John Gascoigne, Captain Cook: voyager between worlds. Hambledon Continuum, London, 2008. pp. xvi +288+43 plates +7 maps. £14.99 (paperback). ISBN-13: 978-1-84725-209-8.
One may wonder if it is possible to write yet another scholarly book about Captain James Cook and his voyages to the Pacific, a subject about which probably more has been published than any other aspect of British maritime history (with the exception of Horatio Nelson, perhaps). In Captain Cook: voyager between worlds John Gascoigne shows that this is possible, by approaching the subject in a hitherto unexplored way. He has chosen to look at the cultures in England and the Pacific Ocean in the period that Cook sailed there, and has selected and highlighted several subjects that were already significantly present in both societies. At first Gascoigne draws a picture of England (mainly Yorkshire, where Cook was born) and the Pacific islands before the arrival of westerners, and then discusses the influence they had on each other as the result of contacts through explorers. The specific subjects selected are the sea, trade, war, politics, religion, sex, and death. In each of the chapters the situation in England is first described comprehensively. Gascoigne then gradually weaves the English situation into that in the Pacific, and finishes each chapter by writing about the topic in that part of the world. His research is based mainly on journals and correspondence, and he has convincingly managed to show how the English explorers saw the Pacific world and how they related it to their own. The view of Pacific islanders was importantly based on what is known from the Tahitians who sailed with Tobias Furneaux and Cook to London, but is also based on later historic research. The explorers were continually trying to relate what they found in the Pacific to what they were accustomed to in Europe, whether trade, war, politics, religion, sex, or death. Through the explorer's eyes Gascoigne cleverly draws parallels between the European and Pacific cultures that are not always obvious to a superficial reader. He often digs deep, and sometimes has to go back to the seventeenth century to explain a development. The background was sometimes a little too elaborate for me, although never boring. The Quaker faith in the chapter on religion, for example, receives much attention, more than strictly necessary. It is general knowledge that Cook was influenced by that faith, probably strongly; however, as Gascoigne admits, it is not known how far he was won over. Unlike the Quakers, Cook was not a pacifist: he used firearms and sailed on armed vessels, and his marriage was performed according to Church of England rites. I found the chapter on politics, with its obvious intrigues, particularly fascinating.
This book is well written and is easy to read and understand, while at the same time it is a new, scholarly approach to the subject. It provides much new information on the eighteenth-century relationship between England and the Pacific. I have only a few minor critical remarks to make. It was the octant that was invented in 1730s and not its successor the sextant (p. 17); the latter was developed in 1758. ‘Tall ships’ (p. 174) is a denomination usually reserved for nineteenth-century clipper ships rather than for eighteenth-century vessels. Finally, I was not particularly impressed by the reproductive quality of the pictures in the book; they are rather ‘misty’. The reviewed book is a second edition, but the author has not indicated any difference between this and the first edition. Despite this I recommend Captain Cook: voyager between worlds to everyone interested in Cook and the exchange of cultures between the two remote parts of the world.
- © 2009 The Royal Society