Captain Cook: Master of the Seas

Glyn Williams feels that a lively biography of a great British explorer is let down by a number of factual errors

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Reviewed by: Glyn Williams
Author: Frank McLynn
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £25

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The last few years have seen a deluge of books on Captain Cook. The most obvious question to be asked of Frank McLynn’s biography, then, is what it offers that is new – but it is probably the wrong question.

As his extensive endnotes show, McLynn is well aware of recent scholarship, much of it on relations between Cook and the peoples of the Pacific, but his interest in the explorer is an older one, and is reflected in his sub-title.

Whereas many Cook biographers, rather like the naturalists on his voyages, spring to life only when he lands, McLynn is at his best describing conditions on board the explorer’s cramped wooden ships in which the monotony and health risks of long ocean crossings were broken by moments of danger.

From the crisis on the first voyage when the Endeavour smashed into the Great Barrier Reef, to the foggy day off Alaska on the third voyage when the Resolution and Discovery blundered into a deadly cul-de-sac of rocks, Cook faced and overcame all the sea could throw at him.

On land Cook was less sure as he grappled with the complexities of Polynesian societies, where he searched for reliable allies among the perplexing hierarchies of chiefs, priests and elders, was angered by the sexual excesses of his crews, and incensed by the islanders’ thieving.   

For McLynn, Cook the explorer towers above all others in terms of skill and dedication as he charted the Pacific from New Zealand to Alaska. His companions and rivals in the great venture do not fare very well, perhaps surprisingly so in the case of botanist Joseph Banks. For most scholars, Banks on the first voyage was an important influence on Cook but McLynn has him as a spoilt rich young man.

One senses McLynn has little time for today’s interpretation of Cook’s voyages as being collaborative undertakings. As for the crews, who endured much, he characterises them as “mainly savage, brutal, drunken and licentious”.

Even Cook is a flawed hero, constrained by his humble birth in a class-ridden society. Whatever the degree of his success and his public recognition it was never quite enough, and on the third voyage the near-certainty of failure in his quest for the North-West Passage drove “this chillingly ambitious man” to despair.

McLynn believes the key event on that voyage was Cook’s inexplicable delay, after a frustrating summer spent along the Alaskan coast, to land at Hawaii so that his crews could enjoy fresh food and rest. When Cook finally landed at Kealakekua Bay his temper was frayed and his judgement uncertain.

More serious thefts than on any of his voyages drove him over the edge, and after a final mistake in which he attempted with only a handful of marines to take the Hawaiian ‘king’ hostage he was killed. It is a simpler explanation of the death of Cook than that offered by many scholars (including myself), who engage in endless debates about the implications of Cook’s identification as the Hawaiian god Lono.

One would recommend this lively book more confidently were it not for a dismaying number of errors.

Bligh of the Bounty is described as a “legendary flogger”; we are told that Harrison’s chronometer was “standard issue” in the navy at the time of Cook’s first voyage; to say that Banks “correctly laid in a supply of citrus fruit to provide Vitamin C” gives the impression that he knew about vitamins and their anti-scorbutic properties 150 years before the rest of the scientific world; it was Banks, not Cook, whose “ill-advised” comments upset the inhabitants of St Helena; when Cook and Clerke reunited off Hawaii it was not Cook who looked “more gaunt and iller” but the terminally ill Clerke; and in the confrontation at Kealakekua Bay, Cook carried not a pistol but a musket with which he belaboured his assailants in the moments before his death.

These and other errors indicate that this biography of Cook might be a good read but is an unreliable guide. 

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Glyn Williams is the author of The Death of Captain Cook (Profile, 2008)