a swollen head, in between voyages. And what King did not yet understand was the composition of the patience and the impatience in his captain's mind. Literature, learning, science: can we say that he was devoted to any of the arts? We cannot. He was appreciative of the efforts of Hodges, whom he thought an 'indefaticable gentleman', on the second voyage:
The Views are all by Mr Hodges and are so judiciously chosen and executed in so Masterly a manner as will not only show the judgment and skill of the artist but will of themselves express their various designs.
In other words, Hodges was a good hand at a landscape, and Cook had no capacity for the higher reaches of criticism. He found the nose-flute in Tonga harmonious, and he loosed the bagpipes on the Pacific; page 28 but that, we may say, was because he had them, not from a connoisseur's devotion.
So far as I can see, he had no religion and no politics. He mentions Providence once or twice. As for the world, the flesh, and the devil, that trio of embarrassments to all good men, he probably had his own definition of them, as no doubt most good men have. The world was something to be explored. With a capital W, it was some sort of embodiment of wrong-headedness that failed to understand the problems of seamen. If it was society, it also had a pleasanter and more reliable side, where a seaman could safely trust himself. It was dinner at Sir John Pringle's, and apparently more regular gatherings of sufficient conviviality. 'Cook is returned, and has resumed his place at the Mitre', writes Daniel Wray, F.R.S., the antiquary, to Lord Hardwicke31—the Mitre being the tavern where the Royal Society dined; and the indications are that Cook was a clubbable man. The devil was probably scurvy, and the malign influence that induced sailors not to wash their hands, and sloppiness of mind, and he was opposed to all of them. His ideas about the flesh were orthodox, and his judgments were tolerant. We have seen that he had a proper interest in food. He is said to have regularly proposed, on Saturday nights at sea, the toast of all beautiful women; but no one claims ever to have seen him drunk. He fell in love with Miss Elizabeth Batts soon after he landed in England from the war, and wasted no time in getting married to her; and after that he had no time to waste on Polynesian princesses, or commoners either. They were not neglected: his officers and men were assiduous enough. No doubt there were many young women, and fathers of young women, who would have been glad to have captured such a key fortress, with its store of shirts and spike-nails and axes. Their chances were nil. The reputation Cook earned in this matter in Polynesia may have been one not so much of iron disdain as of physical decrepitude. Truly that would have been so if everybody adopted the attitude of the matron of Nomuka, a small island in Tonga, who, when he declined the offer of a handsome girl, even on credit, berated him soundly as broken-down, old, and good for nothing, and asked him what right he had to insult a young person like that? Or, at least, that was what he made of the tirade. Cook, we have to persuade the movie moguls—I re-emphasise the point—was a professional man. His time was fully taken up. His chief care relating to women in the island groups was to hold back from them, and their societies, the venereal curse that was planted in his sailors. Here, too, he was stubborn, valiant, and humane. It was another battle that he lost.
We can say, then, that his affections were domestic ones, little though the time was he had in which to practise them. He had time to father page 29 six children, only one of whom survived into adulthood. At home at Mile End, in the little house with a garden where Boswell visited him, he seems to have preserved a uniform good temper. Mrs Cook protested against one of the portraits that it made him look stern, and Mr Cook never looked stern. He had ambitions for his sons, and the two eldest, James and Nathaniel, were to go into the navy. This led him to a mild dishonesty. We are at first puzzled by the appearance of a James and Nathaniel Cook in the muster books of the Endeavour and Resolution, joining the crew as able seamen after the ships had left England. They are the two sons, who enter the service, on paper, at the age of six and five years respectively. They could thus 'earn time', as it was said—that is, put behind them the number of years a midshipman had to serve before he could take his lieutenant's examination. In due course the certificate would be forthcoming. It was a conventional piece of chicanery in the navy; some distinguished men owed their early advancement to it. With Cook it is an index, I suppose, to parental love, and it also shows how far he had come since he volunteered into the navy at Wapping, in June 1755, to try what his fortune would bring that way.
1 David Samwell, A Narrative of the Death of Captain James Cook. To which are added some Particulars concerning his Life and Character, London (1786), pp. 25-6.
2 James King, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, Vol. III, London (1784), p. 48.
3 Samwell, op. cit.
4 J. C. Beaglehole (ed.), The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery, London (1955-67), Vol. III, p. 419n.
5 Ibid., Vol. I, p. 353.
6 Ibid., p. 122.
7 Ibid., Vol. II, p. 613.
8 Ibid., Vol. I, p. 74.
9 See Alexander Home in ibid., Vol. III, p. 1456; quoted on p. 48.
10 Cook,Journals, Vol. III, pp. 479-80.
11 Ibid., Vol. II, p. 682.
12 Ibid., Vol. I, p. 228.
13 Ibid., Vol. II, p. 646.
14 Ibid., p. 549.
15 Ibid., Vol. I, p. 380.
16 Ibid., Vol. II, p. 322.
17 Ibid., p. 629.
18 Ibid., Vol. I, p. 66 (24 Mar. 1769); Vol. II, pp. 668-9 (on the 'Isle of St Paul', or St Paul rocks).
19 Ibid., Vol. I, p. 196.
20 Ibid., Vol. III, p. 229.
21 Ibid., p. 232n.
22 Forster's remarks are in his preface to the German (Berlin, 1781) edition of the anonymous account, Journal of Captain Cook's last Voyage, probably by John Rickman, London (1781). I quote from the translation by Miss U. Tewsley, printed as an appendix to her translation of Zimmermann's Reise urn die Welt, Wellington (1926), p. 48.
23 J. R. Forster, History of the Voyages and Discoveries made in the North, London (1786), p. 404.
24 Cook, Journals, Vol. III, pp. cxxviin., 368.
25 Boswell, The Ominous Tears(ed. Charles Ryskamp and Frederick A. Pottle),London (1963), p. 308.
26 Cook, Journals, Vol. II, pp. 462, 466.
27 Ibid., p. 174n.
28 Ibid., p. 580n.
29 Ibid., p. 580.
30 See ref. 22 (Zimmermann, op. cit., p. 48).
31 10 Aug. 1775. In John Nichols, Illustrations of the Literary History of the Eighteenth Century, Vol. I, London (1817), p. 150.