Home » Reviews

Able seaman’s burning desire

25 July 2011 5,173 views No Comment

The master mariner was consumed by passion for the sea, his career and far-off lands.

James Cook was a talented, ambitious and sometimes ruthless master of the seas. He dedicated himself to his career in the same way the saints of old dedicated themselves to the propagation of the faith. Indeed, as author Frank McLynn puts it, Cook seems “to have sublimated [his] libido in the lust for glory”.

The then Lieutenant Cook of the Royal Navy returned, at the end of the voyage of the Endeavour, with what the scholarly Felipe Fernandez-Armesto has called “an explorer’s vocation as intense as any the Pacific had seen since the days of Quiros”. Fernandez-Armesto wrote that “Life to [Cook] was action and repose and relaxation a kind of death.”

As McLynn demonstrates in this elegant and intriguing biography, Cook’s achievements cannot be belittled, even by his academic detractors, who seem to increase as the years go by. For example, on his voyages, Cook, who was a brilliant seaman and surveyor, “added Hawaii, New Caledonia and the New Hebrides to the map” and to the corpus of our knowledge; explored the outer limits of Antarctica; and, in the process of circumnavigating New Zealand, “published a map of the two islands which is staggering in its accuracy”. Finally, but perhaps more contentiously, by charting the east coast of Australia, Cook “established himself in popular lore as the discoverer of that continent”.

All in all, by the time of his violent death in Hawaii on February 14, 1779, Cook had sailed more than 328,000 kilometres – the rough equivalent of “circling the equator eight times or travelling to the moon”. Of Cook’s “consummate seamanship” and his “peerless qualities as a master and commander”, there can be little doubt.

But, to this reviewer at least, McLynn is unnecessarily harsh in his treatment of Cook’s pupil, lieutenant William Bligh, who was master on the Resolution for Cook’s third voyage. This applies primarily to the contentious claims Bligh “so disastrously precipitated the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789” and that his provocation led to his overthrow as governor of NSW in the so-called “Rum Rebellion” of 1808.

Yet, while blaming Bligh, McLynn also states that Cook “can claim credit for having turned out a master seaman, whose 5800-kilometre open-boat voyage from mid-Pacific to Timor” between April and June in 1789 remains one of “the great sagas of survival”.

Despite Bligh’s bad language and harsh reputation, the fact is that Captain Cook was a much more draconian flogger of his men than Bligh – a fact McLynn concedes.

Also in this important book, McLynn does not even mention the possibility of the Portuguese having mapped the east coast of Australia many years before Cook.

McLynn certainly provides some interesting and revealing facts, not least of all about the entrepot port of Batavia (Jakarta). Although by 1771 the city’s “glory days were behind it”, Batavia was “cosmopolitan in every sense”.

As well as the Dutch, the Portuguese had an important foothold there. In fact, Portuguese, rather than Dutch or Malay, was the lingua franca of Batavia, while as many as 20,000 of the population of 120,000 were Chinese.

Bearing in mind McLynn’s intriguing theme of Cook’s sublimated sexuality, it seems revealing that so little is known about Cook’s wife, Elizabeth, or about their married life.

Thirteen years younger than the great seaman, she survived him by 56 years, passing away in 1835 aged 93. All her six children predeceased her, although Elizabeth lived in comfort, in large part due to Cook’s property and income, plus a gratuity and a “generous pension from the Admiralty”.

In this fine biography of Elizabeth’s master mariner husband, McLynn intriguingly confides that the fact she is a “historical blank space” has made Cook’s wife “an irresistible target for speculation by historical novelists”.

Frank McLynn, CAPTAIN COOK, Yale University Press, 490pp, $45
Review by Ross Fitzgerald, Sydney Morning Herald, July 23-24, 2011, Spectrum p 36.