Voyages of Desire

Reviewed by Hilary Turner

Between 1768 and 1780, James Cook led three maritime expeditions, all dedicated to the discovery of new lands, routes, and possibilities for trade. As William Frame and Laura Walker observe, Cook’s calculations effectively completed the mapping of the earth’s oceans. In this achievement, his voyages closely followed or coincided with other events that signal the birth of the modern era: the formation of the Royal Society, John Locke’s treatises on government and property, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, James Watt’s invention of the steam engine. Archivists by training, Frame and Walker do a splendid job of correlating Cook’s activities with optimism characteristic of the late eighteenth century, yet they are sensitive to the long-term consequences of hubris and colonialism on the part of Cook and the British Admiralty, his official bosses and backers. Though the book is essentially a comprehensive collection of “primary sources, including journals, artworks and maps”—and a beautifully rendered one at that—its objective is not to endorse but to document the views on culture, ethnicity, and colonization that prevailed at the time.

Cook died in a skirmish with a group of Hawaiians in 1780, an event that the reader will find not entirely surprising. Each of the voyages entails encounters with Indigenous populations—of Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, numerous islands in the South Pacific, and the Alaskan coast. Though trade is usually of interest to all participants, Cook seems continually anxious to prevent cross-cultural ill will, and to prevent infecting newly contacted peoples with disease. On the other hand, he is equally vigilant about the theft of British goods, and orders corporal punishment for those caught pilfering the ship. Altogether, it is an uneasy balance: attuned to the capacity for harm, the expeditions are nonetheless an accessory to the European ambition for dominance through science, technology, economic clout, and gunpowder. Two contemporary paintings of Cook’s demise capture the dichotomy nicely. John Webber depicts Cook, rifle slung by his side, raising a hand to halt the fighting—while a bare-chested Hawaiian aims a dagger at his back. John Cleverley, Jr., on the other hand, memorializes Cook in a posture of attack, using his rifle as a bludgeon against a crowd of fairly ferocious warriors.

Visually this book is indeed a treasure. In addition to maps and sounding charts of most of Cook’s landing places, it includes detailed botanical drawings by scientist Joseph Banks, landscape sketches and paintings by artists Georg Forster and William Hodges, and a good many portraits of Indigenous men and women by Sydney Parkinson and others. Large portions of Cook’s journals are reproduced, as well as letters and notes from others associated with the voyages. As a gathering of materials until now available only in the special collections of the British Library, the National Library of Australia, and other scholarly repositories, this book provides both a resource for academics and an engaging narrative for non-specialists.

An acute observer and a precise and cogent writer, Jenna Butler would have been a valuable addition to Cook’s entourage. As it is, coming long after the days in which exploration meant acquisition, her Sea Voyage to Svalbard is a journey motivated by curiosity about the north, and a longing for sights to be seen before they disappear forever. Her descriptions of settlements scattered between mainland Norway and the Arctic Circle are evocative: her prose is poetic, and her poems (interspersed in the text) are visual and concrete. The long-term consequences of expeditions such as Cook’s are plainly written in the Arctic landscape: “Everywhere we looked we saw human intervention etched onto the land in the form of mine ruins, processing effluent, and piles of whalebones.” And yet Butler’s theme sympathetically encompasses the human need to extract subsistence from the natural world. Technologies have changed in the nearly 250 years that separate these two explorers, yet Butler’s observations convey some of the physical realities of travel by sea that Cook’s journals omit. She is seasick on the Greenland Sea, and claustrophobic among “thirty people in six-hundred square feet.” At the same time, she conveys the sheer wonder of beholding a strange, self-contained world for the first time. Her voluntary journey to these remote and forgotten places resembles as nearly as now possible the experience of the Europeans who first ventured beyond their comfort zones.

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