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May 17, 2006

Captain Cook Reconsidered: Captain Cook: Explorations and Reassessments - (Ed.) Glyndwr Williams

Posted by Jeremy Black

Captain Cook: Explorations and Reassessments
edited by Glyndwr Williams
Pp. xiii+266. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2004
Hardback, 45

A first-rate collection, based on a conference held at the University of Teesside in 2002, that serves as a reminder of how Cook intersects with many topics in eighteenth-century history, not least relations between the West and the non-West. The essays are grouped in four sections. "The Years in England" includes Rosalin Barker on "Cook's nursery: Whitby's eighteenth-century merchant fleet". This is a good introduction to the world in which Cook learned his skills and developed his character.

Richard Allen takes this further to assess Cook's apprenticeship with Quaker shipowners, while Andrew Cook adds the very different world of the Royal Society. This is a masterpiece of scepticism (p. 55):

The Society strained (and still strains) to connect with Cook posthumously in all his works. In truth, Cook came to the Royal Society's employ as a Royal Navy master through an opportunity created by a minor incompetence of the Society's officers in progressing an application from astronomer Fellows to have a series of observations made, and at the end of that employ they paid him and bade him farewell.
Part Two, on the Pacific voyages, focuses on contact experiences. Anne Salmon looks at the impact of Polynesia on Cook, and Paul King on native Hawaiian attitudes towards Cook, but warns that the thinking of Western and Native scholars today are so far removed from each other that it is difficult for them to interact profitably. The ability of Hawaiians to connect human life with divinity seems particularly troubling to Westerners.

Daniel Clayton approaches the problem of the appreciation of Cook's command of knowledge and space, and links this to native land claims. Clayton argues that texts of exploration are bound up with cultural relations of power, and that Cook has to be decentred in order to hear Native voices.

In the third part, on Cook and his contemporaries, John Robson considers the charts of Bougainville, a gentleman amateur, and Cook, a professional. Robin Inglis considers French and Spanish exploration, finding common Enlightenment impulses, and Simon Werrett adds the Russians. Probing the rise and fall of Cook's reputation in Russia, Werrett argues that the high point of Russia's Romantic fascination with Cook and exploration came early in the reign of Alexander I, and that the arrival of new knowledge of diverse ethnic groups and their material culture helped contribute to the discussion on the place of Russia in the world and the character of the Russian nation.

Part Four, on Cook's legacy, offers Sujit Sivasundaram on the interpretation of the deaths of Cook and of the Reverend John Williams, Glyndwr Williams considers reassessments of Cook, including the status of "the beach" in Pacific studies, and Andrew Lambert offers an account of retracing part of Cook's voyage. A thoroughly interesting volume.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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