Monday, February 3, 2014

Story of a Captain Called Cook

In the year 2014 we take geography for granted. For the right amount of money, Mt. Everest can be attempted, kayaking around the collapsing icebergs of Anartctica is a possibility, and any place in the world, no matter how remote, is a few hundred miles away from the nearest airport. Hard to appreciate then the courage of explorers who risked their lives to map out the unknown reaches of our planet. When you left port on a ship, farewelling land, you were truly saying goodbye to life as you knew it, conveniences, friends, your loved ones, for perhaps years on end. The world was put together in piecemeal-- kingdoms hoarding resources and knowledge of shoals and beneficial winds often published false maps to deter foreign explorers from safely accessing these “discovered” lands. Thus proper understanding of the earth's dimensions was a slipshod process that took centuries. For context, it wasn't another 250 years after Magellan's crew first circumnavigated the globe that Australia's existence was confirmed.

A by-his-bootstraps lad from rural Yorkshire didn't discover the Australian continent (that was a Dutchman named Abel Tasman), but he was the first one to visit and map its eastern coast, one of many achievements in a legendary career. Before reading Richard Hough's biography Captain James Cook, I long imagined the famed explorer as an intrepid British pirate in the vein of Sir Walter Raleigh. But his life story is one of sobriety, competence, steadfastness, loyalty, ingenuity, leadership and, most especially, level-headedness.

Born into a family of impoverished laborers, Cook did not even see the ocean until he was seventeen years old (a bit of a late bloomer). By sheer hard work, good sense, and careful ambition, Cook rose from a sailor on local shipping lanes to working with the Royal Navy surveying the St. Lawrence River, distinguishing himself as a cartographer in the Seven Years War. He knew the right contacts in the government and they trusted him enough on a major voyage to the southern seas.

Cook sailed more nautical miles than any man in history-- visiting nearly every far-off fairy tale tropical port you've ever heard of and many you haen't, spending considerable time in Tahiti, New Zealand, as well as being the first explorer in the Antarctic Sea. His greatest contribution to cartography was proving conclusively what did not exist, that is a great southern landmass (beyond Australia in tropical or sub-tropical latitudes) and a Northwest Passage between the Bering Sea and the Atlantic Ocean (which entailed much fruitless sailing in bad weather in very cold climates).

These were long trips where it was unlikely to replenish food and water resources. The greatest threat to sailors in the explorations prior to Cook was scurvy, a lack of Vitamin C caused by a restricted diet. Cook was the first explorer to discover corollaries between nutritional habits and good health. As much as his surveying added to human knowledge, it was his advocation of sensible dieting for sailors that was just as strong as a legacy to the annals of exploration (but it wasn't easy getting sailors to put down their daily dose of saurkraut).

Unlike so many explorers who had an us-and-them attitude to indigenous tribes, Cook did not refer to the native peoples he encountered as savages but as human beings. From the Inuits in Alaska to the Polynesians of Tahiti to the naked Fuegians in the Magellan Strait, Cook showed restraint, when so many in his line of work slaughtered, captured, and indentured natives under some ludicrous proselytizing aegis.

In spite of all his years at sea, beyond a few minor islands in the remote Pacific, his only famous discovery was the Hawaiian Islands, which is where Cook met his end. This was his third voyage and he was evidently exhausted and possibly ailing with some stomach virus that affected his judgment, as well as his temper. Like the Aztec mythology predicting the arrival of a white-skinned god, so did a legend in Hawaii's Kealakekua Bay predict a deity coming in a great ship to the shores of the local tribe. Cook's visit was propitious at first, but evolved into chaos, leading to violent skirmishes between Cook's men and the islanders. Cook himself was torn to pieces and it was only through careful negotiations with the local priests were they able to recover most of his bodily remnants.

The last moments of Captain Cook

The catastrophe and Cook's demise in Hawaii is gripping narrative, especially as I was coming into the story for the first time knowing little of Cook's heroics. The writing comes to life, whereas in most of the biography, Hough's prose is as sober as his subject. (Cook mostly abstained from excess, and while his men took native paramours, Cook took on a moralizing posture to these dalliances-- sailors going AWOL to lead a Gaughinian existence in Tropical Paradise were flogged ten times for their improprieties.) Nevertheless one likes and cares about Cook and sees the tragedy in his premature passing in ways the vicarious explorer could never sympathize with Columbus and Magellan, who are more famous, when they should be just infamous. But this is hardly an exception; the prism through which popular history reflects deeds done doesn't have a sensible filtering system. 

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