', wrote Sandwich to Banks, on 10 January 1780, 'what is uppermost in our mind allways must come out first, poor captain Cooke is no more …'.1
It was the day the letters from Unalaska and Petropavlovsk were opened. The London Gazette
made the news public next day. Letter-writers less closely implicated were quick to spread it. The Rev. William Cox, his account of the Russian discoveries between Asia and America then in the press, told his young friend George Herbert
, travelling in Italy: 'I am sure you will be much concerned at the loss of so good and able a man'; and Herbert returned, 'Poor Cooke is truly a great loss to the Universe.'2
The press took note of the deep feelings of the Empress of Russia, and was not behindhand with evidence of British feeling. The king is said to have shed tears, which is not improbable, and at once to have ordered Mrs Cook a pension of £200. Poor Elizabeth: she was but 38, and the cup of her sorrows was by no means filled. She had given birth to six children. The two eldest, James and Nathaniel, were those whose names had begun to 'earn time' for them, at the ages of six and five respectively, as members of their father's crew in the Endeavour
; and now, at ages more mature, they were pursuing their careers in the navy more actively. James had entered the naval Royal Academy at Portsmouth when eleven, Nathaniel was shortly to follow him, and in 1780 they were up and coming young midshipmen. The youngest son was Hugh, the child of 1776, Palliser's godson. Three children had died prematurely (as the custom was, one might say): Elizabeth, the only daughter, at the age of four, in 1771, three months before the Endeavour's
return; Joseph, at the age of a month, in September 1768; George, at the age of four months, in October 1772. These losses the wife bore with her husband absent.3
Before the year 1780 was out the next blow
fell. Young Nathaniel was serving in the Thunderer
, 74, Captain Boyle Walsingham, on the West Indian station. In a famous and fearful hurricane that sank thirteen vessels of the royal navy his ship went down, off the coast of Jamaica, on 3 October, with all her company; and it may well be thought that Elizabeth Cook
had sustained enough.
At least she would not be materially cast on the world. The indications are that she was not an extravagant woman. During the last voyage, as Cook's wife, she had been allowed by the Admiralty the yearly sum of, £300 which had been paid up to August 1779, though her pension would begin with the date of Cook's death. The Navy Board, though willing to be generous, had to have specific direction on the matter from their Lordships; Sandwich went to the king immediately, and the over-payment was approved.1
There was the pension. There were the provisions of Cook's will. It is a simple yet interesting will, the expression of an habitually prudent mind, the will of any careful respectable citizen of Mile End Old Town, well enough off to own the leasehold of his house, with a proper amount of family feeling and regard to the conventions.2
It is dated 14 June 1776. Time had made it in one small respect out of date; for it began by bequeathing to the testator's father,'Mr James Cook
of Redcar in the County of York'—where he lived with his daughter Margaret, the wife of the fisherman James Fleck—an annuity of ten guineas; and James Cook
the elder, though he outlived his son, had died on 1 April 1779 at the age of 84. There were four other minor legacies—to each of Cook's sisters, Christiana Cocker and Margaret Fleck, £10 and £10 to each of his 'good friends Thomas Dyall of Mile end old Town Gentleman and Richard Wise of Rumford Essex, Gentleman … as a Mark of the great Regard I have for them.' This is the only time these good friends come into the record. They, with Mrs Cook, were to execute the will. To Mrs Cook went the house and its furniture for her life, with reversion to the children in equal shares. There was the residue of the estate. One cannot tell what it was, but it would include accumulated pay and the property in the published second voyage and its plates. A third went to Mrs Cook, the other two thirds were to be put into appropriate securities for the children in equal shares; their shares of the principal were to be paid over to the sons when they came of age, to a daughter or daughters—for the baby who was Hugh might appear as a girl or
even more than one girl—at the age of 21 or at marriage, whichever should be the earlier, 'Provided Nevertheless such Marriage be had with the Consent of my said Wife but not otherwise'. There was further prudential provision. Such part of the individual children's portions as the trustees might think fit might be spent in placing them out as apprentices 'or otherwise in their Advancement in the world', the interest in the mean time going towards maintenance and education. The portion of any who might die before it became payable was to go to the survivors. There were no delays of the law: probate was granted to Mrs Cook and Dyall on 24 January, the out-of-town Wise not coming on to the scene till March. One begins to get the impression that Mrs Cook was a good woman of business, or had good advisers.
She was not affected financially by Nathaniel's death, in the week that the returning ships anchored in the Thames, the beneficiaries thereby being James and Hugh. But the ships' return brought King and Bayly before the Board of Longitude to report on their activities; and as the presence of Cook and King jointly in the Resolution
had saved the Board the salary of an astronomer, it was resolved to pay Mrs Cook, as well as King, a gratuity of £500—for 'the use of herself and children in such way as she shall judge most proper.' This was settled between November 1780 and April 1781.1
In the following June Elizabeth was addressing Lord Sandwich most respectfully, 'upon the presumption that the History of the Voyage in which my dear Husband lost his Life will soon be laide before the Public', through which his Lordship might be able to confer some benefit upon herself and her family. Sandwich was not loath to ensure this. The matter was not so advanced, however. It was not till June of 1784, two years after the fall of Sandwich from office, that the Voyage to the Pacific Ocean …for Making Discoveries in the Northern Hemisphere
appeared, in three volumes quarto. The first two of these were edited by Douglas from Cook's journal, with considerable interpolations from Anderson's; the third was written by King. The delay in publication, so much deplored by an avid public, was occasioned much by the complications of the unusually large number of engraved pictures and charts. There was no need, one may think, for the tremendous irony of bringing in for a while as adviser on the latter, and attempted meddler in them, of Alexander Dalrymple
It was not
till July 1785, when Howe had succeeded Keppel after Sandwich as First Lord, that the division of profits was determined. Half was to go to Cook's family, the interest on it to Mrs Cook for her life, the principal thereafter in equal sums to the surviving children. A quarter was for the heirs of King, who had died in the preceding October. One eighth was to go to Clerke's legal representatives. The remaining eighth, after the deduction of one hundred guineas for Anderson's executors to dispose of, was for a disgruntled Bligh, in recognition of his work as surveyor and cartographer.1
The first edition of the book was sold out in three days, at four and a half guineas, and eager purchasers offered ten guineas for a copy. Second and third editions appeared in 1785. The Cook share certainly amounted to over £2000. But oh! lamented Nicol the publisher at a later date, that the generosity of the Admiralty and the liberal notions of Sir Joseph Banks
had not fixed the price at 'little more than prime cost': a fair price would have brought in £12,000.2
continued to live in her house in Assembly Row for some years more, with her sons James, when he was at home, and Hugh. It is possible that as the widow of a post-captain and author and famous man, contemplating—possibly—his posthumously granted coat of arms, she maintained a personal state that was a little too much for some of her neighbours to bear; for in July 1788 a correspondent in America was being informed, 'Mrs
Cook has left Mile End, gon to Live in Surry but where Cannot Tell nor neither Do Mutch Care.'3
She had taken a house in High Street, Clapham, which remained hers through forty-seven years. It is possible also that there is a little trace of envy as well as of moral disapprobation in another letter to the same correspondent, from a different writer in 1792; 'can say but little for Mrs
Cook who I think might have found time to have sent you a few lines tho she lives in high Life at Clapham & keeps a Footman—her eldest son is a Lietenant has a Horse and lives in stile; the youngest is design'd for a Clergyman, he is a fine tall
If the poor lady did in fact nourish any delusion of grandeur it was before long unhappily dispelled. In 1784 she had received from the Royal Society
a gold exemplar of the medal it had struck in Cook's honour, at the hands of Banks, now its president; and, in assuring him of her gratitude, had written, 'My greatest pleasure now remaining is in my sons, who, I hope, will ever strive to copy after so good an example, and, animated by the honours bestowed on their Father's memory, be ambitious of attaining by their own merits your notice and approbation.'2
Fate preferred its own twist. The fine tall youth designed for a clergyman (it was usually clergymen's sons who became post-captains, not the reverse) was in 1793 entered at Christ's College, Cambridge, and there, having caught some violent fever, he died on 21 December of that year, aged seventeen. In that year, too, the thirty-year-old James was promoted commander. While his mother was still struggling under the death of her youngest son, this, her eldest, perished. He was at Poole, on 25 January 1794, when he received orders to join his vessel, the Spitfire
sloop of war, at Portsmouth, without delay, and in spite of weather working up to a hard blow, embarked in an open boat. His body was found on the shore of the Isle of Wight, with a head wound how inflicted it was impossible to say, with pockets empty of money or valuables, and the damaged boat not far away. Of the boat's crew no trace was ever found. At that the mother collapsed utterly.3
She did not recover for many months.
Yet she must have had enormous physical strength; she had forty-one years more to live. She lived many of them with her cousin Isaac Smith, who on his promotion to superannuated rear-admiral retired to Clapham. Between him and his brother Charles of Merton Abbey close by, and herself, there was great mutual affection; and when Charles died in 1827 and left his Merton Abbey property to Isaac, she went there with him till his death in 1831. Then she returned to her house at Clapham. In her old age handsome, with good bones and a great deal of dignity, rather than warmly beautiful, her white hair rolled back in an eighteenth century fashion, her face a rather squarish oval, nose aquiline, mouth good but rather too
thin, strong jaw—erect, dressed in black satin, her head surmounted by a large cap with goffered edge, tied over a sort of ruff, she must have conferred distinction upon the street. If one is inclined to see in her somewhat of the intimidating, one may remember the ring she wore with her husband's hair in it, the four private days of mourning and fasting that she kept, the anniversaries of those on which she was bereaved of her husband and three sons; the nights of wind through which she lay awake like any fisherman's wife, thinking of men at sea.1
She was not inhospitable. Young relatives and friends would visit the old people to hear stories of the great voyages—to hear above all, it seems, how when landing at Botany Bay
the captain had said, 'Isaac, you shall go first'—or to inspect the relics and curiosities and maps with which the High Street house was crammed; or listen with a correct attention to the reproof which she addressed to them or an ill-behaved world, 'Mr Cook would never have done so.' To more mature persons who sought for information she was quite incommunicative. For her, obviously, private life was private. She did not in 1830 have in her possession, she bade Admiral Smith say, any letter or even a paper of any sort of her husband's writing.2
This may not have been absolutely true; for as late as 1852 her executor, and residuary legatee, John Leach Bennett, the husband of one of the Admiral's nieces and a man of whom she was extremely fond, could find a portion of a journal to send to a distant connection; but, he wrote, 'very few memorials of Capt Cook came into my hands as executor of his widow. In fact for a few years before her death Mrs
Cook had employed herself in destroying letters and papers and in giving away, or settling to whom they should be given after her death, articles of more value.'3
We may regret, though respect, her destructive passion. Certainly, when her time came, she had property enough to give away, though no descendants to give it to: money and stocks, furniture and household goods, from which Flecks and Smiths, friends and neighbours, servants, charities, and the British Museum all profited.4
Her time came when she had survived.
her husband for fifty-six years, on 13 May 1835, seventy-two years since she walked across the fields with him to Barking church; she was ninety-three. She was buried in the grave where her son James had joined her son Hugh beneath the middle aisle of the church of St Andrew the Great at Cambridge: on the north wall of the sanctuary of that church is a stone that commemorates at length James Cook
the navigator, Elizabeth his wife, and all their children.
There is one remark by Mrs Cook recorded which has a domestic interest. Among her possessions was a painting by Webber of Cook which she disliked because it made him look severe, and she was 'hurt' by the idea that he was severe.1 If this portrait was the one that now hangs in the National Art Gallery of New Zealand, as it appears to have been, she was right in finding it uningratiating. Her judgment of her husband, of course, was not altogether correct, but then she had never been to sea with him. It does imply that when at home he was an agreeable person, and there is no evidence to imply anything else. If 'the despot', as he was on shipboard, we may guess that he was a benevolent despot. Clearly he took thought for his sons' future. How far he had real talents for domesticity we do not know, in spite of more than one conventional tribute; what precisely one of his panegyrists meant by 'the benevolent and amiable affections of the heart' we do not know. We are too much thrown back upon the panegyrists, and it is too easy to be one.
The Royal Society's medal, following hard on the Voyage
, the armorial bearings of a year later, were themselves panegyrics. The medal, proposed by Banks, the work of Lewis Pingo, the engraver to the Royal Mint, was struck at the mint in gold, silver and bronze for subscribers, and for presentation gratis to a few favoured persons. It is not a remarkably distinguished medal, Pingo being no great artist though technically proficient, but its inscriptions are not infelicitous: Jac. Cook Oceani Investigator Acerrimus
, Horace's tag
Nil Intentatum Nostri Liquere.
Cook had indeed been a most zealous explorer of the ocean; there was little hyperbole in the declaration that he and his men—'our' men, for were they not Britons?—had left nothing unattempted; there was some pride that he was of the fellowship, socio suo.
The obverse was adapted to decorate the title-page of the second edition of the Voyage.
The coat of arms was granted to the family in September 1785. It is a curious exercise, not so much in mediaevalism as in a sort of late eighteenth century romantic realism. The shield azure bears between its two golden 'polar stars' no heraldic symbol but a map of the Pacific hemisphere, with every tenth degree of latitude marked and every fifteenth of longitude; superimposed are Cook's tracks in red, ending precisely at Hawaii. 'And for a crest, on a wreath of the colours, is an arm imbowed, vested in the uniform of a captain of the Royal Navy
. In the hand is the Union Jack on a staff proper. The arm is encircled by a wreath of palm and laurel.' Two mottos, an unusual distinction, accompany these bearings: above the crest the words Circa orbem
, below the shield another adaptation from the Royal Society
, the biographical statement Nil intentatum reliquit.
Mrs Cook did not keep a carriage, and what she did with this fantasy is not recorded. It is curious that no addition to the naval monuments in St Paul's Cathedral seems to have been contemplated. The sculptors were ready.
It is easier to write, and one may note that the greatest panegyrists have been sailors or those who sailed with him—King, Samwell, Trevenen—or his contempories in that full age of sail, or later biographers who have known like conditions; or men who gave his work a specialised attention, like Sir John Pringle
. We may not wish to accept as final truth every word of the testimony borne by Admiral John Forbes
, 'one … not more distinguished by the elevation of rank, than by the dignity of private virtues', which Douglas appended to his introduction to the voyage as a 'monumental inscription'; and, long as it was as an inscription, Palliser had it carved on the four-sided monument he erected in the grounds of his estate at Chalfont in Buckinghamshire, a long way from the sea; but, for all its stately progression, it indicates the feelings entertained by seamen and men of humanity. 'To the memory of Captain James Cook
, The ablest and most renowned Navigator this or any country hath produced', going on to a long list of the virtues the admiral was so well qualified to recognise. 'Traveller! contemplate, admire, revere and emulate this great master in his profession; whose skill and labours have enlarged natural philosophy; have extended nautical science; and have disclosed the long concealed and admirable
arrangements of the Almighty in the formation of this globe, and, at the same time, the arrogance of mortals, in presuming to account, by their speculations, for the laws by which he was pleased to create it.' We may ignore this blow at the geographers; and if we cannot emulate, contemplate—or at least examine, as best we can, the qualities of 'this extraordinary man'.1
Physically, as he grew older, nothing occurred to mar the impression he would have made in his thirties, that of a tall, large-boned, powerful man, with strongly marked features. It was a Yorkshire type. No doubt the mature lines were deeper, the nose and mouth still stronger, for they would not have been softened by easy living. There was the scar on the hand. He was good-looking, obviously, in a plain sort of way. We have one contradiction in description: Samwell says his head was small, with small eyes, but Dance's portrait, declared by Samwell himself to be 'a most excellent likeness', gives us a head to match the body, and large eyes that match the large nose and large forehead, the prominent eyebrows. Webber also gives us a large head, and a heavy, dull one. The engraving from Hodges prefixed to the 1777 volumes provide an impression of a smaller head, and certainly a lively countenance—and large eyes; but neither Webber nor Hodges was a very competent painter of portraits. The eyes were brown, 'quick and piercing', which we may well believe; hair brown, tied behind, though Hodges has a crop of springy curls, Dance and Webber what appears to be a dark grey wig. It was an expressive face, and in the 'most excellent likeness' expresses a disposition friendly and humane. What his voice, that sometimes valuable index to character, was like, no one tells us. Presumably it could be loud, to compete with storms and human misdemeanours. One would infer a provincial accent, from one whose access to the polite world was limited and showed no sign of wishing to enlarge it, some provincial turns of speech, some provincial pronunciations which would stand behind the spellings in his journals. Strong and perspicacious understanding says King; in whatever related to the services on which he was employed, of quick and sure judgment. Of an agreeable lively conversation, says Samwell, sensible and intelligent, rather bashful—by which we are to understand the earlier implication of that otherwise surprising word, that of a sensitive modesty. A sensitive modesty does not conflict with the confidence of assimilated experience, or with some deep convictions on professional matters; nor is it incompatible with losing one's temper.
We still lack the quantity of intimate description we should like, the analysis of character that with all men, great or little, we feel would somehow make all things plain. It is possible not to regret this: he was a man of action, and the tendency is to regard a man of action as adequately described by his acts, his biography a succession of things done. It is not quite so, any more than it would be a sufficient paradox to say that the acts of a man of action are the least important thing about him. But acts are public things, and we want to enter the mind. We hanker after someone who might be supposed to have hold of a thread. What would we not give for a conversation with Clerke, that companionable man, the knowledgeable, the amused, the unabashed? We are not, however, devoid of all the aid we need: by assiduous reading between the lines of all those journals, we may even interrogate Cook himself, and get some honest answers. Indeed we have already done so.
He was not (to proceed in negatives) romantic, dramatic—though his death was one of the great dramatic points in Pacific history— imaginative in any cloudy way; he was not semi-mystical, striving as some rarefied explorers have done after the meaning of existence or some absolute human affirmation; he was not searching for or fleeing from himself. He had, so far as one can see, no religion. His was not the poetic mind, or the profoundly scientific mind. He was the genius of the matter of fact. He was profoundly competent in his calling as seaman. He was completely professional in his trade as explorer. He had, in large part, the sceptical mind: he did not like taking on trust. He was therefore the great dispeller of illusion. He did have imagination, but it was a controlled imagination that could think out a great voyage in terms of what was possible for his own competence. He could think, he could plan, he could reason; he liked to be able to plan clearly for a specific object. But he liked to be elastic: there was always in his mind, as he planned, the possibility of something more, the parenthesis or addendum; there was also the sense of proportion that made him, more than once, refuse to waste time looking for what he was not sure to find. He had New Holland up his sleeve; he would not gratify Dalrymple by producing an island that would fit something on the map devised, for all he knew, by Dalrymple. So he would carry out his mass of instructions with a devoted literalness—perhaps because, as has been suggested before, that sort of honest obedience had been bred into him or came natural to him, perhaps because of an equally natural passion for completeness. That called at times for a great deal of patience, a great deal of persistence, some falling back on nervous reserves. Having done it,
he could draw breath—less metaphorically, find an anchorage, fresh water and scurvy grass, for the recruitment of his men—and consider the work of supererogation. As he said to young Latouche- Tréville, a man who merely stuck to his orders would never make a great figure in discovery. The question strikes us, did he want to make a great figure? Its answer is almost inevitably No. Obviously he had ambitions: in the southern hemisphere he wanted not merely to reach a higher latitude than any man before him, but to go as far as a man could go: but that is a different thing from making a great figure. He was willing to presume, as his first voyage was drawing to a close, that it was as complete as any before made to the South Seas on the same account. After his second voyage, he could well have recurred to the phrase he had then rejected, 'as compleat if not more so'. It did not occur to him. It did not seem to occur to him that he was a great figure. He was more concerned in pointing out that if his latest discovery, Sandwich Land, was indeed part of the southern continent, the southern continent would not be of much, use to anybody. At this point one may remind oneself that it was the controlled imagination, superimposed on the powerful matter-of-factness, that put in the place of dispelled illusion so many positive discoveries, and laid the foundations of Pacific geography as a science, of Pacific anthropology, of antarctic hydrography. If one does not make even greater claims, and bring in the sciences of natural history, it is because one is speaking of Cook, and not of his voyages. As a commander of ships he very efficiently brought the scientists to their material, when that chimed with his own larger purposes; he had an observant eye, he could ask relevant questions, he could learn; but without Banks and Solander, Anderson, the Forsters, the artists, the voyages would not, in natural science, have been great.
They were all great, all sailors who have studied them are agreed, as exhibitions of seamanship, in an age when good seamen were common. It is practical seamanship, rather than scientific navigation, that one is here concerned with. Among men with Pacific service Wallis, Carteret, Furnaeux, Clerke, Bligh were good seamen; any master in the navy had to be a good seaman; it was part of Cook's job to train young officers into good seamen, and when John Elliott went for his lieutenant's examination it was enough for his examiners to know that he had been with Cook. But there were good seamen who would not feel happy under certain conditions: the captain of an East Indiaman, the master of a line-of-battle ship who would face an Atlantic storm with equanimity, might be little at ease in the midst of the Tuamotu archipelago. It was not merely Cook's familiarity
with rope and sails and spars, and the technique of managing them under all possible combinations of wind and sea, a shared familiarity, that gave him his special competence; not merely his intimacy with the sounds of the waves on the hull or the wind in the rigging, felt or heard in the night through the ship's wooden skin, that gave him what seemed to the common sailor, or the Palatine wanderer Zimmermann, a sort of second-sight, an additional faculty to tell him that land was near when no one else had the slightest idea of it—for this too grew through experience in other alert and responsible captains. The variety, the breadth and depth of Cook's nautical experience it was that gave him his special competence: the North Sea apprenticeship to coastal sailing, shallows and fogs, the Channel and Atlantic and St Lawrence service, the years as master of the 70-gun Northumberland, a very considerable responsibility; the totally different years in a schooner on the Newfoundland coast; the swells and high seas as well as the calms and storms of the Pacific, the ice navigation, the reef navigation. It was not faultless seamanship if one means by faultless invariably keeping off the bottom; but far worse seamen have kept off the bottom by sheer good luck. A marine surveyor may sometimes find a rock by hitting it, as Cook did in the Grenville, and the Grenville stuck on the Kentish Knock; Dalrymple held that it was bad seamanship that took the Endeavour on to the reef, though there have been few to agree with him. The Resolution took the ground off Tahiti and in Cook Inlet, both ships scraped the coral in Tongan seas. Cook risked some chances, among the antarctic bergs, edging the arctic ice-field, in the fog off the Aleutians, off the southern end of New Caledonia, but seamen appear to have justified every one of them. He had some enormous strokes of good luck as well as bad luck—a happy puff of wind on the edge of disaster outside the Great Barrier Reef, the blind course and the sound of breakers that saved him off Sedanka island, Clerke's 'very nice pilotage'. The seamanship lies in knowing what to do under such strokes, good or bad; in knowing, much more than when shelter is urgent, when it can be dispensed with, or when (using the old phrase quoted by Trevenen) to go out to look for a wind. It lies also in day to day technical administration: was there ever a greater triumph, in the face of constant leaks and breakages, than keeping the ships at sea, and profitably at sea, on the third voyage? Was there ever greater stubbornness in meeting contrary things? We may hark back to the first voyage. Were there ever stubbornness and seamanship to exceed those that, off the northern extreme of New Zealand, fixed the position of Cape Maria van Diemen? We may here renew the remark
already made, on Cook's moderation in the describing of his crises, those occasions when his seamanship was most desperately tried. Midshipman Trevenen, who so much invites quotation, may be quoted again: 'The coolness and conciseness with which Capt Cook passes over the relation of dangers, the bare recollection of which makes every one else shudder with horror, is very remarkable.'1 That too is an index to character. If he had his bad moments, one can imagine that he did not invariably and particularly put them down to the hazards of exploration. The swell on the cliff of the Great Barrier—yes, that was an exotic peril. But how many bad moments did colliers have in the North Sea? You could get drowned just as efficiently there as in the Pacific Ocean. He would not push his luck too far; he would turn back from latitude 71°10′ in the Antarctic. Seamanship, like politics, was an art of the possible.
The seaman passes over into the navigator, and we are brought back to Admiral Forbes, and to Daniel Wray
with his right-headed unaffected man whom he had authority for calling our best navigator. We are taken back also to an earlier period in Cook's life, to the day after the fall of Louisburg, to Samuel Holland
and the cabin of the Pembroke
, Captain Simcoe, and to the birth of a professional passion. Among the interesting things that Holland, when surveyor-general of Canada, reported to Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe, was this: 'Mr Cook frequently expressed to me the obligations he was under to Captain Simcoe and on my meeting him in London in the year 1776, after his several discoveries, he confessed most candidly that the several improvements and instructions he had received on board the Pembroke had been the sole foundation of the services he had been enabled to perform.'2
He may have thought he had to say something like that, literally true or not. Yet, on a backward view, we can see that it was true, though neither Simcoe nor Holland had taught him the science of navigation. They had been more fundamental, in those first days of the sudden expansion of his mind. Simcoe had not merely lent him books, but taught him the value of exactitude. Holland had introduced him to instruments of precision, and worked by his side in using them. In becoming a marine surveyor he had become passionately professional, and the object of his passion was exactitude. There, if anywhere, is the entrance to his
mind. He was not original. He discovered nothing, in the modern scientific sense, he was no Priestley or Cavendish or Laplace; he invented nothing, he could not, like Harrison, make a chronometer. The genius of the matter-of-fact was the genius of the practical application of science, even at one remove; his exactitude was the fruit of his insistence on having, and his persistence in using, the best scientific instruments in a great age of scientific instrument making. He was fortunate, with his capacities, that he lived in that age. He was fortunate that he was no longer dependent exclusively on Halley's three L's, Lead, Latitude and Look-out; fortunate in Maskelyne's development of lunar distances, in the work of Harrison, Kendall, Bird, Dollond, Ramsden. He was fortunate in being confronted with what were, for him, the right problems at the right time. The time was fortunate that he was there to solve them. He could, but for his luck, have remained a first-class surveyor, in that calling have attained a certain fame, and got a great deal of satisfaction. To the end of his life he had a sort of surveyor's instinct. With all the great series of charts he produced or his men produced under him, he had a tinge of regret that they were not really surveys in the technical sense; and after all, what is his north-west American coast but a magnificent, an epoch-making, reconnaissance? It needed Vancouver. We are still to note that Vancouver regarded Cook as the master. We are still to note that a standard part of the instructions Cook carried from voyage to voyage, which he obeyed with such simple literalness, are surveyor's instructions: he is to ascertain the positions of capes, headlands, rocks, shoals, soundings, course of the tides and currents. But we may note the navigator as well as the surveyor in him when we consider the fascination that ocean currents, not merely coastal currents, had for him. It is the surveyor as well as the seaman in him who denounces the publisher of faulty charts. It is something beyond the surveyor, but still the surveyor, who exalts 'the improvements Navigation has received from the Astronomers of this Age' and the credit that 'is also due to the Mathematical Instrument makers for the improvements and accuracy with which they make their Instruments'.1
It is the navigator who exhorts sea-officers to the practice of lunar observations, and assures them that calculations for longitude are not so very difficult as they at first imagine; it is the navigator who records his delighted contemplation of the Time Keeper, 'Mr Kendals Watch'. Is there a little vanity after all, a vanity concerned with fixing positions, wounded, incredulous, convinced, in the end, by the news from Bayly and Wales
that New Zealand had been wrongly placed on the chart by a few minutes? 'The situation of few parts of the world are better determined than these islands are… .' Well: it remained true. It was the navigator and stubborn seaman, as well as the surveyor, who had made that possible. Was it the navigator, or the seaman, or the original root of stubbornness in the man, that made him fight for so long the contrary winds eastward of New Zealand on the third voyage, the winds that made him lose his passage?
Navigation, we learn, may be a matter not quite easy to define. King, having sketched the contributions of his hero to geography, proceeds: 'As a navigator, his services were not perhaps less splendid; certainly not less important and meritorious. The method which he discovered, and so successfully pursued, of preserving the health of seamen, forms a new era in navigation, and will transmit his name to future ages, amongst the friends and benefactors of mankind.'1
With that judgment the Royal Society
was fully in accord. This respectable Body, said Sir John Pringle
in his presidential discourse of 1776, delivering the Copley medal, 'never more cordially nor more meritoriously bestowed that faithful symbol of their esteem and affection. For if Rome decreed the Civic Crown
to him who saved the life of a single citizen, what wreaths are due to that Man, who, having himself saved many, perpetuates in your Transactions the means by which Britain may now, on the most distant voyages, preserve numbers of her intrepid sons, her Mariners;
who, braving every danger, have so liberally contributed to the fame, to the opulence, and to the maritime empire, of their Country!' It may be doubtful if Cook was interested, as a professional man, in any of those things. The preservation of the health of seamen was for him an aspect at once of humanity and efficiency—and hence of navigation; for, with all the instruments in the world, it is difficult for a commander to navigate if he is surrounded with men dying of scurvy. Of course any good sea-captain was a humanitarian. The interesting thing about Cook is that without being a scientist any more than he was a sentimentalist, without being original, he was able to get the remarkable results he did get; or perhaps he was original in this, that having proved a point pragmatically, he made it part of a system, which he maintained as persistently as he maintained his astronomical observations. He found his men a little more intractable than the planets and the stars, but they had to accept the system. How much he had studied the problem of health at sea in the current books it is impossible to say. If he had read Lind's Treatise of the Scurvy
, of which
the second edition published in 1762 would have been close enough to his hand, he would have embraced every opportunity to accumulate lemons. He never mentions lemons, or Lind; and among the antiscorbutic substances experimentally placed in his ships by the Admiralty, it is no wonder he thought meanly of the rob of lemons and oranges, from which the unsuspected vitamins had been assiduously boiled out; he preferred even the wort, 'the inspissated juice of malt', which certainly was no cure. 'Sour Krout' had a value. Changes could be tried in the proportions of raisins and sugar fed to the men. Portable soup could be used to make some mess attractive. There was little that could be done about salt beef and salt pork. There were navy surgeons and captains who saw clearly enough the defects of the conventional diet, the virtue of fresh food. There were Admiralty instructions enough on cleanliness and ventilation of ships, if they had been taken seriously. What Cook did was to take such instructions seriously, and add orders of his own. What other captain inspected his men's hands, and fined in grog the owners of dirty ones? His crew, so far as he could ensure it, was to be clean and dry, in a clean ship, and they were not to eat and sleep in a noisome den. But the sovereign thing was the unremitting insistence on fresh food at every conceivable opportunity, fish, flesh and fowl—walrus, penguins—'scurvy grass' and every other variety of wild vegetables, the fruits and roots of the islands, the berries of Tierra del Fuego and the Arctic, a new batch of spruce beer—anything, as long as it was fresh.1
Cook could carry out no chemical analysis, but his experience was enough. Where he had no experience, he was willing enough to experiment on himself, and to use himself as an example, with the result that we know a good deal about his tastes and tolerances in eating. 'His stomach bore, without difficulty, the coarsest and most ungrateful food. Indeed, temperance for him was scarcely a virtue; so great was the indifference with which he submitted to every kind
Thus King; and Samwell protested. 'He had no repugnance to good living; he always kept a good table, though he could bear the reverse without murmuring.'2
Surely, thought Trevenen, discussing walrus as a food, the taste of his captain was 'the coarsest that ever mortal was endued with.'3
Having remarked on a number of Cook's judgments of food, and his reasons for giving them, we must think that Samwell was probably right. The captain could not say that penguins were good eating: 'I have indeed made several good meals of them but it was for want of better victuals.'4
A fresh penguin was at any rate better than salt beef or salt pork after three years in the harness-cask; and certainly more wholesome. A sea-lion cub was very palatable, though not a sea-lion; so was a young shag, or the haunch of a Tahitian dog baked in the island way.
As a disciplinarian and a psychologist, he was generally successful in getting the unorthodox stuff into his men. From what he says himself, and from independent testimony, we can see that in the end he even got these hard-bitten and restive conservatives on his side. Thomas Perry the poet will be remembered.
Thanks be to the Captain he has proved so good
Amongst all the Islands to give us fresh food.
A more valuable, because more circumstantial witness is Alexander Home, the admirer of his captain's eloquence; more valuable, too, as from the lower deck, than his superior officers. He describes the habit that had grown up among the men, when on shore, of eating 'almost Every Herb plant Root and kinds of Fruit they Could Possibly Light upon', without enquiry or hesitation:
it is highly probable this disposition has been the principle Means of preserving Our Healths for such a Number of Years Almost Constantly on the water. Captain Cook raised this spirit Amoungst us by his Example for scarc[e]ly any thing Came wrong to him that was Green and he was as Carefull in providing Vegitables for the Messess of the Crews as for his own Table and I do Belive that in this Means Consisted his graund Art of preserving his people in Health During so Many of the Longest and Hardest voyages that was Ever Made.
Green stuff boiled in quantity with pease soup or wheat sometimes offended the taste of seamen.
But as there was Nothing Else to be got they were Obledged to Eat them and it was No Uncommon thing when Swallowing Over these Mess[es] to Curse him heartyly and wish for gods Sake that he Might be Obledged to Eat such Damned Stuff Mixed with his Broth as Long as he lived. Yet for all that there were None so Ignorant as Not to know how Right a thing it was.
We have, too, the half-days in port for recreation: 'He would Frequently Order them on shore in partys to walk about the Country and smell the Fresh Earth and Herbage'—a reminiscence, as it were, of eighteenth century minor poetry, or some benevolent schoolmaster; and as he himself was constantly seen gathering wild stuff, 'in time the Men adopted the same Humour and Disposition as by Infectsin and perhaps in Many it Might be with a Veiw of making their Court to him, for they knew it was A great Recommendation to be seen Coming on board from A pleasure Jaunt with A Handkerchif full of greens.'1
Beside this a great deal of the discussion on the prevention and cure of scurvy—and most other ills of the sea—becomes irrelevant. It also explains why Cook, in spite of the wreaths that Sir John Pringle would have conferred upon him, had less to contribute to the future than one might have thought. Is there a paradox? Given a voyage under somewhat like conditions, and a commander somewhat like him a similar result might be expected. For ordinary voyages and ordinary persons there was needed something easier in the application. The method adopted by Cook reveals a great deal of Cook, the humanitarian persistent and thoroughly efficient; the same Cook that exhorts sea-officers not to be alarmed at the idea of making mathematical calculations from astronomical observations, who is surprised at the notion of an officer's not demanding the best possible sextant whatever the price; who blistered the hands of his young gentlemen pulling a boat round Nootka Sound in teaching them to be sailors, and their minds for sundry derogations from perfection on their part.
Another aspect of the humane captain is a fundamental sympathy for his men, rather wider than the few specific affections or likings that we can trace, not entirely based on the determination to extract the maximum of efficiency. After all, he had been an apprentice of the benevolent John Walker. Desertion was not a thing he could tolerate, but he could very well understand, even sympathise with, the deserter. He saw no sense in working men to exhaustion. He
believed in the system of putting a ship's company into three watches instead of two. He had his men under control not only for the ordinary reasons, but because his strict rules of hygiene required it. Captains who visited Cook, not knowing his habits, might be quite astonished to find an air of religious observance, a clean and tidy ship, a clean crew: on board Cook's ships, they said, it was always Sunday. Officers who came under his command from other vessels, on the other hand, were inclined to find his discipline too loose. They learnt better soon enough. There was no need for a man who put first things first to set up as a martinet. Woe indeed for the person who sinned on first things. Yet it was Cook who gave up the great cabin to the sail-maker for his work when the conditions on deck were so desperately discouraging; it was he who insisted, when there was any shortage of food, on a strictly even distribution, from captain to ship's boy. He could unbend to the midshipmen on a hard day's rowing, and throw them as a bonus the ducks that had been shot. If they called him a despot, they also called him Toote. He allowed some customs to be kept up, one presumes as things traditionally held valuable by seamen, on which there was in his day another school of thought. The equator-crossing ceremony was by no means a gentle one, and Furneaux would have none of it. The drunken fighting of Christmas Day was permissible only after the ship's safety had been provided for. We must see it as an emotional outburst that was part of the pattern of a brutal century. Considering it thus, we may be able to tolerate more easily the floggings that Cook inflicted, which did not, it appears, trouble either the conscience of his officers of the feelings of his men. He could not be said to have flogged his way round the world, but he was a naval officer, he needed some means of punishment, and he used the standard navy means. He certainly did not flog for the pleasure it gave him. It was thought by George Forster
, a landsman and a sensitive youth, that he punished rarely and unwillingly.1
If, reading in the logs and journals of half-a-dozen lashes, a dozen lashes, once or twice two dozen lashes, our sensations are not agreeable, we may study the records of the fleet on the American station in which Cook served, and decide that his floggings do not modify his essential humanity.
In his relations with the 'Indians' of the Pacific was another aspect of his humanity, as well as examples of its breakdown. He took seriously Lord Morton's 'Hints', as we have seen. He was aware that most humane, and inexperienced, men would censure his conduct in
, and he would not attempt to justify it. He was much concerned about his first approach to islanders, or other people he did not know, and, as we have seen, developed a technique that put his life much more than theirs at immediate risk. Obviously the main difficulty on either side was the difficulty of communication. It is easy enough for us to see that, if misunderstandings were not to occur, then what had to be communicated, back and forth, was an instant knowledge of two different ways of life—cultures, as the anthropologist would say, in his effort to subsume thoughts on property and the gods and the observances of polite society. Discoverers tended to be as naive as the people they discovered. Good intentions were inadequate if they could not be understood. The enlargement of Geography and Navigation was all very well, but Polynesians and Melanesians were not interested in that; they were not anxious to be discovered; intruders they naturally regarded as enemies. Savage Island was not more savage than other islands: the Niueans merely acted with greater decision than their fellows. Cook was not prepared to force his presence when it was obviously not desired. A larger population with fewer fears and wider contacts—as Tonga had contacts with Fiji—might be prepared to wait longer; there might be some treaty-making ceremony Cook went through, without in the least understanding the conditions of peace to which he was agreeing; there was certainly a whole code of behaviour between hosts and guests that he was assumed to accept. He records in his journal from time to time his baffled sense of this sort of thing. Easy as it was for him to make errors, to disregard propriety—and easier for his men, who did not try to avoid them—it was as easy for the islanders, though theirs tended to concentrate in the cardinal one of 'theft'. Cook could see as clearly as we can that they did not regard visitors' property in the European or British or naval way; but what was he to do? He merely wanted to indulge in honest trade for provisions, fresh water and firewood, and observe for a time the life of the land. It is possible that some of the chiefs and priests tried as hard as he did to bring a sympathetic imagination to bear on the problems—that they too were tolerant and humane. He could see himself as they, quite simply, saw him. We go back to the second voyage. One cannot blame the Tanese for hostile behaviour, he says, when one considers their position:
its impossible for them to know our real design, we enter their Ports without their daring to make opposition, we attempt to land in a peaceable manner, if this succeeds its well, if not we land nevertheless and mentain
the footing we thus got by the Superiority of our fire arms, in what other light can they than at first look upon us but as invaders of their Country….1
He thought the best way to deal with certain situations was to make hostages of chiefs. He did not consider that this might be an outrageous insult, even an act of impiety—was it not better than a punitive expedition and the shedding of blood?—but he could understand the island attitude, the tears and outcry, when his friend Ori, the 'Brave old Chief' of Huahine, made himself a voluntary hostage.
It may be asked what he had to fear, to which I must answer nothing, for it never was my intention to hurt a hair of his head or to detain him one single moment longer than he desired, but how was he or the people to know this, they were not ignorant that if he was once in my power, the whole force of the isle could not take him from me, and that let my demands for his ransom been [sic] ever so high they must have comply'd with it; thus far their fears both for his and their own safety were justly founded.2
Here speaks the humanely imaginative man. That particular episode was happy because of the man that Ori was. There were other chiefs made prisoner under easy conditions who were less gratified. We may wish that Cook had not adopted a different procedure at Moorea, on the third voyage. We may wish that, before he did adopt that procedure at Kealakekua Bay, he had allowed his imagination to play at length all round the circumstances.
We have seen him punish islanders severely for their cardinal offence, until his own men were shocked. We know that he was anxious that the islanders should see justice done on his own men who had committed offences against them. He does not talk, as some people do, of native 'insolence', and the weight of his 'resentment'. He can feel rage at the truculent stupidity of seamen and marines. He can feel regret. For nothing does he feel more regret—do he and his responsible officers feel more a sense of guilt as the emissaries of western civilisation—than over the spread of the venereal disease that the ships inevitably brought to the Polynesians, the 'incurable disorder which will for ever embitter their quiet & happy lives, & make them curse the hour they ever saw us.'3 But the eloquence
and indignation of those conscience-driven men were misplaced. The nature of men and women, accident as well as intention, outflanked all the stringent orders that Cook attempted to impose. He was beaten from the moment he dropped anchor. He had an ally over most of the Pacific, however, in the endemic island disease yaws, so often taken for syphilis, with which syphilis could not co-exist. The variety of the disease first transmitted to the islands was gonorrhea, and if the precautions taken by the surgeons are to be trusted, it must have been transmitted by carriers, of whose role surgeons were ignorant. Cook had experience enough to distrust 'the faculty'. The micro-organisms spread, sailors in their turn were infected or re-infected, and passed the disease on. Cook was depressed. As fortune would have it, however, far from embittering quiet and happy lives for ever, from one generation to another, gonorrhea in the islands had a relatively short life: Cook's successors in Tonga found hardly a trace of it. Quite otherwise was it with syphilis in Hawaii, untouched by yaws; there was nothing to hold it back, or its partner; the spirochaetes and gonococci swarmed ashore in the ships' boats. There could be no possible doubt what ships the boats belonged to. There was a point, then, where the humanity of the most humane of men must prove of no avail.
We are confronted by the fact that Cook, with all his humanity, coolness, patience, temperance of expression in the written word, was a passionate man. He could be hot, as we have seen, about sloppy work, false pretences, plain stupidity; he could be impatient when he was prevented from pushing on his work; he could be most intemperate, obviously, in his spoken words. Our witnesses here are of one accord: in temper subject to hastiness and passion, says King; somewhat hasty, says Samwell; cross-grained, 'sometimes … carried away by a hasty temper', says John Reinhold Forster
, who cannot in the end but 'acknowledge him to have been one of the greatest men of his age';1
Trevenen gives us a quite illuminating footnote to his account of the Nootka Sound incident when Cook thought he had been careless over observations, 'Of course
I had a heiva
of the old boy' (and the phrase 'the old boy', is also illuminating).
Heiva the name of the dances of the Southern Islanders, which bore so great a resemblance to the violent motions and stampings on the Deck of Capt Cooke in the paroxysms of passion, into which he often threw himself upon the slightest occasion that they were universally known by the same name, & it was a common saying amongst both officers & people: 'The old boy has been tipping a heiva to such or such a one'.1
This was a sort of catharsis, no doubt; was not the effect of self-importance or vanity, was not vindictive; caused some amusement, did no one harm. The swearing that upset Sparrman as the ship came down on the reef off Tahiti was quite disinterested. Most of the evidence we have on the matter, it may be pointed out, comes from the third voyage—though that may merely be because more persons wrote about the third voyage. Isaac Smith, on the first and second voyages, never thought him severe: he was both 'loved' and 'properly feared' by the crew,2
and the general concern over his illness was obviously not concern over the welfare of a tyrant improperly feared. We may discern a little in Cook's own pages, in some deleted passage of personal criticism; and that is also evidence that Cook knew his own failing, and preferred that others should not suffer from it. The third voyage evidence is of course linked with that of his harsh, his quite inhumane, treatment of native pilferers—outbursts of rage as uncontrollable, evidently, as the 'heivas' which his men got to know and to tolerate so well. It shows a character almost on two planes, and a hypothesis of some physical cause is hard to resist. The strains of the voyage were wearing and worrying, a continuation of the strains of two other voyages. A tired man, fundamentally, the commander must have been. Continued responsibility for his own men, continued wrestling with geographical, nautical and human emergencies might, had his physical and mental constitution been less powerful, have made him go limp. He did not do so, but the inner tensions of an able mind were set up, and exacerbated. To that sort of tiredness add the effect of the violent illness from which he had suffered on the second voyage, the 'indispositions' to which he was subject on this third voyage. We have a man tired, not physically in any observable way, but with that almost imperceptible blunting of the brain that makes him, under a light searching
enough, a perceptibly different man. His apprehensions as a discoverer were not so constantly fine as they had been; his understanding of other minds was not so ready or sympathetic. He 'flared up' like a man with a stomach ulcer. That is not to say that an ulcer is necessarily the answer to our problem.
How is one to complete a portrait? He was not a solitary man, but he must have had a good many solitary thoughts, like many another commander who has had to wrestle with particular angels. Some people—notably Forster—were struck by the small degree to which he took his officers—or his scientific passengers—into his confidence. He certainly did not conduct his voyages by consensus. There was discussion enough where discussion could be of any use. It is quite probable that, having arrived at a solution to a problem—as, for example, by what route to return to England after having circumnavigated New Zealand—he consulted his officers, as he said he did, but he made known what he would call his own 'strong inclination', at which few would have inclination to demur. After all, it was he who had been given the instructions, and authority, and discretion. He was quite willing to test the incidental fancies of other men. In matters where he had no claim to exert authority, he seems to have been a tolerant, sober, civilised man of the world. His general knowledge was extensive and various, we are told by Samwell, with no indication of what fields it embraced, or how he acquired it. A great deal must have rubbed off on him from Banks and Anderson and Wales, from acquaintances in the coffee houses, and at dinner with the Royal Society
gentlemen, where he listened as well as talked. It does not seem to have been literary. He seems to have had no politics. The names he gives to prominent geographical features, names of admirals, noble lords, Lords of the Admiralty, do not necessarily imply personal acquaintance or admiration. His conversation was agreeable and lively, but also the conversation, we are to gather, of a modest, or 'bashful' man. We have Boswell's account of it, its judgment and veracity. We presume that it must largely have been concerned with facts. We can tell that in the literature of discovery he read deeply, a professional thing. We know that he read Hakluyt for amusement, and he must have discussed explorers of all times. Sparrman remembered 'as well, as if it had passed yesterday, when the old Cooke blamed Magellan for his unnecessary braving the indians, who killed him, and now this is his own case'.1
We know some of the technical books he read, Maskelyne's British
, Samuel Dunn's Navigator's Guide to the Oriental or Indian Seas.
He gives no hint that he ever ventured on works of the imagination—glanced for example at Wales's copy of The Seasons
in Dusky Sound
—or of morals. Geography provided him with the imaginative, Navigation with morals. He was happy with the literal side of Hodges and of Webber, their judiciously chosen views, their masterly execution; they provided facts, and that was what they were employed for. Any other side he did not notice. He was happy with any music he heard—Tahitian nose-flute, Tongan drums, Scottish bagpipes. He did not devote imagination, or emotion, or time to the other sex, apart from his Elizabeth, and from proposing, it is said, on Saturday nights at sea, the toast of all beautiful women. Any reputation he earned in the matter in the Pacific was, however, not so much for an habitual iron disdain as for obvious age and impotence. The passionately professional man was an idea rather beyond Polynesian conception. In other human relationships his feelings were warm: he remembered old friends—Holland, Walker, Richard Ellerton his commander in the Friendship
, Ori of Huahine. One may be inclined to say, after gazing hard and long, and considering this way of understanding and that way, that he had a plain heroic magnitude of mind. It is a judgment. It does not make him a simple man.
There are statues and inscriptions; but Geography and Navigation are his memorials. We may find others for ourselves, if we would indulge in sentiment. There are the words of John Elliott, who sailed in the Resolution
in 1772 at the age of fourteen. He was rather proud of the chart he made showing the ship's track, which, like all other records, was impounded at the end of the voyage. But Cook asked Elliott, now a mature youth of seventeen, to breakfast, and promised he should have the precious document back. So Elliott, writing memoirs for his descendants, can say, 'I attended to his invitation, and did recieve my Chart &c with my Name Elliotts Chart and Ships Track
, written on it, in his own hand, and which writing I venerate to this day, and never look at Without feeling the deepest regret at the melancholy loss of so great a Man.'1
There are the words of the New Zealand chief Te Horeta
, the ancient hooknosed warrior with much blood on his hands, who had been an excited small boy at Mercury Bay when the Endeavour
called there in 1769. There was one supreme man in that ship, who did not talk much, but looked well into everything, and was good to small boys; and Te Horeta
would repeat the Maori saying, e kore te tino tangata e
ngaro i roto i te tokomaha
, a veritable man is not hid among many.1
Such things; Geography and Navigation; if we wish for more, an ocean is enough, where the waves fall on innumerable reefs, and a great wind blows from the south-east with the revolving world.