Monday, 13 August 2018

Captain James Cook, an Exhibition at the British Library - Trip to London 3

As a half-Australian, (no, before you ask, I don’t know which half, very droll),  I was excited to go to the exhibition at the British Library about James Cook and his three voyages of discovery*. While other more prominent Australians hold a different view of Cook, I admire him enormously. I have seen the little statue to him in his native village in Yorkshire, I never fail to pay my respects to his statue near Admiralty Arch in London, I was sad when the statue of him in Sydney was graffitied and generally speaking I believe he was an outstanding product of his culture, which is also mine.

Given the culturally self-flagellating times we live in, it is unsurprising that the British Library gives a lot of prominence to the Flanagan kind of perspective cited above. Viewed through this prism, Cook’s achievements must be set against his careless colonialism, blundering into territories occupied by First Peoples whose lives were consequently never the same again. Whether, had he not come, the various First Peoples in question would have been left completely alone to continue their existences untroubled by the outside world is debatable, as is the question of whether that would have been a good thing for them. Whether the First Peoples, if they had to have people coming in from outside, might have had discoverers who ensured they had a better or worse fate subsequently is also impossible to know.

This post does not cover anywhere near all of the items included in the British Library’s exhibition, mounted to mark 250 years since James Cook's first voyage of exploration sailed out from Plymouth, nor many of the issues its curators raised. It simply contains pictures of the exhibits that I found most interesting or attractive - although the thing I found most astounding of all could not be photographed. It was a globe you could swivel, which had marked on it the route of Cook's first round-the-world journey. To think of someone two hundred and fifty years ago venturing into the empty unknown like that is breathtaking - you really do understand, looking at that dotted line snaking round a small effigy of our planet, that what Cook did was, in his time, the equivalent of interplanetary travel today. As the exhibition catalogue says:

"In 1768 the coasts and islands of the Pacific, although inhabited for thousands of years, were largely unknown to Europeans. Cook made three voyages and when the third returned to Britain in 1780 most of the blank spaces on European maps had been filled in."

That is really an astonishing achievement for one sea captain.

For those who know nothing about the man, James Cook was born in 1728 in Marton in Yorkshire, the son of a farm labourer. He learnt his skills as a navigator on ships transporting coal from Newcastle to London. In 1755, he signed on as an able seaman in the Royal Navy and served in the Seven Years War, (a conflict I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard of before reading this resume of Cook's life from the British Library). He became skilled at surveying and charting coastlines and in 1759 he helped to chart the St Lawrence River ahead of a pivotal British attack on Quebec.

Here is the man himself, painted in 1776 by John Webber, the official artist on Cook's third voyage around the world:

This is one of Cook's charts of the St Lawrence, mentioned above. I found it fascinating, not because it makes any sense at all to me - I am geographically dyslexic and utterly unable to read maps of any kind - but simply because it was drawn by James Cook himself. He touched it!

In the exhibition are several wonderful drawings by Alexander Buchan, who was the official artist accompanying Cook on his first round-the-world journey, which lasted from 1768-71. This picture depicts a family group around the fire in their hut. The picture was made in 1769 in Tierra del Fuego. Cook wrote in his journal of the Tierra del Fuegan people that they encountered:

"Their huts or wigwams are built something like a beehive and open on one side where they have their fire, they are made of small sticks and cover'd with branches, long grass etc in such a manner that they are neither proof against wind, hail, rain or snow":
Alexander Buchan died of an epileptic fit and was buried at Matavai Bay on 17 April, 1769. My memory is that he was extremely young, although I have neglected to write down how young. His drawings in the exhibition are well worth seeing, for the skill they display and their charm.

This enchanting picture is of an unnamed Maori and Joseph Banks. It is the work of Tupaia, an intriguing historical figure - a Tahitian, who joined the Endeavour at the request of Joseph Banks (the extract from Joseph Banks's diary that is included on the Wikipedia page devoted to Tupaia makes rather uncomfortable reading). This is Tupaia's only known drawing of anything in New Zealand. Tupaia played a crucial role in establishing good relations between Cook's party and Maori in the first weeks in New Zealand. He was able to act as intermediary because the Maori language is a relative of Tahitian.

Sydney Parkinson took over the role of artist for the rest of the voyage during which Alexander Buchan died. There are several lovely pieces of work by him in the exhibition. The one I especially liked was this, made in 1769, showing three Maori painted paddles:

One of the main reasons I was keen to go to the exhibition was in the hope of seeing some work by George Forster, the lead character in AN Wilson's Resolution. I was not disappointed. George Forster was only 17 when he set off with Captain Cook, plus his own father, Johann Forster. George had the role of natural history artist on the journey. These are birds he saw in the Antarctic:

I thought this specimen, carted back from somewhere in the South Seas, labelled meticulously, a 250 year old dead creature, must surely inspire someone to write a new take on Flaubert's Parrot:

So as you can see I was not tempted to get too involved with the geopolitical arguments winding their ways through this fascinating exhibition, happy instead to spend my time browsing the objects and trying, through looking at them, to get some sense of what it may have been like to participate in what was one of humanity's great adventures - the discovery of new worlds.

Whatever may be levelled at him, for me James Cook remains a breathtakingly brave and rather splendid explorer, a master of seamanship and great leader of his men.

Oh and, before I forget, the exhibition also includes the first known drawing of a kangaroo by a European, (I neglected to note down who, so you will have to visit the British Library yourself if you are really keen to find out):

* Voyage 1 1768-71: James Cook's first voyage followed instructions from the Admiralty and the Royal Society to observe the Transit of menus across the face of the sun at Tahiti in June 1769. Cook set sail on the Endeavour, a 33.3 m vessel. He carried secret orders to search for land in the South Pacific. If he found land he was "to cultivate a friendship and alliance" with its inhabitants, chart its coastline and assess its potential as a source of trying goods.
  Voyage 2 1772-75: The Admiralty's instructions for the second voyage were to sail south from the tip of Africa in search of the "Great Southern Continent". The voyage would disprove the existence of this continent. In the process, Cook would lead the first expedition to cross the Antarctic Circle
   Voyage 3 1776-80 Cook was instructed to explore the North Pacific and search for a sea passage from there to the Atlantic. During the voyage north, Cook was more active in recording the society and culture of the places he visited than he had been on earlier trips when Banks and Johann Forster had performed this task.


  1. If I have posted this before, please disregard:

    James Hynes has written at least three books in a genre that blends academic fiction with the occult. Two of the novellas in Publish and Perish involve in one way or another an academic conference concerning Captain Cook, and one of the characters from the second of them turns up briefly in Kings of Infinite Space. Depending on your taste in fiction and humor, you might enjoy Hynes's books.

    1. Thank you. I don’t think you have mentioned these books before. They sound intriguing. I might seek them out