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Sunday, 17 May 2015


Here's a review I wrote about one of my favourite books published in the past couple of years. The review was published in Tribune magazine in 2011.

By Frank McLynn
Yale University Press
Product Details

From the outset, Frank McLynn states very clearly that Captain James Cook was the finest maritime explorer in the history of the world, not one of the finest but the finest without a doubt.  He had no apparent fear of the sea and was confident he could deal with the very worst the oceans could muster. His journey from very poor beginnings to being lauded as master of the seas is fascinating.  Cook was born in 1728 in Marton-in-Cleveland, North Yorkshire, to his labouring father James and mother Grace.  He was one of six siblings and survived them all.  McLynn speculates his way through young Cook’s childhood and education in Great Ayton, making assumptions about his demeanour and personality, and trying to fish around for tentative links to his eventual nautical career.  But he is probably right about Cook’s work ethic as a growing boy because he had little choice but to graft and earn money to contribute to the family coffers.  He was a shop assistant before becoming an apprentice merchant seaman, based in Whitby.  He stayed in the merchant navy for nine years and through his employer and acquaintances, absorbed Quaker influences that may well have shaped “his modesty, plainness, taciturnity, hatred of idleness and gossip, disbelief in a transcendent god, and general humourlessness.” His presence in coastal Whitby whetted his appetite for the sea and his apprenticeship gave him the opportunity to learn everything about ships including the functions of the sails and how to handle vessels in rough weather conditions.  The sea was his passport to better things, the only escape route for this ambitious young man born into poverty. 

After cutting his teeth on the Newcastle to London coal runs and various other merchant excursions, Cook decided to join the Royal Navy, convinced that it would satisfy his ambitious desire for adventure, power, status and money.  He was identified as a talented individual and steadily rose through the ranks, gaining more and more experience of ship-handling and crew management.  It is safe to say that he was not afraid to get his hands dirty.  He had an appetite for learning and absorbed surveying experience during the Seven Years War between Britain and France in North America, charting expertise along the Newfoundland coast and mathematical and astronomical knowledge as he studied to be the best seafaring leader he could be.  The book crochets along knitting facts, assumptions and guess work, sometimes drowning the story in avalanches of detail that do not necessarily tell us anything specific about Cook’s personal relationships, psychology, behaviour and emotions.  Frank McLynn shifts from conventional biography to historical perspective to sailor’s handbook with some skill while the reader moves from interesting and exhilarating episodes to more mundane, plodding passages describing technical matters to the nth degree.  But it is the extent of his travels that makes Cook such an admirable and interesting historical adventurer. 

His first major voyage of discovery, from 1768 to 1771, took him to Tahiti and presented the opportunity to chart New Zealand on the world map for the first time before sailing on to Australia, New Guinea and Java.  The second major voyage was for exploration of the South Seas and Antarctica from 1772 to 1775.  By this time, Cook had become the first man to circumnavigate the world in both directions. His third and last major voyage had the objectives of exploring more of the Pacific region.  He visited New Zealand, Tonga, Tahiti and Christmas Island, before discovering what are now the Hawaiian Islands.  After exploring British Columbia and Alaska, Cook headed back to Hawaii where he was to die in a brutal skirmish along with members of his crew and opposing local warriors.  The fatal incident involved efforts to retrieve a stolen boat from Kealakekua Beach.  Cook, a non-swimmer, surprisingly for an accomplished seaman, was stranded (some say abandoned) on shore and was clubbed and stabbed to death, before being incinerated along with the other bodies.  Conflict and antagonism with the Hawaiians and his own men had contributed to the captain’s demise.  He was 51 years old.  The chapter “Tragedy on Kealakekekua Beach” is an example of how McLynn can write exciting, compelling narrative. 

Away from the sea, Cook’s personal life was not easy.  With his wife Elizabeth, they had six children, five sons and a daughter.  Cook was outlived by one son and by his wife who was 94 years old when she died.  Her home-based story would be an interesting complement to her husband’s seafaring career.  She would stay behind as housewife and mother, managing the home and bearing the emotional brunt of the tragic deaths of their children, while he could sail away and distance himself from domestic chores and traumas.

Captain Cook, amongst historians and descendants of the inhabitants of places he visited, divides opinion about his legacy.  McLynn discusses his reputation as supreme master of the seas but also, according to some of his critics, as an alleged  “evil white man”, racist, imperialist, man of violence, spreader of venereal disease and cynical killer.  His naval achievements are also called into question because much is made of his own involvement but little is written about the enormous amount of help and support he had from the Admiralty, the Royal Society, scientists, botanists, various other patrons and, of course, his officers and crews.  To some he is a monumental and model hero.  To others he is the villainous personification of British and capitalist arrogance.  On a recent trip to Whitby, I discovered that Captain Cook is also a tourist attraction with all that is good and noble about him on display for visitors from far and wide.  There is a grand statue of him looking out to sea.  On the day of my visit, I spotted a seagull on top of his head and liberal amounts of droppings on his face and shoulders, an illustration, perhaps, of this historical giant rightly standing tall and proud, yet attracting some derision from those who may acknowledge that he was indeed the finest maritime explorer ever, but that he had many personal and character flaws that deny him a perfect appraisal.  Frank McLynn has written a hefty book, one that requires patience to read and time to reflect.  It is a great biography of a fascinating and important life.

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