The Annual Lecture
The Eva G. R. Taylor Memorial Lecture*
Some problems of Cook's biographer
I knew Professor Taylor very slightly, admired her very much; and the sense of honour I feel this afternoon, as I embark on a lecture given to commemorate her service to maritime history and science, is, I assure you, very great indeed.
You will recall that Mr James Boswell
of Auchinleck, having met Captain James Cook
of Mile End and the Pacific Ocean, next day called on Dr Johnson
to tell him all about it, and mentioned his own inclination to go voyaging with the captain. The Doctor discouraged him. One did have that sort of inclination, he said, 'till one considers how very little one learns'.1
On another occasion he admitted that he himself had been stirred by the same excitement, but the consideration of his infirmities had put him off. Now we may, if we wish, stagger ourselves with the vision of Dr Johnson patrolling the deck of the Resolution
or the beach of Matavai Bay. It is not a profitable vision. I have on the other hand frequently reflected how profitable it would have been for us if by some miracle of arrangement Boswell could have been made a member of that ship's company. There were characters just as odd, and less amiable, on the voyages, men just as improbable as sailors. If only, one thinks, Johnson had been enthusiastically encouraging; if only The Club had unitedly resolved that James Boswell should be their representative, with sole rights, on this inspection of mankind as well as of geography, and had got the Royal Society
behind them, and squared the First Lord, and the more terrible Lord on the paternal acres at home, and made some arrange-
about the law practice—what a book we might have had! Not an Account of Corsica
, not a Tour to the Hebrides
; a Voyage
no doubt, a voyage to the South Sea and in search of a North-west Passage, but also a Voyage of Exploration of Captain James Cook. We know that Boswell was much struck with Cook's mind. Could he, who admired General Paoli, the man of action, and both admired and fished so assiduously in Johnson, the man of thought, have failed to fix his intent and constant gaze, to listen with all his ears—and with what close contiguity!—to a man so different from both, but a man of action and also of thought, a man, also, so admirable? Doubtless when Cook saw the pencil and the notebook, after the first few weeks, he would have been tempted to throw Mr Boswell overboard. Boswell would have survived, as he survived so many other difficult moments. It is true that we should have lost a good deal of Johnson.
I do not mean to imply that Cook was one of the great masters of conversation, or even one of the battering rams of that art. He was an agreeable, lively conversationalist, sensible and intelligent, David Samwell the surgeon tells us. What he conversed about we are not told. We have no reason to think that he talked for wit or for victory. No doubt, once Boswell was into his stride, as unofficial captain's clerk, whatever he heard he would have trimmed up a little, as was his habit with Johnson, and so far we might have got a false picture. He does report one or two remarks of Cook, without trimming, and they are sensible enough. But that in itself is not tie essential point. The essential point is the one of intimate detail, accurately ascertained: the putting together of 'innumerable detached particulars',1 guaranteed as scrupulously authentic, with dates fixed at the cost of running half over London—though that would not seem much to our modern technicians; the essential point is the one of getting inside Cook, whether by way of conversation or any other way. If Boswell had bent his mind to the task there would not have been very much for the twentieth-century biographer to do, though he might have dredged up something. The Johnson-dredgers have not done so badly. But however well they have dredged, none of them will ever be able to say he has written a better life of Johnson than Boswell's. It is the other way round with Cook. It must be a comfort to any serious biographer to feel that he can't do any worse than the Rev. Andrew Kippis, on whom was conferred 'the pious office of erecting an honourable monument'2 to Cook's memory, and thus wrote the first and what was for one hundred and nineteen years the standard life of our hero.
Kippis was a professional biographer, and he seized the chance of killing
two birds with one stone. To him had been entrusted also the authorship or compilation of the second edition of that large work, the Biographia Britannica
, and when the fourth volume appeared in 1789 Cook's life turned out to be the largest in this volume, 144 ½ folio columns, as against 14 for Congreve and 54 for Oliver Cromwell
, Kippis gave a sort of apology, or explanation, in his preface. 'Perhaps the great length of Captain Cook's article may seem to require some observation. It never was my intention to give a short account of that Illustrious Navigator, whose discoveries and adventures furnish such a copious fund of instruction and entertainment. If the narrative had been written solely for the Biographia, I do not think that it would have been much shorter than it now is. Having, however, been requested to publish a separate life of the Captain, I determined to insert it in the present work, without mutilation'.1
The separate life was an abridgement of the seven large volumes of the officially published Voyages
. Then why make an abridgement of an abridgement, that had already appeared in five hundred pages quarto? Kippis diagnoses well enough what is wrong with his pages, quarto or folio. Presumably he did well enough out of the transaction. Posterity did not. As a professional he seems to have had no particular interest in Cook, in spite of the enormous length at which he wrote for a dictionary entry. There was no difficulty about the voyages, except that of boiling down seven volumes. If he had been a devoted amateur, he might have enjoyed a journey to Yorkshire, to see what he could pick up at Marton and Whitby. The annals of the poor certainly are obscure, but the annals of the Cook family would not have been lost in entire darkness. There would have been plenty of people alive who had known James as a child and a youth. Mr Sanderson, shopkeeper, of Staithes, was still alive. His shipmates of the coal trade could not have all been dead. Cook's married sister, Margaret Fleck
, of Redcar, was alive, and though given to inebriation, could not have been continuously totally inebriated. We cannot but feel that on Cook's early life Dr Kippis lets us down. As for the naval years, he might even have applied some critical intelligence to what the Admiralty told him. He might have asked to see some journals. He might have collected some private correspondence. He did, it is true, have a few words with Sir Hugh Palliser
, and get a little misleading information from him; he did write to Mrs Cook, and get nothing whatever from her. When one thinks of his chances as a contemporary, and what he did with them; when one considers how full of positive error is the little that he did gather, one almost weeps as one throws him away. One does not quite throw him away, nevertheless: it is he who tells us how Cook was trapped into volunteering for the third
voyage, and that story bears the stamp of truth. Is 'trapped' too harsh a word ? Let us then say inveigled.
The Rev. George Young
, a Whitby parson, Secretary to the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society, and honorary or corresponding member of other learned bodies, had more of the root of the matter in him. He had some real feeling for the hero, for family history, for the illuminating anecdote, and professed to supply much original information. He supplied some, though not much; and when he began to look for it, Cook had been dead for fifty years. Young's book was published in 1836. Not till 1907 did another appear that could lay claim to originality, and that was the life by Arthur Kitson
. Kitson was not a professional biographer or a professional historian. He was a business man who wrote at some length about currency reform and thought that Pacifism was a Great Conspiracy; in relation to Cook he was an amateur who became devoted. To quote his own words, 'With some slight feeling of shame that I was so ignorant about my fellow-countryman, I one day took up Dr Kippis's "Life of Cook"…and was prompted by curiosity to verify one of his references, which I found to be absolutely incorrect. This excited my interest, and a desire for further information'.1
That desire was not quenched when he found that every other writer had leant heavily on Kippis, so he went to the Admiralty papers in the Public Record Office and to the British Museum
; having been horrified by Hawkesworth to the manuscript journals; he consulted what experts he could find, got hold of some good letters, sorted out some confusion and disentangled two Cooks, and ended by writing a biography which has since been leant on as heavily as his predecessors leant on Kippis. Students indeed are in his debt. I can testify from my own experience that he did not miss much in the Public Record Office which bore on the earlier life of Cook. His book has its defects. He apparently saw no reason why he should give any references whatever; his sense of proportion is not impeccable; his style, like his imagination, is rather pedestrian; he had rather a fondness for revising the spelling and punctuation of his extracts; he knew nothing about the Pacific. He is still useful. There have been many short lives since he wrote. Some have virtues. Some are dreadful. But the first task of any serious writer on Cook is to supersede Kitson. This means that all the pedestrian virtues are necessary, and also some virtues that I don't quite know how you get hold of. How do you convey the sense of greatness and of intimacy, of humdrum efficiency and constant battle against the trivial, of practical ability and the growth of a mind; how do you render the trivial as the significant and keep the significant from being too significant, how do you estimate the influence
on character of the old immensities of sea and wind and the long swell sweeping perpetually into destruction on the reef? How do you avoid the purple patch? How do you know, before you fall into the purple patch, what did influence character? How do you know what is significant? I don't want to plunge into any biographical philosophy, but I have sometimes wondered about a distinction drawn by the biographer of—of all people to mention in a Cook context—Henry James, a distinction between biographies of men of action and biographies of literary men. The literary life, he says, is the life of the mind, 'the mind and the emotions—as distinct from the lives of generals and politicians [we can add sailors] whose intellectual attainments were not written out day after day upon sheets of paper in a study, but were lived out in parliament or on the battlefield'1
(or, again we can add, upon the sea). I suppose that is true. Yet I have sometimes thought, considering it, that the acts of the man of action are the least important thing about him. And I suppose that is absurd: for look what Cook did. I suppose we could say he was what he did. All the same, I feel that here lies some sort of problem for his biographer. I won't say the earlier biographers didn't face the problems, didn't even realize there was a problem. That might be taken as intellectual snobbery. But is not what he thought and felt, as well as what he did, important to us? I had better get back to easier ground: at least to ground that can be talked about more easily.
Now, if Cook was what he did, we know a fair amount about him. We know far more about him than about most other eighteenth century persons. True, what we know in detail is confined to the last eleven years of his life—less than a quarter of his completed fifty years. If we subtract the two years between voyages, we have an even shorter thoroughly documented period. It is the period, of course, when he kept journals, and inevitably, after a while, put down thoughts as well as observations, tendered explanations to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty as well as told them what he had done; sometimes, now and again, tendered explanations to himself. One cannot too much deplore the accidental loss of a quantity of papers from his third voyage, because from his logs, his unamended or corrected drafts, the sort of thing that was lost, one learns a great deal. Reading between the lines one can find out much, but that is a conditional exercise; one feels much happier if the thing is spelt out by the man himself. Whether this is so or not, one has a comforting amount of biographical evidence. But go to the earlier years, those confounded—I use a word much favoured by Cook's shipmate Charles Clerke
—annals of the poor, about which Kippis might have done something, and did not. If the
earlier years of a man's life have the signal importance that we are told they have, we are at a disadvantage indeed. What did he get from his parents besides a large frame? We can hypothesize about the Scottish father and the Yorkshire mother, but really we can't be certain about much beyond their names and the fact that he was born. Of course James Cook, senior, was a day-labourer and he became hind on Mr Skottowe
's farm at Great Ayton, we know that too; and Mr Skottowe sent the young James to the Postgate School for poor boys in the village, where he learnt to spell moderately well, and mastered a little arithmetic, so that he seemed a likely enough lad for a haberdasher's shop, or general store, or whatever it was, in a minute fishing port. Would one be right, then, in finding the keynote of this early life in respectability and moderate social advancement for both father and son, both placed in positions of trust? Surely one would be right in thinking that the exchange of the shop for the sea was no less respectable, when the master to whom Cook was apprenticed was the highly respectable Quaker John Walker
, coal-shipper, ship-owner, and at times ship-master? I use the word respectable in its literal eighteenth century sense, without its faint modern overtone of denigration. These were people and trades to be respected. So we have our boy at sea as a so-called 'servant', learning all about ships, and particularly about one sort of ship, the East Coast collier, which meant learning all about the East Coast; and in the winter months, we are told, he studied hard at navigation by candle-light in Mr Walker's attic. Problem: what could he learn of navigation there? Perhaps the theory, added to the practice, of finding latitude, something about the compass and what they then called its variation, some simple astronomy; perhaps he mainly worked examples and practised his figures. Perhaps he read some geography. One supposes that Walker overlooked his studies as well as his practical progress, so one would like to know a good deal more about Walker. He certainly got on well with Walker, if life-long friendship, and even affection, indicates enough—whether as 'servant', able seaman, or mate; and Walker seems to have promoted him in the shortest possible time. Most of his navigation must have been rule of thumb work, a matter of eye and memory, the learning of the outline of the English coast and the nature of the shoals off it, a thorough acquaintance with the estuary of the Thames. His passages were all short, the longest across to Flanders or through the Channel into the Irish Sea, or even, temporarily out of Walker's service, across the North Sea to the Baltic. Certainly he had a thorough grounding in seamanship. Was he ever tempted, as a brisk young man, to cross the Atlantic
or try his luck in an East Indiaman? We don't know. Did he, at the end of a passage, before he shipped again automatically for Whitby,
adventure into the streets of London? We don't know. He must have had some leisure. How did he employ it? We don't know. He couldn't have spent all the time doing sums. Was he interested in anything besides the sea and ships? We don't know. Probably not. He was certainly an industrious apprentice, although he did not marry Miss Walker.
We are told that Walker was confident enough of him when he was 26 years old and had been a mate for two and a half years, to offer him the command of the Friendship; and that vessel must have been about the size of the first ship he ever did command, thirteen years later, apart from the surveying schooner Grenville of 68 tons. He turned the offer down and volunteered into the navy as an able seaman, in June 1755. Problem: why? Answer so far as we are ever likely to get one, 'to try what his fortune would bring that way'. That is probably as much reason as any restless young man could give for such an action, whether impulsive or deeply thought. It was at Wapping, and we must assume therefore some correspondence with Walker; and war at sea between England and France had already begun, though undeclared; and Walker the Quaker, on all counts, could not have been happy to see one of his best young men proceed of his own free will into that unpleasant service. As a merchant master Cook would have been in no danger of being pressed. He exchanged a respectable position for a position which nobody respected. He must have been restless. Was he ambitious too? Did he see himself as a captain with gold lace and a spy-glass, or did he just want a change? We don't know. Did he read a poster or listen to some recruiting lieutenant? We don't know. Excitement and prize money were not guaranteed, except by recruiting lieutenants. Sickness and misery could be. There were other ways of seeing the world. But if he was anxious to join the navy, he took the only way open to him, as a farm boy and reluctant haberdasher turned sailor, without a single influential friend. Note that up to this time a biographer is hard put to spin out what we certainly know of Cook beyond three or four pages. He can now write more because the history of James Cook is incorporated in the history of the British Navy, and Cook's education becomes a naval education. He can write more, because he has an almost continuous run of records: logs or so-called journals for every ship Cook served in, including the documents he wrote himself. Or if he did not write them himself, he got somebody else to do so, and signed them; these things present an extraordinary miscellany of handwriting, and there is a great deal of dog-eat-dog about them.
We get a continuous view of Cook—even if, to commit a paradox, he is out of sight. Indeed, he is generally out of sight, one of a ship's company, but we can tell pretty well what he is doing. He is on service in the Channel
or the Bay of Biscay, he becomes a master's mate; once or twice he emerges from the mass, is one of a boarding party, takes charge of a small prize and brings her up to London. He becomes a master, has a short voyage from Leith to the Shetlands and back in the patrol vessel Solebay, is sent to the more famous Pembroke, a new ship, destined for the North American station and service which will, in a small way, make Mr Cook's name. The problem for the biographer here, and one which seems quite insoluble, is that the view we have is an entirely external one. Ship's logs are impersonal documents, and Cook's logs and journals are no more personal than the others. Naturally so: it was no part of a master's mate's duty to register his emotions at seeing a ship go down on fire, if he had any; if he was elated at being put in charge of a prize, he had better keep it to himself; and if some ministering angel had informed him that remote posterity would like to know how he travelled to Scotland, and whether he stayed the night with his parents on the way, and how they received him, he would probably have suspected that angel to be not ministering but lunatic. The only time Scotland ever seems to come into his thoughts is when he is naming New Caledonia in 1774; and I must confess that when I was annotating that passage I simply forgot he had ever been there. So the biographer has to exploit the war years with what subtle cunning he can summon up. Unless—is it possible, he asks himself, that this most unusual title-page of a Solebay log, these spidery uncouth flourishes surrounding the name 'James Cook; Master', writ large,1 indicate elation, ambition gratified?—is this at last the individual, the personal, note?
Louisburg falls; Quebec falls. Cook, a delighted student, has his first lessons in surveying from the military engineer Samuel Holland
, under the aegis of that intellectual among naval officers, Captain John Simcoe
of the Pembroke
; draws his first charts, renders good service in the St Lawrence, gives some bad counsel to the distracted General Wolfe
, spends his time in winter quarters at Halifax
working hard at trigonometry, is moved to the flagship, is specially rewarded for his labours; has his name brought to the attention of the Admiralty, has his first contact with Newfoundland
. From these five years, so briefly summarized, arise two main problems. Smaller puzzles, of dating, of confused identities in narrow escapes, may be left on one side. The first problem is once again inherent in the nature of our external view. How did this naval service affect Cook's mind? He was an attentive and conscientious observer of men and things in his later life, and these characteristics could not have sprung newly into being when he took command of the Endeavour
. He had seen shipboard sickness in the Channel; he saw plenty more of it in Halifax harbour; his
own ship was once immobilized by it. He saw men die of scurvy. He saw and ate, interminably, naval diet. He recorded the round of petty crimes, theft of stores, drunkenness; more serious matters, desertions, a stabbing, sodomy brought to light; he recorded the weekly court-martials, and the savage punishments which the captains, whom we have no particular reason to regard as committees of sadists, meted out—the hangings, the hundreds of lashes, the floggings round the fleet. He must have seen these things, or have had a remarkable talent for closing his eyes. He must have both seen and reflected upon them, just as he must have reflected upon the nature of seamen, that made them willing to run the risk of such fearful retribution, or their pig-headed opposition to their own best interests. Certainly his record of them is a severely professional statement of fact, in the conventional words. The problem is to decide, with no evidence to go on—or rather, with no evidence beyond his own practice as a disciplinarian—what sort of emotional reaction he had. He was later known for his humanity. He punished rarely and unwillingly, the younger Forster tells us; though we with our tenderer feelings would think that, punishment being flogging and not merely the stopping of grog, he punished quite enough. That, however, is not the whole of the matter. Did he end the war with a revulsion against the whole naval regimen, the well-intentioned, evil, inefficient, boring, murderous life? Did he ever compare the way Lord Colville ran his ships with the way John Walker ran his ships? The North Sea was a cruel adversary, but at least it was not a school of humiliation.
The other problem concerns a technical point, and it may serve as a bridge to the next period of the man's life, the period of the Newfoundland survey. The question is, when did Cook first become interested in the ascertaining of longitude at sea by some scientific means? In 1792 Samuel Holland, then Canadian Surveyor-General, wrote to Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe about his contacts with Cook and the governor's father, the Pembroke's
captain: among the interesting things he said was this, that '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'.1
Now Cook drew charts under Simcoe's eye, says Holland, 'and by your father's finding the latitudes and longitudes along the Coast of America…so erroneously hitherto laid down, he [that is, Simcoe] was convinced of the propriety of making accurate surveys of those parts'; and therefore recom-
Cook 'to make himself competent to the business by learning Spherical Trigonometry, with lie practical part of Astronomy', giving him books of which Cook 'made infinite use'.1
Simcoe died in May 1759, as the fleet was on its passage to the St Lawrence, and Cook thereafter as a student seems to have worked on his own. But what Simcoe did Cook must, one would think, as master of the ship and protégé, have taken part in. Then what did that 'finding the latitudes and longitudes' mean? Can Holland be depended on? Latitudes, yes. Cook, as well as Simcoe, could find a latitude. But how did Simcoe find a longitude? Would spherical trigonometry and practical astronomy help him to that, in 1759? We know that those arts, or sciences, in the hands of the Rev. Nevil Maskelyne
, were soon to provide a solution to the ancient problem, of which seamen with enough mathematics and patience could take advantage; but Maskelyne's first paper on the subject did not appear in the Philosophical Transactions
of the Royal Society till 1761, or his British Mariner's Guide
, which popularised his system of lunar distances, till 1763, by which time Cook was already employed on the Newfoundland survey. The survey did not depend on longitudes; few of his charts show the meridians drawn. The only particular mention of longitude in his Newfoundland logs or journals that I can recall is in his entry for 9 May 1767, off Cape Race on his outward passage, 'NB Longitude made from Scilly to Cape Race 44° 10' Wt
'—a form of words which implies dead reckoning and not observation. Yet one would think that by then he must certainly have assimilated the British Mariner's Guide
, and 1767 was the year for which Maskelyne's Nautical Almanac
first provided comprehensive tables. And by then, certainly, he was a precise observer, with a good telescope; for it was in August 1766, on one of the Burgeo Islands, that he observed the eclipse of the sun, with a result that made possible the calculation, though not by himself, of a very accurate longitude. It seems highly improbable that when he took command of the Endeavour
he was not master of the latest navigational technique, or had to receive instruction, along with the other officers, from Mr Charles Green
, appointed by the Royal Society to be his co-observer of the Transit of Venus. So: when did he acquire the technique? How one wishes he had kept a diary, and registered therein, if not his emotions, at least a few dates and movements. Perhaps, if he had, Mrs Cook
would have got rid of it somehow, with all the other papers that were in the house. She seems to have been a tidy woman.
I was going to say, perhaps an unsentimental woman, but how are we to know? Perhaps in her sad latter years, keeping her annual day of mourning for her husband and her dead sons, merely a private woman.
She was only 37 when Cook was killed, and lived on into her nineties. We know too little about her, and too little about Cook's domestic life. It is a matter on which, naturally enough, Kippis the contemporary is dumb. It may as well be considered here, because Cook's marriage to the young lady from Barking takes place between the two periods we have had in mind, at the end of the naval war and before he goes off on his surveying campaigns. Is there a problem for the biographer of a Trans-atlantic surveyor and circumnavigator and explorer, whose life was perforce not a domestic life? Should one boldly assert that for such a man there is no such problem, or if there is, that it is irrelevant; or admit that there may be a problem—if one wishes to see one's man whole—but feel about it as Cook himself felt about some islands, that he was 'unwilling to prolong the passage in searching for what I was not sure to find', that in fact the relevance is marginal? Can we get away from the question, having broached it, by affirming simply that Cook was a sailor and a naval officer, and therefore belonged, in the words of Jane Austen
, 'to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance'? Not altogether, though we may be unable to prolong the passage. We know that Cook bought a small house in Mile End Old Town, and regularly took steps, between voyages, to increase his family there; that Boswell, who thought Mrs Cook a decent plump Englishwoman, visited him there too late for breakfast and was given tea in the garden, where a blackbird sang; and we know that Mrs Cook said that Mr Cook never looked stern; and so far we have an agreeable picture. We infer also that Cook was ambitious for at least two of his sons, and pictured them with careers in the navy, because he added them to his ships' muster books at the ages of five and three, to accumulate the necessary service for their lieutenant's certificates; so that he himself must have been satisfied enough with the navy. Do these things make a significant addition to the other testimony we have to his general affability, benevolence, humane foresight? Do they help to counteract the hastiness, the outbursts of passion, which his greatest admirers all concede? Perhaps we have prolonged the passage enough, and are not going to find very much; perhaps, to vary the metaphor, drawing on the journals again, we are being carried in a current on to a lee shore, and had better haul off. But on the lee shore does stand a biographical problem, very close to the domestic life problem, and I go back to my old thought about the acts of the man of action. What should we be studying in Cook at this stage, a character or a chronological list of deeds? Do we answer the question finally by saying he was what he did?
Let us vary the metaphor again, and before we sink in this semi-
metaphysical sea scramble back on to our ship with two straight little historical problems. The first problem indeed concerns a ship. Cook's ships were an important part of his career as an explorer. He says as much. If other men had had ships as good, he almost implies, they would have made discoveries just as extensive. To have said so explicitly would of course have been modesty run mad; but the fact stands out that the Endeavour and Resolution were ideal ships for their purpose, whether their purpose were carrying coal or carrying an expedition of discovery. Problem: who chose the Endeavour? And second problem: how came it that Cook was chosen to command her? We can see reasons for the choice in either case; but what was the process? We don't know: we cry out in vain for enough documentation. According to Kippis, according to Palliser, Palliser and Cook chose the ship. According to Alexander Dalrymple, Dalrymple chose her. Is one claim as good as another? No doubt when they saw her they all approved of her, and very likely Cook most of all, because he had worked in that sort of ship, and the others had not. One does not charge Palliser with deliberate lying; but some of the other information he gave Kippis was demonstrably wrong; he was drawing on his memory and he had been engaged in more than one bitter controversy since the Endeavour was chosen; it is difficult to imagine why he, a governor of Newfoundland home for the winter, with no knowledge whatsoever of exploring, should have been called on for his advice. Similarly, why should Cook have been called on for his advice? He had no knowledge of exploring either. He knew nothing of the experience of frigates in the Pacific Ocean. So far as we know, the Pacific Ocean had never entered his head; and the fact that he was a surveyor, busily working on his charts, and trying to organize a surgeon's mate into hit surveying vessel for the ensuing season, supplies no reason we are in search of. It seems highly likely that Palliser, when he talked to Kippis, was pushing back his memory of the selection of the Resolution, in which Cook was directly and primarily concerned, supported with fervour and entire conviction by Palliser himself, for reasons stated in an excellent memorandum, at a time when Palliser was Comptroller of the Navy, and had a principal hand in such matters. Dalrymple, for his part, tended to make claims, and he had hoped to command the voyage. He was not a favoured person at the Admiralty, but it is quite possible that, looking over the vessels in the Pool of London, he said to someone—possibly even someone with an official position—'That's the ship I'd choose'. Cook made no claim. We must remember that the collier was bought into the service only after other ships, earlier thought of, proved unavailable or could not be got ready in time. Cook's sole remark on the matter, to my knowledge, was, 'of all that was said and offered to the
Admiralty's consideration on this subject, as far as has come to my knowledge, and what in my opinion was most to the purpose, was suggested by the Navy Board'.1 True, he was here referring to the second voyage of the Resolution, but in a context that most certainly included the Endeavour, The Navy Board was not Cook, nor in 1768 Palliser, nor Dalrymple. What member of the Navy Board was first pierced by the heaven-sent idea is something that, still again, we do not know, and are not likely to know.
The second problem, the choice of Cook, the joining up of the other half of the remarkable combination, is even more baffling. To us it seems logical for all sorts of reasons, it seems almost inevitable. Yes, but we have a great deal of hindsight. The Admiralty had none. Was Cook the only alternative to the civilian Dalrymple, whom the First Lord would on no account have? The previous voyages of the decade had been commanded by a commodore, the Hon. John Byron, and by a post-captain, Samuel Wallis. It can hardly be argued that this was only a voyage to take astronomers out to an island, and a master would do for that—because there were other objects besides the convenience of astronomers. There must have been plenty of half-pay officers at hand. It is clear enough that Cook's name was known at the Admiralty, and it is pretty clear that he would be supported by Stephens the secretary, and by Palliser; and Palliser, whom Cook always regarded as his patron, would certainly be consulted in this case, because Cook, as surveyor, was under his command. Either of those two men might quite well have suggested him, thinking it time he should get promotion, even at the cost of dropping income. There is a little subsidiary problem why and when it was decided to give him a commission. On paper he was only seconded, as it were, to this service; his mate in the Grenville was to take command and carry on the survey 'during Mr Cook's absence'.2 One knows how these things are organized often enough in a government office, and one does not, generally, wish for more elaboration of the administrative process; but this time we should have been grateful for a bit of paper setting out the movers and the reasons. Heaven knows there are enough bits of paper in the Admiralty records that we could do without.
Men and ships: there is still another problem. We know that Cook chose the Resolution
for his second voyage. We know all we need of the circumstances of her alteration to accommodate Mr Banks and his train of scientists and artists and draughtsmen and servants and private band
let alone his luggage, until she was the most unsafe and doomed ship in the river, and everybody knew it; we know about the popular interest in 'Mr Banks's ship'; we are adequately supplied with Mr Banks
's rage and frustration, we are aware of the cool way in which Lord Sandwich
, having gone along with his young friend against all the advice of the Navy Board, at great public expense, and having at last had enough, was prepared to demolish the young friend's pretensions for ever. We know the unwavering attitude of Palliser, as Comptroller of the Navy, which earned him the unwavering enmity of Banks. Why then did Cook let things go as far as they did, without protest? Or did he protest in private? He knew as much about ships as Palliser did, a great deal more than Sandwich did. His standing with the Lords and the Navy Board was so high that they were giving him everything he wanted, except brass hinges for his cabin door. None knew better than he did what you could do with a Whitby collier. Everything was going on, so we gather, under his own eye. It needed only his report that the ship had nearly turned turtle for orders to be given the same day to get her back into her original shape. Yet he says nothing in his journal about his own early thoughts, though he summarizes the matter fairly enough in one of his later drafts, which was not printed. Everybody was being very tender, in public, about the preposterous Mr Banks. So we ask: when the alterations started, did Cook hope, and persist in hoping, against his clear knowledge, that the ship could carry all that top hamper? Or did he reflect that Banks's influence, or friendship, with the First Lord was such that the two of them would have to head for disaster together, and that Sandwich would come to his senses first? Did he have any conversation with Palliser?—surely he must have done so—and did they agree that that was the only possible course to follow? What did he say to the men in the dockyard? We may remember one of Banks's complaints, that the Navy Board had deliberately gone ahead to rebuild the ship as heavy and unmanageable as possible, simply to make a fool of him. It seems unlikely, but someone may have felt that way. We may put all these questions aside, and say simply that Cook's own friendship for Banks was so great that he was willing to try anything; or argue that having seen the drawings he simply stepped aside and left it all to the shipwrights. Either of which arguments would argue so perfect a misjudgement on his part that one would have to put down the rest of his career to pure chance; and this we cannot do.
That problem remains. The problems of the voyages sink away after it; or at least all the problems are Cook's, not his biographer's, and the biographical interest comes from watching how he met them. As he had learnt how to write a journal on his first voyage, we have documentation,
and we can get more sometimes from the journals of his officers. He learns ice navigation, perfects his reef navigation, learns much—at some cost in time—about the world's winds; has, on those second and third voyages, some fearfully narrow escapes from disaster. One would rather like him to have done something wrong: is there a problem there? Did he ever do anything wrong, in the sphere of navigation or seamanship? One would, in a rather mean-spirited way, like to see something wrong, to tie him up with our poorer humanity, and to prove that the biographer has a fair mind, and is not overwhelmed and besotted with the majesty of his subject. But biographers have mostly been landsmen, and therefore incapable of a just critical analysis, and seamen have been quick to put down hostile commentary. One is, as it were, condemned to admire, much as one craves to see the man steadily and see him whole, even if that means seeing him in pieces. There are questions one asks, small problems about the north-west American coast as Cook describes it, which can hardly be answered without going there oneself and looking with all modern conveniences, but they hardly amount to a Grand Problem of biography. It is reasonable to be content sometimes with what he thought he saw. There are a good many supplementary questions which one asks as one makes one's way minutely through the journals. Some are historical questions, as on the exact state of the naval dockyards in 1775—6, when the Resolution was fitted out for the third voyage. Some are about persons more or less closely connected with Cook and the voyages: John Gore, the lieutenant, for example—if an American, what put him into the navy?—and who was his favourite female acquaintance, Nancy? How much more one would gladly know of that genial and devoted fellow Charles Clerke! And how did William Bligh become master of the Resolution? The questions, though subsidiary, are not exactly irrelevant. The biographer cannot help sighing wistfully after omniscience.
Such questions bring us back to Cook. We want to know what these men thought of him, and what he thought of them. We are back to personality, back to the things that Boswell might have done so well, back to what people are inclined to call Cook the Man, though I have great difficulty in separating the man from the surveyor and the circumnavigator. Is it worth wondering, having mentioned Boswell again, not what Cook said, but what he talked about? He was willing to talk about his voyages, we know. We can guess that he talked about the weather, and the behaviour of the ship, and the sins of the Deptford dockyard and the victualling contractors, and the peculiarities of island peoples. His general knowledge was extensive and various, we are told; how did he pick that up? What does this information imply? Hardly, one would think, an extensive knowledge of
history or politics or literature; certainly a great deal of geography and anthropology. We can trace some of his reading in his journals; It is professional. The nearest it comes to literature is Dampier; we have the additional remark from the younger Forster that he read Hakluyt for entertainment. That is interesting, and it seems natural enough. It provides no worrying problem. There is one problem, however, on this side of personality which has worried me as an aspirant biographer a great deal for a long time. It is hardly a matter of private life. It is connected quite closely with Cook's career as an explorer, his behaviour as a commander of men. He was himself a very stubborn, persistent man; his whole professional career might be called an exercise in these qualities. He was also, as part of his stubbornness, a very patient man. Stubbornness, persistence and patience were perhaps the qualities that, added to his technical ability, put him among the great. But he was also an impatient man. His admirers, as I have already said, make no bones about his 'temper subject to hastiness and passion'.1
So there is something of another paradox. The witnesses to the passion are on the whole the admiring shipmates of the third voyage. We do not hear about it on the earlier voyages—perhaps (how many times is one condemned to use that word?) because fewer men wrote unbuttoned commentaries, and no one had to write an obituary; perhaps because the captain managed to maintain an iron control over himself. One can think of a few incidents which might have brought out passion as well as an even-handed disposal of justice. On the second voyage Cook was ill more than once, and for a period he was critically ill with some sort of ulceration of the stomach; and on the third voyage illness is mentioned too, though we hear less of it. It may very well have been partly, a less severe visitation of the evil of the second voyage. I have the strong feeling that Cook set out on the third voyage a tired man, and should not have been allowed to go until he had had a period of leave, forced on him if necessary; and that the mixture of tiredness and illness, together with the further strains of untoward winds and dangerous navigation, in a ship scandalously refitted between voyages, underlay the exasperation that blazed up undoubtedly more frequently than before. He lost, sufficiently for the loss to be important—and certainly decisive at the last desperate moment—his sureness of touch. I cannot be dogmatic about this. Like a good historian, I hope, I have looked assiduously for some evidence which would prove my hypothesis wrong, and I may find some yet. Only one reviewer of the last volume of Cook's journals, that I can think of, exhibited any scepticism about it. This may indicate that the hypothesis is strong or that reviewers are weak. In either case, there is the problem,
An Australian historian whom I respect much puts down Cook's death to hubris
, an overweening pride in his achievement that the gods could not but humble. This is an interesting variant on the missionary theory that having allowed himself to be worshipped he was guilty of sacrilege, and God struck him down. These suggestions do not seem to me to be adequate. And it is no good appealing to Boswell.