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[personal profile] mtvessel
Sep 2015
The Voyages of Captain Cook - ed. Ernest Rhys - Wordsworth, 1999

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On a trip a couple of years ago, one of my fellow travellers introduced me to the term othering to describe the tendency of humans to categorise other humans as "us" or "them" based on cultural, racial, political, gender or sexual criteria. While disliking the neologism, I could see that it was better than the intuitive but somewhat racist word "tribalism" that I would have used for the same concept. Othering is a sadly common human trait, and its manifestation in the modern world is particularly noticeable in the political arguments over migration that are ongoing at the time of writing. But it is nothing new, as this book makes depressingly clear.

It covers Cook's three voyages, in 1768, 1772 and 1776, and (spoiler alert) his death in 1779 at the hands of Hawaiian islanders in a stand-off resulting from the loss of a cutter. The style of the accounts is odd and shows a heavy editorial hand, with the first two voyages told in third person and the third in a more novelistic first person, doubtless to increase the drama of the probably dry-as-dust original texts. The constant interference means that it is hard to tell whether the details given are Cook's own observations or interpretations by the editor, but I am pretty certain that the original journals would have been divided by date rather than being the sea of unbroken prose that is presented here, and were probably more precise about locations. If he had seen them, Cook would probably have had things to say about the maps of the voyages that are included in this edition, which do not even indicate the direction of travel, let alone the dates on which locations were reached.

There is little detail about daily life on board the ships, which is a shame as Cook appears to have been quite enlightened as ship captains of his period went, with a concern for the healthy diet of his crew (much to their annoyance) that resulted in remarkably few deaths, at least until an unfortunate layover at a plague-prone Batavia during the first voyage. But it is the interactions with the people that Cook met that would have most interested his readers, and it is here that the limits of his enlightenment are most obvious. There is a distressing pattern - initial curiosity and friendliness, bolstered by gift giving, which soon degenerates into shows of force when the natives start stealing things that interest them or otherwise behaving in ways that are not expected of eighteenth century English gentlemen. Cook considers the loss of one of his crew to be a serious matter, but the deaths of islanders as a result of "warning shots" are not treated so seriously, presumably because they are not seen as quite human. One is reminded of similar massacres for similar reasons that have marred British history such as Peterloo, Amritsar and Bloody Sunday.

Othering manifests in subtler ways, as shown in the descriptions of the natives that Cook picks up and brings back with him. There is evidently affection for them, but it is the fondness that one would have for a child or an exotic pet. The absurd transliterations of names - Mareewagee, Toobou, Futtafaihe, Attahooroo, Opoony - also suggest a certain golliwog attitude rather than a serious attempt to understand and engage with other cultures. Not that known foreigners are treated any better. Dutch people in particular are presented as perfidious and dishonest.

The descriptions of new lands such as New Holland (the eastern seaboard of Australia) and New Zealand is also present, of course, and I also liked the scientific rationale for each trip - to observe a transit of Venus, to find the southern continent thought to be necessary to balance the northern ones, and to locate the North West Passage. However the dry language blunts the emotional impact and the descriptions of his discoveries are hardly evocative. Sadly, the main thing that I took away from this book was a reminder of just how insular and narrow-minded even educated and well-travelled people can be.


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