• Joe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #68: Captain James Cook, A Biography


"The Pacific...the final frontier..."

There are a lot of reasons the life of James Cook resonates with us today, more than two centuries after his iconic death at the hands of Hawaiian islanders. In the European age of exploration and exploitation, he generally (though not universally) stands above his peers in regard to his humane treatment of his crew. Example: when his seamen proved reluctant to ingest the requisite sauerkraut intended to ward off scurvy, he didn't rely on the bosun's cat, but simply made sauerkraut the exclusive right of officers, and the men swiftly began to clamor for it. He was also more enlightened in his contact with indigenous populations, though in the context of his time (an increasingly brittle historic concept in these days of aggressively strident revisionism).


More intimately, Cook was not a landed gentleman, cosseted to command by virtue of birth and connections. He was a commoner, a Yorkshireman apprenticed to coal-carriers. (His mother was the wonderfully-named Grace Pace, her maiden name giving rise to our contention of a familial link.) He joined the Navy at the advanced age of 27, serving in the Canadian Maritimes during the Seven Years' War. He was such an able surveyor that the charts he made during his years in Newfoundland were still in use 200 years later.


Promoted to Lieutenant at age 39, Cook began his three epic voyages of exploration, mapping previously unknown-to-Europe Pacific coastlines from the Antarctic to the Bering Straight, including much of Australia and New Zealand. His voyages included scientific luminaries who recorded immense botanical, zoological, and geographic data, and his accomplishments were internationally recognized and treasured. Even during the American Revolution, US naval vessels were instructed not to impede or molest Cook's ships if encountered.


Cook's third voyage was ill-advised. He was not well, suffering from a stomach problem, and his judgment and temperament had eroded. The timing of his arrival in Hawaii in 1779 coincided with the festival honoring the Polynesian god Lono, and the white sails of the HMS Resolution resembled the white cloud Logo was said to travel on. Cook's welcome was one of a deity. Shortly after leaving Hawaii, one of the Resolution's masts was damaged and he returned. The myths did not provide for Lono's quick return in need of repairs, and tensions arose between everyone, leading to the scene on the beach that led to Cook's fatal stabbing. (There is no truth to the story that the Hawaiians ate him. His body was given the funeral rites of a great chief, which included baking the body to prepare the bones for preservation.)


A brilliant sailor, talented cartographer, gifted leader, and keen observer of the world, James Cook was not perfect. And yet he was the very best of his time, seeking at every turn to transcend boundaries. As a young man in the Navy he proclaimed it his life's ambition to not only go farther than man had gone before, but as far as it was possible for man to go. It's all the rage nowadays to dissect any historic figure and assign modern sensibilities to their actions and lives. I get it. But there are some heroes and some legacies I will always honor, warts and all.

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