On the Character of Captain James Cook
The Geographical Journal — Vol CXXII Part 4 December 1956 — On the Character of Captain — James Cook — J. C. Beaglehole
The Geographical Journal
Vol CXXII Part 4 December 1956
On the Character of Captain
J. C. Beaglehole
James Cook is a hard as well as an easy man to talk about, and character studies have an evil propensity to degenerate into hypothesis.1 Everybody knows Cook's name; yet, I have always felt, extraordinarily little is known about him. He is an exceptionally difficult man to get inside. Certainly he was a great man. Put him next to any of his contemporaries of the eighteenth century, which was so very rich in great, and near-great, and interesting figures, and he does not suffer in comparison. He makes most of the politicians seem rather poor creatures, and the more I dig among the writers, and the artists, and the natural scientists, and the soldiers and the sailors and the scholars, the more I am convinced of the stature of his genius. He was not a tortured Titan, like Dr. Johnson; or charming, like Goldsmith; or witty, like Sheridan; or profound, like Henry Cavendish or Burke; or dashing, like Wolfe; he did not build an empire, like Warren Hastings, or maintain a vast correspondence, like Horace Walpole. Shall we then say he had a plain heroic magnitude of mind, and let it go at that ? Or shall we give a list of the virtues taught by the sea, and picture him as a character out of a Conrad novel, a serious sailor, a survivor of typhoons, a large-scale rendering of Fidelity? No: because although he had that sort of mind, and was serious, and faithful, and came through, if not typhoons, at least a great deal of very bad weather, it is possible to be all that, and do all that, and yet be rather stupid; and Cook was by no means stupid. He had, in fact, a first-class brain, a really powerful intellect. He had some originality. I doubt whether he had subtlety. But I don't quite know. He was a late developer, and he was killed when he was fifty.
1 This, with a few modifications, is the text of a lecture given in the lecture hall of the Royal Society of Arts, 20 June 1956, and sponsored by the High Commissioner for New Zealand, Sir Clifton Webb, who was in the chair. The documentation now supplied has been confined to material that is in most instances either new or little known.
1 Another, and better, portrait by Webber has recently come to light in private ownership; but it still does not carry as much conviction as the portrait by Dance which faces page 420.
What qualities besides temperance do we find touched on in the more formal tributes? Strength and capacity of mind, sense of duty, mastery of seamanship, humanity, persistence, foresight—all the virtues one would expect; and, in Samwell, not merely austerity, but something perhaps surprising in what is beginning to look rather like a monument, affability of conversation. Why did nobody leave a record of Cook's conversation, even of one affable sentence? Boswell met Cook in 1772, and more than once later, and was much impressed; he made the Captain a present of a copy of his 'Account of Corsica,' with a lavish inscription on the fly-leaf; but not a word does he report of what the Captain said to him.1 Lest you think the monumental aspect still rather overwhelming, I add that there is general agreement that the Captain's temper was rather short, though his anger was short-lived too. I add also that if you get away from the formal tributes, and care to scrutinize carefully the logs and journals or other records of those who sailed with him, you will find examples of that invaluable thing, the revealing detail. Men sometimes say why they admire, or are puzzled, or distressed. We know, for example, that Cook once swore with considerable abandon—not that that puzzled or distressed any seaman. I am happy to know that he swore.
1 Not directly, that is ; but in his London Journal for 1776 he notes more than one meeting with Cook, and the general drift of the conversation. (Private papers of John Boswell, vol. 11.)
I need merely remind you of the outlines of Cook's life. He was a Yorkshireman with some Scottish blood. He came from a very low social class, the son of a day-labourer on a farm not far from Whitby. The father had enough ability to rise to be a farm-bailiff, the son enough to ensure his attendance at the local school. He worked about the farm; his intellectual promise was such that it seemed he might make a haberdasher; from the haberdasher's counter he graduated, under his own impulse, to an apprenticeship in the coal trade out of Whitby. This was important; Cook was not the only seaman who started in the coal trade and went on to a distinguished career; and it was important that his master was the Quaker John Walker; for Walker looked after the youth and encouraged him in the study of mathematics and navigation. It does not seem that he ever read much else; we have at any rate no record of adventures in polite literature. He rose in this arduous service: his ability was clear to Walker, and by the time he was twenty-eight he was offered the command of a collier. The nature of the service, again, was important; it was in the North Sea, up and down the unlighted, shoal-begirt, gale-smitten east coast of England, in and out of tidal estuaries; broken by a voyage or two to the Baltic, which also had its coastal dangers. Why was this so important, for a man who was to sail over so much deep water, looking for land that did not exist? Because apprenticeship in the coal trade was also apprenticeship to the east coast of Australia and the west coast of North America and the barrier-reefs of the Pacific; because the North Sea fogs were a training in the fogs of the Atlantic and the Antarctic and the Arctic; because Cook came to maturity on a lee-shore, as it were, with the lead-line as one of his principal tools of navigation. He did not, with this training, take the command that Walker offered him; he volunteered into the Royal Navy as an ordinary seaman. We should like a statement of his reasons. He did not state them—beyond saying that he had a mind to try his fortune that way. Perhaps he wanted to see the world; perhaps he wanted to widen his experience; perhaps he was even urged on by some wish to serve his country, which would be unusual in that press-gang ridden age; he may simply have been ambitious, without guessing where ambition might take him. At any rate, he volunteered just as the Seven Years' War was breaking out. He saw Channel service. In a few months he was promoted master's mate, and then master; he crossed the Atlantic and was one of the men responsible for sounding and charting the St. Lawrence river before the fleet went up with Wolfe's men for the assault on Quebec; and on the American station he had a period of wintering at Halifax that gave him a chance to read more deeply in mathematics and in astronomy, the foundations of the higher navigation. More, he met a military engineer famous in his day, Samuel Holland, who introduced him to the theory and practice of surveying, and his interest was thoroughly aroused. When Cook's interest in a subject was aroused, he pursued it with passion. His charts became known; the commodores and admirals began to take notice, and shortly after the war Cook had his first independent command. It was not a large vessel, it was the schooner Grenville, in which he crossed the Atlantic year by year to survey and chart the shores of Newfoundland. It had a small crew; but it is significant that when Cook took his next command almost the whole crew went with him.page break page break page 421
His next command was in 1768. Mr. Cook—he was, nearing the age of forty, still only a warrant officer who had been doing a specialized job with superb efficiency, and not taking time off to look for promotion was picked on to take a small vessel out to the South Sea with two astronomers to observe the great phenomenon of 1769, the transit of Venus across the disc of the sun. This was in origin a Royal Society enterprise, to which the Crown was lending aid and comfort; and Cook, who had already had his observations of an eclipse of the sun published by the Society, found himself one of the astronomers. The Admiralty decided to tack something else on to this limited mission and, after it was over, to send the ship exploring.
There is still a little obscurity surrounding the choice of Cook for the command, and there were some hurt feelings in another direction. It was indeed, in a way, a surprising appointment; for the commanders on the two previous English exploring voyages in the Pacific had been a commodore and a captain. Rank, however, in all this proved quite irrelevant; Mr. Cook was made a lieutenant in May 1768, when he took over the Endeavour; and if we wish to be pedantic, we may remember that he was Captain Cook in rank, and not only by nautical courtesy, for less than the last four years of his life. Irrelevant ? Quite irrelevant; for it is here that the element of greatness begins to make itself felt.
I do not mean that in any portentous sense. It would be easy to say that "Cook saw his chance and seized it." But it would also, I think, be quite wrong to say so, to force drama into a purely undramatic situation. No doubt Lieutenant James Cook had an appropriate lifting of the heart as he trod the deck of his own command and reflected that he was bound for a two years' voyage, but he was not a man who dealt in drama. He did not like chance. When he had to seize a chance or perish, as he did once or twice, he seized it all right; but I have the impression that he regarded being in a position where he had to seize a chance as something rather ignoble, something forced on him that he ought to have been able to avoid, a mark against his professional competence, for which he should apologize. He believed in careful planning, in the elimination of chance. But of course in 1768 he still had a good deal to learn. The significant, the highly important, thing is that he was equipped to learn it. This is a thing that marks him off from his predecessors. He went on to learn, and he went on to utilize what he had learnt, over something like 200,000 sea-miles, heaven knows how many thousand miles of hitherto unknown coast-line. He did not know—how could anybody know ?—that when the Endeavour sailed from Plymouth on 25 August 1768 it was the beginning not of one voyage but of three voyages that were going to change the face of geography and a number of other departments of human learning, as well as to affect the politics and strategy of empires. I must, however, myself avoid the dangers of drama—or of melodrama—and state succinctly and soberly what happened.
Cook was instructed to take the astronomical expedition to the newly discovered Tahiti and to make the proper observations. He did it. He was instructed to sail south from Tahiti to lat. 40° to see if he could find a continent, and if he could not, to sail west and pick up New Zealand. He did it. He was instructed to establish good relations with native peoples, to take soundings, chart coast-lines and harbours, to make observations of most things under the sun as they appeared on any new countries he should encounter, and to enter his observations in a journal. He did all this. He was then at liberty to come home round either Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope, as he thought best. His idea of "best" was to come home round the Cape of Good Hope, taking in the discovery and exploration and charting of the page 422 whole east coast of Australia on the way, up to the East Indies and down across the Indian Ocean. That, with the solution of tie problem of whether there was a strait between Australia and New Guinea, was thrown in for good measure; he had already got Tahiti and the Society Islands and a number of other islands, as well as New Zealand, fixed with some accuracy in their places and charted. He presented the Admiralty with astonishment and with a plan for a second voyage, on which it was scarcely possible to send any commander but himself. This was in I771. The plan for the second voyage was to sail round the world in as high a latitude as possible, making great sweeps north and south, to ascertain finally the existence or non-existence of the large southern continent that geographers were fond of deducing in that hemisphere. This was to be done by sailing west to east in the great southern wind-belt, plunging south first from the Cape and making use of two bases in New Zealand and Tahiti. It was a tremendous plan. Between 1772 and 1775 Cook carried it out, incidentally rediscovering and putting accurately on the map, in their proper relations, almost all the Pacific island groups discovered before him since the sixteenth century. He deliberately lengthened this voyage by a year, and having sailed from New Zealand to the Horn, took another plunge into the South Atlantic, to discover South Georgia and the Sandwich group, before he reappeared with his circumnavigation done at the Cape. If you look at his track, you will see that he had made very effective work of the southern continent. There was in fact a continent, as he concluded, though he had not seen it, but it was something very different from the continent of theory. It was Antarctica, and Cook's navigation of the Antarctic ocean, with its fogs, its storms, its bergs and pack ice, was—to put it mildly—a very remarkable feat of seamanship. He practically wrote his own instructions for this voyage, and though it is just as well to be chary of superlatives, I suppose that in conception, detailed planning, and execution it was the greatest single voyage in the history of the world. When it was over Cook was given a vacant captain's berth in Greenwich Hospital. But before it was over the Admiralty had thought of another voyage, another problem to be solved. This time it was the North-west Passage, approached from the Pacific, and sought in a close examination of the North American coast from California as far north as it was possible to go. If only the tempters had withheld their hand for a year or so, for Cook was in need of that snug berth at Greenwich. But they dangled the bait, and it was taken, instantaneously. The plan, the detail, the timing, once again became Cook's. Once again he would go into the ocean by way of the Cape and New Zealand: he would make Tahiti his sole base, for wintering and refreshment, and on the American coast he would see what he would see. He would certainly examine it narrowly. Geographically, Tahiti was too far south for the utmost value as a base on this voyage, and Cook, when he discovered Hawaii on his passage north, must have been struck at once with the possibility of its alternative use. The question was one of time. He worked his way up the American coast, and well beyond Bering Strait, landed on the Asian as well as the American side of the strait on his return south, correcting old charts and charting anew, and then decided for Hawaii, that he might have the maximum period of spring and summer for a new thrust north. At Hawaii, forced to put back for repairs after already leaving his port of refreshment, he was killed on 14 February 1779, in a wretched scuffle that ought never to have occurred, as if Chance were taking its revenge on a man who had so often eliminated it. But he had already eliminated the North-west Passage as a useful proposition.
These, put briefly, are the things that Cook did, in a geographical, an exploratory page 423 sense; and we can already see something of the scope, perhaps even of the texture, of his mind. He could think broadly, and he could work in detail. I am sorry I cannot illustrate this; but if you follow his careful supervision of his ship when fitting out, and the attention he paid to her stores; if you note his determination at Madeira to load not merely wine, the conventional cargo, but onions; if you correlate this with his fanaticism in hanging on to the North Cape of New Zealand through day after day of frustrating storm till he could get its position precisely fixed, and with his constant practice of lunar observations to get his longitude; with the exactitude of his charts; with his careful thought over the human problems of his contact with people of other races; with his willingness to use other men's words and other men's knowledge when they are better than his own; with what I can only call his passion for professional veracity—you will see what I mean. The combination of breadth and detail brings up another point, about Cook's treatment of his instructions. His predecessors had a pretty cavalier way with their instructions ; you might almost call instructions their point of departure. The remarkable thing about Cook, on the other hand, is that he carries his instructions out: literally, meticulously. That is one reason why he staggered his official superiors. What made the difference ? One of my hypotheses has been that he belonged by birth to the class that took orders, that his whole training was in conscientious obedience to orders, and that his serious Scottish-Yorkshire blood reinforced this literalness. To have fallen short, for whatever reason, would have been dishonest, a sort of mutiny; and men were rightly flogged for mutiny. But that hypothesis does not go far enough. For, granting the literalness, Cook has his own point of departure. He does, thoroughly and exhaustively, all he is asked to do, and writes it all down in his matter-of-fact way. This is the point where the ordinary first-rate man would go home. It is the point where Cook says to himself, "Well, my ship still floats, my men are still healthy and able-bodied, what shall I do now?" The careful planner, the master of detail, the genius of the matter-of-fact, suddenly seems to lack all sense of proportion; his ruling passion seems to be a passion for the work of supererogation. You cannot say that he is disobeying his instructions; he would have been horrified at the idea. He is simply adding to their logic; not much, he would say, but there, the thing was calling out to be done. He used an illuminating sentence in 1775 in a letter—not an intimate letter, to be sure—to a young French admirer who wished to go voyaging in the Pacific. "It seems certain to me," he wrote, "that the man who does no more than carry out his instructions will never get very far in discovery." 1 I think I should remind you that this remark was made not in an age of radar and echo-sounding and helicopters, and all the other high-powered aids to navigation, but in the eighteenth century, after the first voyage on which the chronometer was used, with astronomers working all the time to verify the chronometer's utility.
1 Cook to Latouche-Tréville, 6 September 1775. The letter, in French (I do not know who translated it for Cook), is quoted by E. T. Hamy, in his article "James Cook et Latouche-Tréville …", Bulletin de geographie historique et descriptive, 19 (1904) 207-8. Original of the passage quoted in English is as follows: "Je soutiens que celui qui ne fait qu'executer des ordres ne fera jamais grandes figures dans les decouvertes."
"I whose ambition leads me … as far as I think it possible for man to go"—our man, then, is human; he is implicated by a personal interest. Are we to take it that the words I have quoted show that he has a sense of proportion as well? Do we simply have to go down to lat. 71° 10' S. to get the resolution of our paradox? In this context again, that of the sense of proportion, we can take a phrase that Cook uses in certain circumstances both on his first and his second voyages: "I was unwilling," he says, "to spend time searching for what I was not sure to find." Is not this a regrettable lapse, an attitude hardly characteristic of the best explorers? It certainly raised the fury of one of Cook's critics, the geographer Alexander Dalrymple. My answer is "No," it was a very sensible attitude, an imperative attitude for a man in Cook's position: he had his objectives sorted out; he was always ready to reconsider the minor ones; but any change must be made after due thought, on a balance of goods; and into the balance went not merely desirable footnotes to knowledge but other considerations, winds and weather and time, and the margin left for non-calculable elements.
From all the foregoing, I think, emerge two very strongly marked characteristics of Cook's mind: its scepticism and its elasticity. In his trade of explorer—you see this again and again in his actions and in his draft journals—he had the utmost difficulty in taking anything on trust. That frequently meant extra work for his men. Also he liked to have essential resources in reserve, in case the extra effort was needed. But with his own mind ready for anything, he sometimes preferred to wait on the possibilities, rather than do too much talking. His men were therefore sometimes taken by surprise. I have mentioned the work of supererogation. Here is a passage from the reminiscences of one of his midshipmen: it refers to a time on the second voyage when, on board the Resolution, a number of people were beginning to feel they had had enough. The ship had left the base in New Zealand.
"At this time we all experienced a very severe mortification, for when we were steering East, we had all taken it into our heads that we were going straight for Cape Horn, on our roud [sic] home, for we began to find that our stock of Tea, Sugar &c began to go fast, and many hints were thrown out to Captn Cook, to this effect; but he only smiled and said nothing, for he was close and secret in his intentions at all times, that not even his first Leiutenant knew, when we left a place, where we should go to next. In this respect, as well as many others, he was the fit [test] Man in the world for such a Voyage: In this instance all our hopes were blasted in a Minuite, for from steering East, at Noon, Captn Cook ordered the Ship to steer due South, to our utter astonishment, and had the effect for a Moment, of causing a buz in the Ship but which soon subsided."2
Under Cook there was nothing for a "buz" to do but subside.
1 The passage is famous: I take the exact form of words from their first version in B.M. Add.MS 27, 886.
2 "Memoirs of the early life of John Elliott," B.M.Add.MS 42,714, f.24.
To leave such analysis, let us consider something for which Cook is widely known: I mean the preservation of his seamen's health. We have here again an illustration of his capacity for detailed administration, added to broad planning, and to his forethought over a base. It is one broad aspect of something larger, his humanity. Cook was not a sentimentalist; he does not break down into individual acts of tenderness; so far as I can remember, there is only one expression of what we may call love in all his journals, when his surgeon in the Resolution on the third voyage, Anderson, dies of tuberculosis. But the humanity that is kindness, understanding, tolerance, wisdom in the treatment of men, a quality practised naturally as well as planned for, is what gave Cook's voyages their success, as much as the soundness of his seamanship and the brilliance of his navigation. It went with some sternness (we must overrule Mrs. Cook here), some flogging, a disposition to experiment, and a good deal of the psychological insight that comes from practical experience. It was founded also on the patience to which I have already referred. If there was any trace of inhumanity in him, it was exercised on himself. You would never guess from his journal that at Batavia, in the awful last weeks of 1770, he had gone down with the virulent malaria that then prevailed, and while his passengers, Banks and Solander, hired nurses and a house in the hills, and had Cook's servant, specially sent, to wait on them, Cook remained on board working. You would never guess, from his casual mention of indisposition, that on the second voyage, quite independently of eating poisoned fish, he was for some weeks desperately sick, and his life for days despaired of. Such personal trivia, he seems to have thought, were not at all the proper ingredients of a journal of discovery.
This question of humanity is quite a complicated one. We may go back first to the point that led us to it, the welfare of seamen. The great enemy of health at sea was, of course, scurvy. Cook was not by any means the first to worry about scurvy, or to see that there was something wrong with the seaman's diet. He was not the inventor of the dried soup, or the various other mixtures and essences with which the Admiralty was experimenting. He did not see any special advantage in cites fruits. His great contribution to the subject was his realization that what was needed was fresh food in general, and clean water, and, as a counter to depression, variety of food; and, as another contribution, cleanliness of person, clothes and quarters; and, as an aid to that, a dry and disinfected ship. His men were always emptying and refilling water-casks, gathering wild celery and coconuts; the first task at any populated island was always to trade for hogs and fowls and fruit, and not to give the men their heads with curios and women. Cook was always ringing the changes on the beer and wine and spirits allowed as drink by the Government; page 426 always brewing what was called "spruce beer," from the foliage of the spruce tree or any tree like it. And he would not stand too much conservatism from his crew; he flogged a man at Madeira, at the very outset of the first voyage, for refusing his ration of fresh beef. That was an exceptional sort of encouragement. He hit on a better method with sour krout, and the words with which he describes it are enlightening both about himself and his men:
"The Sour Krout the Men at first would not eate until I put in pratice a Method I never once knew to fail with seamen, and this was to have some of it dress'd every Day for the Cabbin Table, and permitted all the Officers without exception to make use of it and left it to the option of the Men either to take as much as they pleased or none atall; but this pratice was not continued above a week before I found it necessary to put every one on board to an Allowance, for such are the Tempers and disposissions 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 gainest 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."1
Patience again, you see. This is not the only meditative passage of the sort in Cook. Sailors' were queerly conservative people. Spruce beer was generally thought a pleasant drink; but there were some, says Lieutenant Clerke, who "dislik'd it vastly—prefer'd water to it—but I believe 'twas more caprice than any absolute distaste to it." 2 The beer was drunk and those conservative men, who had fled to water, in the end even went out looking spontaneously for green vegetables. That, for their captain, was a real triumph.
1 'The Journals of Captain James Cook' (ed. J. C. Beaglehole), I, p. 74.
2 But, after all, beer was beer, and the dissenters were in a minority. P.R.O. Adm 55/103, 5 April 1773.
3 'Journals,' I, p. 366.
4 Gilbert, P.R..O. Adm 55/107, 17 December 1772.
5 The midshipman Bowles Mitchel, P.R.O. 51/4555, 6 March 1773.
1 P.R.O. Adm 51/4553/205, 17 September 1772.
1 B.M. Add. MS 27,886, 15 May 1774.
2 Elliott, Add. MS 42,714, f.35.
I should like to end in a rather different strain. There are many revealing passages I should like to quote from Cook's own logs and journals, but quotation takes time, and I shall content myself with the words of two old men, both of whom had known Cook in their youth. The first was John Elliott, who had sailed in the Resolution in 1772 at the age of fourteen. He made a chart showing the ship's track, which he was rather proud of. Alas! like all other records it was impounded at the end of the voyage. But Cook asked Elliott, now a mature youth of seventeen, to breakfast, and promised him he should have the precious document back. Says Elliott in his memoirs, "I attended to his invitation, and did recieve my Chart &c with my Name Elliotts Chart and Ships Track, written on it, in his own hand, and which writing I venerate to this day, and can never look at Without feeling the deepest regret at the melancholy loss of so great a Man." 1 The second was not an Englishman, or a seafarer, or a hydrographer, or a theoretician about continents. In November 1769 the Endeavour visited a pleasant spot on the east coast of New Zealand called Mercury Bay. There were a number of Maori children there, including a small boy, one Te Horeta. In the next century Te Horeta, an ancient hooknosed warrior with much blood on his hands, was fond of reminiscing about that November.2 The small boys thought the English sailors must be goblins, although they were amiable goblins. "There was one supreme man in that ship. We knew that he was the lord of the whole by his perfect gentlemanly and noble demeanour. He seldom spoke, but some of the goblins spoke much. But this man did not utter many words," said Te Horeta; he liked to feel the Maori cloaks, and handle their weapons. He took the small boys out to the ship, and gave them biscuit, and he gave Te Horeta a nail, which Te Horeta was very fond of, and mourned over greatly when it was lost. "He was a very good man, and came to us—the children—and patted our cheeks, and gently touched our heads." And Te Horeta would repeat the old Maori proverb: "A rangatira—a nobleman—cannot be lost in a crowd."
1 Elliott, Add. MS 42,714, ff.48-48v.
2 Te Horeta's story is given most fully in John White, 'Ancient History of the Maori,' V, pp. 121-8.