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Cook the Navigator

Cook the Navigator

page 27
Proc. Roy. Soc. Lond. A 314, 27-38 (1969)
Printed in Great Britain

Cook the Navigator

(A lecture delivered to the Royal Society on 3 June 1969
on the occasion of the celebration of the observation of the
transit of Venus by Captain James Cook, R.N., F.R.S.)

To suggest that a historian should explain Cook the Navigator to a scientific body is, if I may use scriptural language, to lay upon a grasshopper the load of a camel. At least the grasshopper, with a proper terror of scientific bodies, may feel it so. Yet Cook was neither a particularly high flight among the higher flights of mathematics—to the modern mathematician he would seem hardly to have got off the ground—nor a singularly complicated chemical equation. It should be possible for the historian, in his biographical moments, to say why Admiral Forbes, at the head of the carefully elaborate paragraphs he composed for the published account of Cook's third voyage, should refer to the Hero as 'The ablest and most renowned Navigator this or any country hath produced'; or why Daniel Wray, F.R.S., less sweeping and more homely in his news to the Earl of Hardwicke, F.R.S., in August 1775, should nevertheless write, 'Cook is returned, and has resumed his seat at the Mitre. He is a right-headed unaffected man; and I have a great authority for calling him our best navigator.(l)*The Mitre was the tavern where the Royal Society dined; and the implication is that Cook, though not yet a Fellow, dined with it; and that was unusual for a sea captain, and argues some peculiar gift or accomplishment. He was not the only right-headed unaffected man in the naval service; so what was the gift? In fact he had more than one gift. Perhaps the first of them was that he was born in the eighteenth century, which was the right century for the others to function in: it posed the right problems at the right time, put into his hands the right technical equipment for their solution, gave him the right official support. But other naval persons existed in that century and did not attain eminence; and few among them had to begin with as few advantages. I discriminate advantages from gifts. It was an advantage to have among one's relatives an earl who knew the First Lord of the Admiralty, and Cook's relatives included no such excellent figure; it was a gift to have—what Cook's lieutenant James King said Cook had—a strong and perspicacious mind. Well: a strong and page 28 perspicacious mind, in the navy in the eighteenth century: not enough, but a beginning.

We are to make the early point that Cook invented nothing and originated nothing. It was a great age of scientific instrument making. He was a connoisseur of the instruments he used, but he could not make a Bird quadrant, a Ramsden sextant, a Dollond reflecting telescope. He belonged to the vast majority of the population, exclusive of one man, who could not invent a Harrison chronometer. He could use instruments, when he got them, with a skill and an accuracy that few other men could match. There were men who as observers did match him, but few of them were in the navy. On the other hand, his ships' complements included trained astronomers. We must not, however, identify navigation only with the use of instruments, with so-called scientific navigation. There is a deal of it which is a matter of experience and practical skill—ice navigation, reef navigation, coastal navigation—as well as the navigation of the vast and empty oceans. Cook knew them all. He had to learn them all and the learning process had some extremely un pleasant as well as pleasant episodes. It may be useful in our own inquiry to turn to the history of the man.

Cook began to learn in the North Sea, in the coal trade, out of Whitby north to Sunderland, south into the Thames. It was a coastal navigation, and the unlighted English east coast was treacherous. It was a navigation in which a man needed to know his latitude; but much more he needed to know intimately the outline of the coast and the nature of the sea bottom, the tides, currents and shoals between his home port and the dockside in London River; a navigation of eye and memory, in which a lead and lead-line were the important things besides a compass, and the most esoteric instrument an apprentice studied was the backstaff, invented by John Davis towards the end of the sixteenth century, and the seaman's friend ever since. What else Cook the industrious apprentice studied in the attic of his amiable master John Walker we do not quite know—something beyond his school arithmetic, some elementary astronomy, some navigational text-book. But John Robertson's very popular Elements of Navigation was not even published when he began. Anyhow, on that coast and across the North Sea to the Baltic and to Flanders, and through the Channel to Ireland, he learnt enough from the masters of his ships to make him the master himself of a large amount of traditional local knowledge, and to get him the offer from Walker of command of a collier in 1755. There were men enough with equal qualifications. That was the year in which he turned away from the North Sea trade to enter the navy. In two years more he was a master in a different sense, the master of a naval vessel, and four months after that the master of a 64-gun ship of 1250 tons. This was a respectable and responsible position: it put Cook in virtual charge of the administration of a large ship, took him into Atlantic and American navigation, and—extremely important for his future—into marine surveying. Fortune also conferred upon him in this ship one of the intellectual captains of the navy, a man with strong scientific leanings, John Simcoe—who, too early dead, yet before he died saw the intellect page 29 in his master and gave him his first impulsion towards astronomical observation and a more advanced sort of mathematical study. Cook did not forget this, and we should not forget it either. The immediate result, of course, was hydrographic work, including the famous work in the St Lawrence river; and then, as a natural development, the remarkable charting of the Newfoundland coasts from 1763 to 1767. We can include in this the observation of the eclipse of the Sun from the Burgeo Islands in August 1766, which first brought him to the attention of the Royal Society.

After Cook left Newfoundland, he never made another survey or chart of the beautiful exactitude he devoted to those complex shores. Never again did he have the time. He produced some astonishingly accomplished charts—for examples, of New Zealand, the east coast of Australia, the New Hebrides, the northwest coast of America—but these were the fruit of running surveys from a ship at sea, rather than of triangulation by land combined with careful boat work offshore. These are, to make a distinction which needs elaboration to be sound, a navigator's charts rather than a hydrographer's. Cook himself distinguished. Exact hydrographic work takes time. When he was not pushed, he could still produce or direct detailed work—Queen Charlotte Sound, Dusky Sound, Port Resolution—which it is a joy to gaze upon. And we must note, behind these great running surveys, one particular passion that Cook had, one point of devotion and of pride, the exact fixing of positions. In this respect the charts must be taken in conjunction with his journals; and, reading the two together, one begins to realize his true stature as a navigator. For exact fixing of positions means the exact reduction of the coordinates of latitude and longitude.

I have said that Cook invented nothing and originated nothing. He did not invent latitude or longitude, any more than he invented variation of the compass or the rise and fall of the tides, other things to which he paid regular attention. All sailors of any competence in navigation at all—navigation as a professional skill, or an applied science, if we can call it a science—could find a latitude at sea with reasonable accuracy. What else were their backstaffs for? You took the altitude of the Sun, its angle of elevation above the horizon, you made some relatively simple calculations, and you had it. When in 1731 John Hadley invented his quadrant, or reflecting octant, and it came into common production, you were so much the farther on the road to accuracy, if you were interested, and prepared to dip deeper into your pocket. Some time later in the century, in 1787, Captain John Campbell, a man with a career somewhat parallel to Cook's—for he had preceded Cook in volunteering from the coal trade into the navy as an A.B., and had risen by sheer ability—modified Hadley's quadrant to produce the sextant, and this very elegant brass instrument was to mark one of the great revolutions in navigational technique. It was not singular in this, because there was another great invention emerging about the same time, even more revolutionary. Cook was intimately concerned with both. We must plunge for a moment into the problem of longitude at sea.

page 30

It was an ancient problem, and so intractable that for centuries men simply gave it up. Latitude, as I have said, was found by a simple enough process. Hadley made the process easier and more accurate on a heaving deck. But that was only half the business of fixing a position. Put in vulgar terms, you moved up or down on the globe, or a chart, and from side to side. How were you to tell how far you had gone from side to side, measured in degrees, and where you were on any particular day? You could not tell by just looking at the sun. I should correct myself. The sailor did not quite give it up. He had his dead reckoning. He could measure the speed of his ship every hour or two hours by using his log and log-line, his compass would tell him what direction he had been sailing in, he might be able to allow for current and leeway, and putting all the components together he might, with the use of his traverse board, under good conditions, fix a reasonably good daily position. Some men had a talent for this: Columbus seems to have been excellent at it. If the conditions were bad, it was a different story; and, if examples are needed, one can take the awful passage of the discoverer Mendana across the Pacific from the Solomon Islands to California in 1668, or of Anson round the Horn in 1741. If a discoverer discovered anything, then his problem was to say where it was; and if he could only say it was so many leagues west of something else, that was not really very useful, when his so many might be the merest guesswork. It is no wonder that Mendana's Solomon Islands were not identified for more than 200 years after he discovered them, and that Cook had doubts of their separate existence. So, as is well enough known, a sailor aiming for a known port or point, got on to its latitude and stuck to that until he made his landfall, measuring his passage in days and not degrees. This is roughly what Cook did when, on the Newfoundland survey, he began to sail regularly across the Atlantic. I do not wish to be disrespectful to the Atlantic Ocean, but for him it was a sort of backyard navigation. And, with all the latest improvements in theory and instruments, this is precisely what he did on his second voyage (though he did measure his degrees carefully) when he was intent on rediscovering Mendana's Marquesas Islands: he sailed north from Easter Island to a position he knew must be well east of them, in the right latitude, and then sailed due west until he came to them. After which he fixed their longitude exactly for the geographers and his own successors.

He was able to fix their longitude exactly because of an invention and a discovery he did not make. These were not concerned with variations of the compass, where one not highly disciplined school of thought fancied the secret might lie; nor with the diagrams drawn on the wall by the wild-eyed lunatic in Hogarth's mad-house print of 1735. They were concerned with time, and its reckoning. Time is a function of longitude; and it was realized by astronomers as early as the sixteenth century that if the time at any place on the Earth's surface could be compared with the time at some other place, taken as a standard point of departure, the problem would be solved. Having come from longitude to time, you could, as it were, by careful calculation go backwards from time to longitude. A great deal of astronomical page 31 work was necessary before the prerequisites of calculation were set out. A Newton was necessary. The astronomical tables of a Mayer were necessary. For the British, the Rev. Nevil Maskelyne was necessary. Maskelyne, born four years after Cook, an able and devoted astronomer, a Fellow of the Royal Society from 1758, when Cook had his first introduction to scientific surveying, went on a voyage to St Helena in 1761 to observe the transit of Venus. Clouds prevented that observation; but on the outward and homeward passages he developed the system of finding longitude at sea by observations taken with Hadley's quadrant of so-called 'lunar distances'—the angular distance between the Moon and the Sun or one of a number of fixed stars. The difference between the time of this observation, and the time of the same angular distance observed from Greenwich observatory, as deduced from the tables, would give the desired longitude; for the result in time had only to be multiplied by 15, the number of degrees equivalent to a difference of one hour. Maskelyne, a mild and genial man, might well have swelled with pride, particularly if he had been blessed with foreknowledge; for he had made possible the great triumphs of the Endeavour voyage. In 1763, Cook's first year as a surveyor, he published The British Mariner's Guide, which conveyed instruction in the system; and in 1765, when he became Astronomer Royal, he promptly made arrangements for the publication of the Nautical Almanac, which contained tables based on Mayer's and calculated for every day in the year at three-hour intervals. The first number was published for 1767; Maskelyne presided over it for 45 years. There can be no doubt that Cook absorbed the Mariner's Guide at the first opportunity. He thought the process was simple enough; and indeed Maskelyne had reduced it, after the actual observations, to arithmetic and not very advanced trigonometry. It was not quite simple: there were corrections for refraction and parallax and, by astronomical means, for the local time of observation. The ordinary sea captain would take about four hours to work out the result, it has been said; and now and again, no doubt, by the time he had it, he would have been on shore. When John Green [sic: Charles Green], who had been Maskelyne's assistant at the Observatory and had helped in preparing the tables, joined the Endeavour, primarily to observe the Transit, he professed to be shocked—or, at least, found it 'a little odd', as he wrote to the Royal Society—that no one on board (he must have excepted the captain) could 'either make an observation of the Moon or Calculate one when made'; but Green himself must have been either an intellectual snob or very ill acquainted with the nature of seamen. He went to work heroically to instruct the officers and midshipmen, and on the whole had good success. He also, before he sank under the burden not of mathematics but of drink, did a great deal to relieve Cook of a routine that made considerable demands on a captain otherwise fully employed. Cook settled down, one might say, to put the Pacific into order: and he started, one might almost say, with Tahiti, henceforward to be one of his principal bases. In a previous century he could have blundered over half the ocean looking for it. Now he could go straight to it, in plenty of time to prepare for the observation that took place through those hot and cloudless hours 200 years page 32 ago tonight. He could do this because the situation of the island had already been fixed pretty accurately by the purser—certainly a mathematician, perhaps an astronomer—of the ship which discovered it, a man, as Captain Samuel Wallis said in significant words, 'thro whose means we took the Longitude by taking the Distance of the Sun from the Moon and Working it according to Dr Masculines Method which we did not understand'.(2) Indeed, he did not even understand how to spell Maskelyne's name.

So much for the discovery: what of the invention? It was, of course, John Harrison's chronometer, known to us so familiarly in Cook's second journal as 'Mr Kendals watch' or 'the watch machine' or simply 'the Time Keeper'. This piece of machinery was, if one may give it personality, one of the chief dramatis personae of the second voyage; and it seemed to a master's mate on that voyage the most wonderful piece of mechanism invented in the whole history of the world. Contemporaneity again: Harrison began his broodings and experiments about the year of Cook's birth, 1728; and he himself lived till 1776, the year after that in which Cook brought back from as rigorous a testing as machine ever had, in a sort of joint triumph, the creation of his brain. One need not go into the history of the chronometer. One need merely say that it was a mechanical means of by-passing all the observations and computations that Maskelyne had worked out, the four hours' martyrdom of sea captains. It was, in fact, a clock that, whatever the movements of a ship, in whatever conditions of heat or cold or tempest that might be encountered, would continue to show the correct time at Greenwich or any other point of departure, so that the difference between it and the time at your place of observation immediately gave the longitude—or rather, immediately you multiplied by 15. To be scientifically correct, you must ascertain your ownlime astronomically rather than by your pocket watch. If you had a passion for exactitude, you would also test the going of your chronometer periodically by taking lunars; and it might be as well to test your own fallibility by the chronometer. Now the Board of Longitude, being a public body, was anxious not to part with the full reward offered for this invention until its success had been proved so completely that it might seem to lie in the nature of eternity, although this success, beyond the tolerance imposed of one half a degree of error, had already been ascertained by Maskelyne himself in 1764. Hence its trial by Cook, the article tried being a copy by the London watchmaker Larcum Kendall of the original; and hence Cook's name for it, 'Mr Kendals watch'. It was allowed to run down once, on the second voyage; it finally broke down, after all the storms and terrors of seven years, off the coast of Kamchatka in 1779; and, now refurbished, it ticks steadily on in the National Maritime Museum. Cook developed almost an affection for this watch. He had scarcely left England six weeks, in 1772, when after nine lunar observations one day, he remarked of his discrepant dead reckoning: 'Such is the effect the Currants must have had on the Sloop, and which Mr Kendalls Watch tought us to expect.'(3) More than two years later, in commenting on the assiduity and accuracy of William Wales, the astronomer on that voyage, in fixing positions, he page 33 writes: 'Even the situation of such Islands as we past without touching at are by means of Mr Kendalls Watch determined with almost equal accuracy.' It becomes 'our trusty guide', 'our never failing guide the Watch'; confiding to it to take him from the Cape to St Helena on a direct course, he shouts in high spirits to a baffled East Indiaman, his consort, that he will run their jibboom on the island if they choose; he reports to the Admiralty secretary in more measured terms that 'Mr Kendals Watch has exceeded the expectations of its most Zealous advocate and by being now and then corrected by Lunar observations has been our faithfull guide through all the vicissitudes of climates.'(4)

So there Cook was, the man in the age, with instruments and methods denied to other men in other ages. Wherever he was, he always knew where he was. He was quick to register his indebtedness. We are not to imagine, however, that his technical work as a navigator was limited to the calculation of latitudes and longitudes. His province was, to use a phrase much used by himself, 'Geography and Navigation', and it would be difficult to separate the two in his mind, or to separate the geography of land from that of sea. But essentially the sea is the thing. He was a sailor. He was also a marine surveyor and a hydrographer. He was, he had all the instincts of, what we should call in our jargon a 'research man'. He was the leader of a 'research team'. Navigation was for him not merely getting from one place to another. The instructions he was given in 1768, and again in 1772 and 1776, to explore diligently the coasts he might discover; 'carefully observing the true situation thereof both in Latitude and Longitude, the Variation of the Needle, bearings of head Lands, Height, direction and Course of the Tides and Currents, Depths and Soundings of the Sea, Shoals, Rocks &ca and also surveying and making Charts, and taking Views of such Bays, Harbours and Parts of the Coast as may be useful to Navigation'(5)—these instructions seemed perfectly natural to him, to be carried out with a simple and exhaustive literalism that must have surprised somewhat the Lords of the Admiralty. One would even now be surprised, perhaps, if one did not know the story, at the number of hills he climbed in his inquiries into navigation—not merely 'to take a View of the Country' but to take a view of the sea. A hill made a good mast head. Few sailors can have climbed so many hills, or found them so rewarding. But hills were somewhat adventitious, a tool for research into coastal navigation, not for deep sea work, and one of the remarkable things about Cook is the application and the constancy of his deep sea work. Ocean currents fascinated him. I have already quoted him on the chronometer as an indicator of the currents in the Atlantic. A calm: and he had a boat out to measure the current—and if possible to take the temperature of the sea. The current-driven movement of ice, as he observed it, and reasoned upon it, was the foundation of Antarctic oceanography. The variation of the compass was a thing on which he lavished extraordinary care, from one end of the Pacific to the other—or anywhere else—and it was not his fault if the compass sometimes behaved in a totally incomprehensible manner. He felt, I think, a little sense of triumph on 9 February 1775, in the South Atlantic, latitude 58° 27' S, page 34 longitude 13° 04' W, with several ice islands in sight and now and then a snow shower, when he could report that this situation might 'be taken for the point through which the line passeth where the Compass has no variation'.(6) Any scientific observation, indeed, on the movement of birds above him, the presence of seals or penguins about him, the colour of the water, the nature of the waves, was an observation to be recorded and to be reasoned about, even if it was something, in the end (to quote another phrase) that 'I cannot well account for'.

A hill may serve as a research tool—may be instrumental, for instance, in the discovery of Cook Strait. It reminds us of Cook's not unnatural interest in instru ments of observation and navigation, and reminds us once again of the eminence of the instrument makers of the time. The documentation of all the voyages bears witness to the interest, and to the captain's determination to be as well equipped as it was possible to be, and of course Maskelyne and the Board of Longitude were not behindhand in their interest. Cook had the Admiralty well trained. The general reply to his requests was to do what he wanted and send in the bill. All the great names come into the papers, Nairne, Ramsden, Bird, Dollond, Short; the improvers of azimuth compasses, Gregory, Knight, are not absent. There is a passage in Cook's second journal which adverts to several of these names. He is writing in the Antarctic in January 1773 about azimuth observations and distances of the Sun and Moon, the latter taken by himself and Wales, a lieutenant and two master's mates, and by Wales and himself with telescopes fitted to their quadrants; he refers to 'the improvements Navigation has received from the Astronomers of this Age' and the tables they have given to the seaman; and he goes on: 'Much Credet is also due to the Mathematical Instrument makers for the improvements and accuracy with which they make their Instruments, for without good Instruments the Tables would loose part of their use: we cannot have a greater proof of the accuracy of different Instruments than the near agreement of the above observa tions, taken with four different Sextants, and which were made by three different persons, viz. Bird, Nairn & Ramsden.'(7) He cannot forbear from making exhortations as well as observations, particularly about lunars: as on the first voyage, after discussing Green's services: 'Would sea officers once apply themselves to the makeing and calculating these observations they would not find them so very difficult as they at first imagine, especially with the assistance of the Nautical Almanac and Astronomical Ephemeris, by the help of which the calculations for finding the Longde takes up but very little more time than that of an Azimuth for finding the Varn of the compass; but unless this Ephemeris is publishd for some time to come more than either one or two Years it never can be of general use in long Voyages, and in short Voyages its not so much wanting; without it the Calculations are laborious and discouraging to beginers and such as are not well Verse'd in these kind of calculations.'(8)

On the second voyage, in the New Hebrides (I select from a lengthy passage, again on lunars, and ask you to remember that 'Mr Kendals watch' cost £450): 'If we consider the number of observations that may be obtained in the course of page 35 a Month (if the weather is favourable) we shall, perhaps, find this method of finding the Longitude of places as accurate as most others, at least it is the most easiest to put in practice and attended with the least expence to the observer; every ship that goes to foreign parts is, or may be, supplied with a sufficient number of Quadrants at a small expence, I mean good ones, proper for makeing these observations, for the difference of the price between a good and bad one I apprehend can never be an object with an officer. The most expensive article, and what is in some measure necessary in order to come at the utmost accuracy, is a good watch; but for common use and where the utmost accuracy is not required, one may do without. I have some w[h]ere before in this Journal observed that this method of finding the Longitude is not so difficult, but that any man with proper applycation and a little practice may soon learn to make these observations as well as the astronomers themselves.'(9)

The 'most expensive article', the watch—not the 'watch machine'—was for the local time uncorrected by astronomy and trigonometry. We must remember that officers at that day were supposed to supply their own instruments, at least if they were not sailing in a research ship; and the officer for whom the difference in price between a good and a bad quadrant was no object may not have been so frequent an occurrence as Cook apprehended. The sentiment is possibly an indication of his own modesty; he may not have fancied that his own standards were appreciably higher than those of other men. On the whole, he was fortunate in his officers, either those who commanded him or those whom he commanded.

On the whole, too, he was fortunate in his scientific assistants, on the navigational side, and he got on well with them. One likes to remember Green not as the sodden young man of the East Indies, leaving his papers behind him in disorder, but wrapped up on deck in a lunar observation with a mate and the gunner as the ship was heaved to what seemed certain destruction on the Great Barrier Reef: 'These Obss very good the Limbs very distinct, a good Horizon', commented Mr Green. No doubt they were joint observations with Cook which found the longitude at their New Zealand landfall to be over three degrees west of dead reckoning from Tahiti; certainly he made hundreds of lunars in New Zealand, from which Cook concluded that 'the situations of few parts of the world are better determined than these Islands are'. That was true, but the result was half a degree wrong, as Wales and Bayly proved to Cook's perplexed distress on the second voyage. Bayly did not sail in Cook's ship, on either the second or the third voyage—he went on both; Wales seems to have had a rather mean opinion of him, and he is not an altogether clear personality. We know a good deal about William Wales, however, a man with a mind at once astringent and poetic, who could provide a standard of work even for the captain. It is clear that Cook admired him. It is clear also that there was very good feeling and high standards in common between Cook and Lieutenant James King, who shared with him the burden of astronomy in the Resolution on the third voyage—even, according to King, affection. As for the other scientists, they did not come into navigation, though Banks, by the end of the first voyage, page 36 thought that the interests of science demanded that on the next he should command Cook, and was competent to do so. He came into command of the Royal Society instead. Certainly on the second voyage John Reinhold Forster, a good naturalist, was sometimes puzzled at the lack of attention Cook rendered his views on navigation. I have no doubt that it was Cook's experience with this odd person, and the later manifestations of Joseph Banks, that led him to curse the scientists, 'and all science into the bargain'. He did not therein do justice to his own scientific mind; and there is equally no doubt that he would have removed from the curse that young and devoted surgeon of wide-ranging intellect, William Anderson of the second and third voyages, who was carried off by tuberculosis—'well skilld in his profession, and had acquired much knowlidge in other Sciences … for whom I had a very great regard'. But then Anderson, who knew so much more about some things than Cook did, was not persuaded that he should direct the voyage.

'Direct the voyage': there could be only one man to direct the voyage. Cook's eminence as a navigator—I need not quote Admiral Forbes and Daniel Wray again—surely arises from a combination of three qualities. One of them is this ability to direct a voyage. How much more it is than the planning of a voyage! The plan for Cook's second voyage was his own: it was simple yet masterly, but the real mastery lay in the directing and coordination of its separate phases beginning with his first plunge south from the Cape in November 1772. We must not pour into him any divine gift of prescience. He had a great deal to learn, as I almost began by saying. But thinking about him I have thought, very often, of a few words in a most unlikely source of comment on Cook, Robert Bridges's Testament of Beauty:

wisdom lies
in masterful administration of the unforeseen.

It is a very fair summary of his wisdom, in dealing with the sea at any rate, if not invariably with men. Perhaps I may take a single more pedestrian word, and say simply that he was adaptable. The second quality is his devotion to the science of the matter. Perhaps I need say no more about that, though a more scientific person than your present lecturer would certainly find irresistible the call to examine azimuth and amplitude, double altitudes, the eclipse or emersion of Jupiter's satellites, 'Occultations of fixt stars and Planets', the advantages of 'An Acromatic Tellescope with a treble Object Glass of 46 Inches Focuss with an Object Glass Micrometer & an Eye Tube with moveable wires',(10) and some other topics that come into the journals, correspondence or instructions. The third quality we can separate from all this, the quality of seamanship. I suppose it is still possible to remember, in this age of nuclear propulsion and vessels of hundreds of thousands of tons, that for Cook a ship was a relatively small object, assembled out of wood and a little iron, some rope and pieces of canvas. His seamanship was the management of this object in relation to the wind and waves. There had been very good seamen before him, before Maskelyne, before lunars, before Dr Hadley's improved quadrant, before Mr Kendall's watch. In the Pacific there had been none as great.

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There had been none as great, probably, because with Cook this quality of seamanship, although separate from a geographical conception, or a directing intelligence, or scientific navigation in the technical sense, was allied to them all, and the edge between it and the last was not a little blurred. Science may spread a sort of benign mantle over the sailor; the sailor, in the midst of a tearing gale and a heavy fog, with icebergs for a lee-shore, or thumping down on a reef or wondering desperately in mid-ocean how long it will be before contrary winds turn to the expected trade—the sailor thus circumstanced may feel that he is the victim of trial and error, or of trial and disaster, much more than any sort of beneficiary; Cook was in danger more often than we commonly think. He had some tremendous strokes of good luck. The wind did sometimes change in his favour, just in time. Sailing blind, he did miss the waiting rock. It was a moonlit night, with all precautions taken, when he ran on to that jagged coral wall within the Great Barrier. Yet he preserved the scientific mind. He never lost the faculty of reasoning from experience, of—what is the best way to put it?—incorporating his seamanship in his navigation. He had one priceless advantage over most deep sea sailors, which arose from his early North Sea training, out of the estuary of the Esk, and his work as a marine surveyor. He was not afraid of inshore navigation. He was inclined to praise his ships for the work he did; and, true enough, the Endeavour and Resolution, with their heavy build and broad collier bottoms, were the ships for the work. On the other hand, it would be very difficult to argue that Byron or Wallis, out of a frigate and into a collier, with 'Dr Masculines Method' at their finger-tips, would have got results even faintly comparable. They would not have understood the instrument, so different from the finely graduated brass-work of Jesse Ramsden or John Bird, so equally efficient in the hands of the man who understood it. With ships such as these, part of the intimacy of his own education, he could face the shoals of Australia and New Caledonia, the inlets of the northwest American coast and Tierra del Fuego, the battering of the seas as he rounded the northern end of New Zealand or took them in mid-ocean, even a certain amount of collision with the antarctic and arctic ice. Yet he had to be in these places to have the experiences, at a planned time, he could not stray into them irrespective of season and their place on the globe. Cook tried to foresee; he did not try, very often, to predict. Within bounds set by the unpredictable he planned the strategy of his navigation, once he was in a position to plan for himself. He knew the importance of a base on which to pin his movements once he was in the field of exploration. He knew what winds he wanted to take advantage of. He knew what he could expect to learn from the ocean swell. He was prepared to be patient when his expectations were defeated: when, for example, as he went into higher and higher latitudes in the south, the winds changed from westerlies to easterlies; or when, on his third voyage, as he stood out into the Pacific from New Zealand on his passage to Tahiti they stayed stubbornly in the wrong quarter and lost him his season. He might not have lost it, I suppose, if he had not been so determined to investigate Kerguelen Land on the way, as soon as he left the Cape; and, Kerguelen Land being fairly page 38 remote from the northwest coast of America, where he was bound, this may possibly be taken as a lapse in his navigator's sense of proportion. As a general rule, Cook hung on to his sense of proportion; it is one of the admirable things about his navigation that he knew when to turn back, whether from the ice barrier in latitude 71° 10' S, or the ice barrier in 70° 44' N; he knew when the winds had beaten him in the Pacific, in longitude 201° 06' E, and he should alter course for Tonga. His positions are precise, though I have omitted half the coordinates; in every case he gives a full analysis of the circumstances. Experience and scientific observation were to be subsumed in the general body of navigational knowledge. In other words, the modern research man could not tell him much.

One might in one's turn observe and analyse more closely the essential character of Cook—of the person, so to speak, who was the navigator; for this is important, no less than mathematics. At least it might prove important, or the effort made might shed some incidental light; or the dichotomy might turn out, in the end, to be entirely false. It would be interesting to discover, if one could, ground for criticism, to reveal some deplorable technical shortcoming; but I have noted that, whenever one dutifully hints a suspicion, some practical sailor comes in to exalt. It would be interesting, for a lecturer, to illustrate at length every point he has made; for an audience the exercise might seem superfluous. It would be a pity, however, to close without quoting Cook on the subject of the lecture. The text comes last. He is in the Arctic, at the end of August 1778; snow, fog, ice and prudence dictate a retreat. 'My attention', he writes, 'was now directed towards finding out some place where we could Wood and Water, and in the considering how I should spend the Winter, so as to make some improvement to Geography and Navigation and at the same time be in a condition to return to the North in further search of a Passage the ensuing summer'.(11) He wrote no more characteristic phrase than his 'Geography and Navigation'; but indeed every phrase in the short passage is characteristic of that persistent, tenacious and accurate man.



Wray to Hardwick, 10 August 1775; John Nichols, Illustrations of the literary history of the eighteenth century, 1 (1817), 150.


The purser was another John Harrison. Wallis's remark is in the manuscript copy of his journal in the Alexander Turnbull library, Wellington, New Zealand, 20 August 1766.


Journals of Captain James Cook on his voyages of discovery, 2 (Cambridge University Press 1965), 35.


For the foregoing quotations see Journals of Captain James Cook, 2, 580; 563; 511, n. 3; 660, n. 1; 692.


Journals of Captain James Cook, 1 (Cambridge University Press 1955), cclxxxii.


Journals of Captain James Cook, 2, 639.


Journals of Captain James Cook, 2, 78-9.


Journals of Captain James Cook, 1, 392.


Journals of Captain James Cook, 2, 525.


Journals of Captain James Cook, 3 (Cambridge University Press 1967), 1499; see also the instructions from the Board of Longitude given at length on pp. 1498-1503 of that volume.


Journals of Captain James Cook, 3, 427.

* The numbers in the text refer to a list of notes on p. 38.

About 117 cm.