Captain James Cook FRS, RN (27/10/1728 - 14/2/1779) undertook three voyages of discovery into the Pacific Ocean during the second half of the 18th century. He was the first person to circumnavigate the world twice - first from east to west and then from west to east, and he also explored both the Arctic and Antarctic Circles. Two of Cook's voyages were in search of the great southern land - Terra Australis Incognita - and led him to map much of the east coast of Australia as well as to circumnavigate New Zealand and establish that it had two main islands. Cook also discovered the Hawaiian Islands.
`He was, without doubt, the world's greatest maritime explorer.'
A fortuitous introduction to Whitby-based shipowners John and Henry Walker led to the teenaged James Cook being apprenticed as a mariner in the British merchant navy. In 1755, he joined the Royal Navy. James Cook served in the Seven Years' War, and then surveyed and mapped much of the entrance to the Saint Lawrence River during the siege of Quebec. Partly as a consequence of this, Cook was noticed by both the Admiralty and the Royal Society and this led to his commission in 1766 as commander of His Majesty's Bark Endeavour for the first of his three Pacific voyages.
`Farewell old England.'
James Cook combined seafaring skills with superior skills as a navigator and surveyor, and an ability to lead men in challenging circumstances. The measures he took to prevent scurvy on voyages he led demonstrated that he cared for the welfare of his sailors.
James Cook married Elizabeth Batts on 21 December 1762. She died in 1835 (aged 93) having outlived James Cook by 56 years, and all of their six children. In just over 16 years of marriage, the Cooks spent fewer than 5 years together. Tragic. Note: in this book, Elizabeth Cook's year of death is given as 1830. I've read elsewhere that she lived until 1835.
A number of books have been written about Captain James Cook. What makes this one different is that as an accomplished sailor himself, Rob Mundle explains the intricacies of sailing and brings the challenges of Cook's journeys to life. Fortunately, for those of us who are less familiar with sailing, the book contains a glossary of sailing terms. Was James Cook, as stated by Rob Mundle, the world's greatest maritime explorer? I'd like to think so - especially of the 18th century (having hero-worshipped him for some 50 years), but Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus stand pretty tall as well.
After Cook's death, amongst many tributes written, these words were written by David Samwell (surgeon of the Discovery): `... in every situation he stood unrivalled and alone; on him all eyes were turned: he was our leading star, which at its setting left us involved in darkness and despair'.
If you are interested in stories of courage and exploration, especially of the 18th century, then you may well enjoy this book. I certainly did.
Rob Mundle – a sailor and a writer from Australia – is the author of several books about ships and sailors. His biography of Captain James Cook “From Sailor to Legend” was published in 2013 (hardcover) and 2014 (paperback). The hardcover version was re-issued in 2014; the paperback version was re-issued in June 2016.
The book begins with a prologue and ends with an epilogue. The main text in between is divided into 21 chapters, which follow a chronological line from 1728 when Cook was born in England until 1779 when he was killed in a violent conflict with some natives of Hawaii.
At the end of the book we find the following items:
** A glossary – a list of technical terms related to the world of ships and sailors ** Sources – not a bibliography, but a brief essay about the sources used by the author ** Acknowledgements ** Index
What about illustrations? Two maps are placed at the beginning of the book. The first, which covers two pages, shows the three voyages of Captain Cook:
** The first voyage: 1768-1771 ** The second voyage: 1772-1775 ** The third voyage: 1776-1780
The second map, which covers one page, shows the Coral Sea: “Escape from the Great Barrier Reef.”
Both maps are in black-and-white. While the second map is useful, because it covers a limited area – the eastern coast of Australia – the first map is useless, because it covers the whole world over two pages. Since all three voyages are shown on the same map and since Cook often followed the same path, the publisher should have used colours to distinguish the three voyages from each other.
The area around New Zealand, which Cook visited several times, is placed in the fold between the two pages, which makes it even more difficult to use the map. Instead of one map for the whole world and for all three voyages, it would have been better and more reader-friendly to select a number of key locations and offer detailed maps of these locations, one by one.
Thirty-five illustrations are printed on glossy paper and placed in a block in the middle of the book. Some of them are in colour; others are in black-and-white, because the original is a drawing in black-and-white. Having all illustrations placed in one block in the middle of the book is a method that is often used by publishers, but it is not very reader-friendly, because the illustration is not connected with the relevant text. In order to help the reader, the captions can offer cross-references to the relevant text, but in this case there are no cross-references. What a shame!
I do not know who is responsible for the maps and the other illustrations - the author or the publisher - but Mundle’s name is on the cover of the book and therefore I have to blame him for this flaw.
PART ONE This book offers a detailed and solid account of James Cook’s life and career. We learn about Cook as a navigator, a cartographer, and as an explorer. On page 435, the last page of the epilogue, Mundle says: “He was, without a doubt, the world’s greatest maritime explorer.”
I have to disagree with this statement. Cook was, without a doubt, a great navigator and a great cartographer, but he was not a great explorer. The evidence can be found in Mundle’s own book, in particular chapter 20 which has the headline “Islands, Ice and the Captain’s Ire.”
During the early part of his career, Cook tended to be diplomatic and flexible whenever there was a conflict. During the last part of his career, Cook became more and more of an autocrat, who used violence whenever there was a conflict. In the early part of his career, his men followed him because they respected him. In the last part of his career, they followed him because they feared him.
On page 402, Mundle tells us how Cook lost his temper and ordered outrageous punishments. On page 404, he says there could be a medical explanation for Cook’s odd behaviour:
“In more recent times, Sir James Watt, medical director-general of the Royal Navy during the 1970s, stated that the symptoms shown by Cook – including fatigue, failing health, loss of interest, and depression – indicated that he was suffering from a parasitic infection of the lower intestine.”
With the benefit of hindsight we can see that the negative side of Cook’s personality that came to dominate during his third voyage was the cause of his own death in 1779. Given the facts, which are mentioned by Mundle, it is surprising that he can describe Cook as “the world’s greatest maritime explorer.”
This is not the only flaw. There are other flaws as well. Some are factual errors, not so serious, while others show poor judgement and inability to use his own information, which is much more serious.
# 1. On page 140, Mundle writes: “Endeavour was north and well to the east of the western entrance to the Straits of Magellan.” If you look at a map of this part of the world, the southern tip of the American continent, it is clear that there is something wrong here: Mundle has confused east and west. Endeavour was north and well to the west of the western entrance to the Straits of Magellan.
# 2. On page 435, Mundle claims that Cook’s widow, Elizabeth Cook, died in 1830 when she was 93 years old. Something is wrong here. On page 73 he tells us that Elizabeth married James Cook in 1762 when she was 20 years old. If she was 20 in 1762, she was born in 1742. If she was born in 1742 and if she lived to be 93, she died in 1835, not 1830.
How can Mundle make such a silly mistake on the very last page of his account? Perhaps he was getting tired and sloppy? According to some sources Elizabeth was born in 1741 and lived to be 94. But whether she was born in 1741 or 1742, whether she lived to be 93 or 94, it is a fact that she died in 1835, and not in 1830, as Mundle claims.
# 3. On page 327, Mundle says the temperature reached “95 degrees Fahrenheit.” Why does he give the temperature in Fahrenheit? Most countries in the world, including Australia, use the Celsius scale, because it makes more sense than the Fahrenheit scale. 95 degrees Fahrenheit corresponds to 35 degrees Celsius. Temperatures should be given in Celsius.
Today the US is almost the only country in the world that uses the Fahrenheit scale. But Mundle is not from the US and his book is published by an Australian publisher (ABC). Why does he give the temperature in Fahrenheit? Why did his book-editor not save Mundle from making this mistake?
PART TWO # 4. While Cook was sailing the world, he would often go ashore and claim a piece of land for the King of England. One example is mentioned on pp. 259-260 where we hear about Possession Island. Cook is a man of his time. He is an imperialist. He thinks it is OK to plant the British flag on a beach and declare this territory a part of the British Empire, even though the territory is inhabited. He never asks the native people if they want to join the British Empire. In fact, Cook is more of an imperialist than the British government who paid for his voyages.
On page 155 Mundle quotes from the instructions that were given to Cook by the Admiralty. They say: “with the Consent of the Natives [you are ordered to] take possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain: Or: if you find the Country uninhabited, take Possession for his Majesty by setting up Proper Marks and Inscriptions, as first discoverers and possessors.”
Cook did not find any lands that were uninhabited. Wherever he landed, there were already people living there. But he never asked for their consent, even though this was expressly stated in his instructions. Mundle never mentions this fact. How can he fail to observe that Cook violated the instructions that were given to him by the Admiralty?
# 5. As captain, Cook was responsible for the ship and the crew. He decided where to go and what to do. If there was a problem, he decided how to deal with it. In most cases, Cook was a responsible captain who gave the ship and the crew top priority. But as we can see in this account, there were at least two occasions where Cook was irresponsible, where he deliberately put the ship and the crew in grave danger for no good reason.
(A) The first occasion concerns the eastern coast of Australia. He finds himself inside the Great Barrier Reef. As we can see from the map of the Coral Sea, he managed to escape through Cook’s Passage. After that he sailed north in deep water, east of the reef. He was safe. But after a while he turned west and entered the reef again, this time through the Providential Channel. Once inside, he managed to zig-zag through the area and finally escape again.
The terror of the reef is described in the prologue and in chapter 13 “The Width of One Wave.” The first time Cook found himself inside the reef, it was not his fault. He had never been there before. He could not know how dangerous this part of the sea is. But once he knew it, he should have done everything in his power to avoid it in order to keep the ship and the crew safe.
However, this is not what happened. Once he was free, he decided to go back in one more time. Knowing the danger of the reef, he ordered the ship to enter this area. This was highly irresponsible. Only a miracle saved Cook and his ship.
Why did Cook enter the reef again? According to his journal he was afraid that someone would later accuse him of being timid (page 256). There was one more reason: if he was sailing east of the reef he could not map the coast, so he entered again in order to map the coast. In other words: he put the ship and the crew at risk just to make a map and just to prove that he was bold. However, putting the entire expedition at risk was not bold, it was reckless.
(B) The second occasion concerns his attempt to reach Antarctica and the South Pole. He tried, but was forced to give up. Later he tried again, but the same thing happened: he was forced to give up. We might think that he had learned his lesson by now, but this was not the case. He tried a third time, still he did not succeed. The first time he could not know how dangerous this part of the world is. He is excused. But the second and third time he is not.
Mundle tells us the story about the Great Barrier Reef and about Antarctica in great detail. What I cannot understand is how he can fail to point out that Cook was totally irresponsible on both occasions. It seems that Cook is Mundle’s hero, and no matter what Cook does, Mundle cannot bring himself to use the word “irresponsible” or “reckless” about him.
If Cook had been a great explorer, he would have realised the danger the first time around: he would not have entered the reef a second time and he would not have sailed towards Antarctica a second and a third time. If Cook had been a great explorer, he would have shown more respect towards the native peoples that he met during his voyages in the Pacific world: Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, etc.
Cook was not invited to these places; he invited himself. Once he had arrived, he treated every place as if it was his own. There were conflicts with the natives and sometimes they would become violent when Cook ordered his crew to use military force against them: rifles and/or cannons. At first they would fire above their heads as a warning. If this did not help, they would fire directly at them. Mundle reports these facts in great detail, without offering any moral judgement. To Mundle, Cook is a hero. But the native peoples of the Pacific world would probably see him as a villain.
CONCLUSION Rob Mundle has written a detailed and solid biography of Captain James Cook, but as you can see, there are some flaws, and some of them are quite serious. I like this book and I want to give it a good rating, but I have to remove one star because of these flaws. Therefore I think it deserves a rating of four stars.
PS # 1. Previous biographies of Cook:
** The Life of Captain James Cook by John Cawte Beaglehole (1974, 1992) (the author lived 1901-1971; the book was published posthumously by his son Tim)
PS # 3. On pp. 90-91, Mundle mentions the problem of finding longitude while at sea. On page 292, he mentions the famous watchmaker John Harrison and his chronometer H4, which made it possible to calculate longitude with a high degree of precision. For details about this topic, see the film Longitude (2007) and the book Finding Longitude (2014).