Captain Cook: Master of the Seas

Captain Cook: Master of the Seas

by Frank McLynn


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A vivid reappraisal of the legendary Captain Cook, from bestselling biographer Frank McLynn

The age of discovery was at its peak in the eighteenth century, with heroic adventurers charting the furthest reaches of the globe. Foremost among these explorers was navigator and cartographer Captain James Cook of the British Royal Navy.

Recent writers have viewed Cook largely through the lens of colonial exploitation, regarding him as a villain and overlooking an important aspect of his identity: his nautical skills. In this authentic, engrossing biography, Frank McLynn reveals Cook's place in history as a brave and brilliant seaman. He shows how the Captain's life was one of struggle--with himself, with institutions, with the environment, with the desire to be remembered--and also one of great success.

In Captain Cook, McLynn re-creates the voyages that took the famous navigator from his native England to the outer reaches of the Pacific Ocean. Ultimately, Cook, who began his career as a deckhand, transcended his humble beginnings and triumphed through good fortune, courage, and talent. Although Cook died in a senseless, avoidable conflict with the people of Hawaii, McLynn illustrates that to the men with whom he served, Cook was master of the seas and nothing less than a titan.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300184310
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 09/25/2012
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 512
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Frank McLynn is a highly regarded historian specializing in biographies and military history. He has written more than twenty books, including Richard and John: Kings at War, Napoleon, and Marcus Aurelius: A Life. He lives in Surrey, England.

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By Frank McLynn


Copyright © 2011 Frank McLynn
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11421-8

Chapter One

A Yorkshire Apprenticeship

Exploration is an activity that calls for extraordinary talents, among them physical courage of an incredible kind and an ability to 'bracket' the reality of the physical world in pursuit of impossible dreams. All explorers, we may confidently assert, are psychological oddities, and the jury is out on whether true psychic pathology is involved, or merely a heightened form of normal sensibilities. If we except polar exploration, which in so many ways is a thing in itself and an exception even to the general proposition we can advance the impulse 'to boldly go', there are really just two types of exploration, that by land and that by sea. The most impressive feats of discovery on land were carried out by European explorers in Africa – for such as Orellana in South America, Mackenzie in North America and Sturt in Australia are not really in the class of the celebrated African quintet of Livingstone, Burton, Stanley, Speke and Baker. An examination of this quintet also throws up other fascinating propositions: that the great explorers are either upper-class misfits and semi-mystics (Burton, Baker, Speke) or those who have surmounted a background of acute poverty and deprivation (Livingstone, Stanley). A similar division between high-born naval aristocrats and low-born adventurers is discernible in the case of magnificent voyages into the unknown in defiance of the mighty oceans. James Cook, the finest maritime explorer in the history of the world, was born into indigence, the son of a farm labourer. It is a relevant observation that Henry Morton Stanley, greatest of all land-based explorers, was also a product of penury and hardship, with his early years spent in a Welsh workhouse. In both men the early years and the subsequent trial of surviving the snobbery of their 'betters' left a legacy of subterranean rage, more easily visible from an early age with Stanley, but in Cook's case slowly germinating with ultimately fatal results.

James Cook was born in the village of Marton-in-Cleveland, in the north-east corner of the North Riding of Yorkshire. His father, also called James, was a Scotsman, from the village of Ednam in Roxburghshire in the border country. James Cook senior was the only son of John Cook and Jean Duncan, who had married the year before the boy's birth in 1694. James senior experienced the same obscure years of struggle his son would face until the age of 20, possibly working as a shepherd or millhand. In some way lost to us in the mists of history the economy of Roxburghshire was badly affected by the aftermath of the failed Jacobite rising of 1715. Without talents, qualifications or obvious skills, James senior set out to seek his fortune south of the border, and began eking out a precarious living as a day labourer. Family legend states that when he left the bosom of his family his mother pronounced the words 'God give you grace', but the deity must have misheard her, for instead of the divine chrism He provided him with a young woman named Grace Pace, a native of Stainton-in-Cleveland in the North Riding. The couple married on 10 October 1725 (James was 31 and Grace 23) and settled first in the village of Moreton in the parish of Ormesby. Here, in January 1727, a son, John, was born to them. Later that year the family moved to Marton, another village just one mile away to the west. They lived in what was known in the North Riding as a 'biggin', not dissimilar to the bothies James senior would have known in Scotland. In this two-roomed clay-built thatched cottage, full of smoke from the open fire, where farm animals wandered in and out at will, a second son was born on 27 October 1728 and given the name James. The first sensory impression of the new arrival was doubtless the primitive carpeting of sacking and meadowsweet laid down by the parents to keep down the damp and the smell. James and Grace produced six other children, most of them victims of the eighteenth century's cruel way with infant mortality. The firstborn John survived until his twenties, but four other children died young. Mary, born in 1732, died before her fifth birthday, and Jane, born in 1738, expired in her fifth year. Another Mary, born in 1740, lasted just ten months, while a third son, William, born in 1745, clocked up just three years of age before likewise being carried off. The only true adult survivors apart from the future explorer were his sisters Margaret and Christiana, of whose lives little is known. Christiana married a man with the surname Cocker and at once faded from the historical record. A little more is known about Margaret, who married a fisherman named James Fleck and moved to Redcar. In 1776, when Cook was already rich and famous, Fleck was indicted for smuggling and appealed for help to his celebrated brother-in-law. Convinced of Fleck's guilt, Cook did nothing to help him.

To survive at all James Cook junior had to be an exceptionally tough and wiry baby, and all later evidence regarding Cook as a physical specimen bears out the obvious inference. Life was hard and food scarce, so that the child would quickly have become an omnivore. In the days of his fame he would astonish fellow officers by the coarseness of his palate, as he would devour anything – penguin, walrus, albatross, kangaroo, monkey and even dog; as long as it was meat, Cook would invariably describe it as 'most excellent food'. As a young boy he was one of the wretched of the earth, and detailed historical records are not kept of those born in humble and obscure circumstances. But there are three obvious pointers to the lad's young life: his heredity, his life chances and his physical environment. Much nonsense has been written about his parentage, with the Scots father standing in for patience, intelligence and industry and the mother supposedly representing Yorkshire independence and self-reliance. It is not denied that every individual is to an extraordinary extent the product of his or her parents, but such reductive determinism cannot be pushed very far before it lurches into absurdity. As for life chances, these must realistically be counted close to zero. In an age of limited social mobility and opportunity, the odds were heavily in favour of Cook living out his life like his father and his grandfather before him. The life of a journeyman labourer was severely circumscribed, both financially and geographically. It is unlikely that James Cook senior strayed much beyond the radius of surrounding villages until he moved to Redcar later in life (he would die there, aged 85). The physical environment of the North Riding was also unprepossessing: the monotony of moors, hills and farmland was broken only by a sprinkling of farms and labourers' cottages. In this rural backwater the young James spent his first eight uneventful years. By this time he was already a veteran of sowing seeds, digging ditches, hedging and back-breaking labour in general. His education was rudimentary, though he could read and write by the age of eight, having been taught his alphabet by a Mrs Walker, wife of the farmer of Marton Grange, in exchange for running errands and helping with household chores. Writing in particular was a difficult art to master, for in those days children had to be taught from scratch, as it were, how to hold a pen; unlike today's children, they had not used crayons or pencils from an early age.

In 1736 James Cook senior was promoted to be a 'hind', a kind of overseer or farm manager at the village of Great Ayton, five miles from Marton. His prudent stewardship places him perfectly within the paradigm of the sober, thrifty pre-Industrial Revolution worker later recalled with dubious nostalgia. Cook senior's benefactor was a rich farmer named Thomas Skottowe, of Airyholme farm, who presumably negotiated his release from the Walkers' employment. The increase in family income doubtless lifted young Cook's spirits, but possibly they were also lifted because he was aware of having moved to a superior village. Ayton, much larger than Marton, was close to the market town of Stokesley and was itself a place of some local importance, since it boasted a watermill, a tannery, a brick-kiln and a brewery, and provided work for weavers as well as farm labourers. It was set on the edge of the Cleveland hills and dominated by Roseberry Topping, the highest summit in the North Riding. It was at Great Ayton that the first puzzle in young Cook's life is recorded. The village school, being fee-paying, was beyond the reach of the Cook family, yet Thomas Skottowe is said to have discerned promise in young James Cook and paid the fees so that he could attend. Since similar largesse was not provided for Cook's elder brother John or indeed for any of the rest of the Cook family, the inevitable suspicion has arisen that Skottowe must have had an ulterior motive. Two things are clear: young James Cook was more talented than his siblings, and he received a better education. Was Skottowe perhaps the young boy's real father? It is indeed a wise man who knows his own father and cast-iron certainty is rarely possible in such matters, but there is no compelling circumstantial evidence that would blacken Grace Pace with the taint of infidelity. The prima facie evidence makes the suggestion seem highly unlikely. Skottowe was a true gentleman farmer, an established member of the gentry rather than a yeoman farmer. Dalliance with the wife of a farm labourer would be plausible only in the case of a woman's exceptional beauty, and local oral tradition would certainly have recorded this aspect of Grace if it had been the case.

At the village academy known as Postgate school Cook was taught elementary English and mathematics, drilled in the catechism, and nudged by the pedagogue to improve his skills in basic literacy. Although it was rumoured that the schoolmaster, William Rowland, was a mere part-timer who 'moonlighted' as a weaver, he seems to have done a good job of improving on Mrs Walker's inchoate efforts, for he not only turned the boy into an efficient reader but taught him a workmanlike copperplate handwriting. No formal records of young James's schooling were kept, but local tradition says that, though no future academic or intellectual, he showed distinct promise in mathematics, perhaps already foreshadowing the skilful navigator of later years. Other oral testimony stresses that the boy was very much a loner and was habitually left out of the typically boyish excursions of his peers. It was not so much that he was unpopular, rather that he was already exhibiting signs of the 'control' syndrome that would afflict him in later life: he insisted on doing things his way, and was obstinate, inflexible and even somewhat unpleasant. Yet it is significant that there are no stories of bullying – an outcome one might expect. There was something ruthless and determined about the boy that made his fellows back off and regard him with cold respect, viewing him as someone not to be trifled with. If ever he was engaged as part of a group discussion, on the best place to go bird's nesting, say, Cook was always adamant that he knew the best spot, and his very vehemence usually resulted in his arriving at the supposed rendezvous alone. Yet the precise mixture in his life of schooling, schoolboy adventures and hard work in the fields – which we can infer was his lot between the ages of eight and sixteen – is lost to the historical record. It was 1745 when the young James Cook emerged into clear light. Because of the detail in the anecdote we can pin down the precise date (November 1745) of the next inconsequential story related about his youth. Always a devotee of hill-climbing, Cook particularly liked to scale Roseberry Topping, and he had an established route to the top where there was a spring and he could take a long drink of fresh water before clambering down again. On this occasion he decided to abandon the tried and tested route and went in search of a more adventurous descent. On his way down he saw a jackdaw flying into a cleft in a rock, and made the correct deduction that there was a nest there. An avid bird's-nester, the boy scooped up the eggs, put them in his cap, and held the cap between his teeth while making a tentative and vertiginous descent. Suddenly he lost his footing and in panic grasped at a plant, which began to come away at the roots. Unable to find a secure purchase and thus effectively marooned, Cook began crying for help. Fortunately for him sentries had been posted on all the summits of the Cleveland hills to give warning if Bonnie Prince Charlie's rebel army from Scotland decided to make for London by a northeasterly route after crossing the border. The Roseberry Topping sentinel heard the plaintive cries and soon organised a rescue party.

1745 was also the year Cook became a shop assistant in the fishing port of Staithes, fifteen miles from Great Ayton. Staithes was one of the numerous villages and towns south of the Tees – Redcar, Saltburn, Brotton, Sandsend, Whitby, Robin Hood's Bay, Ravenscar, Hayburn Wyke – that depended entirely on fishing. Cook was already in a different world from the farming communities inland which had hitherto been his sole experience of human life, and it was almost as if he had been steadily inching towards his destiny. One would give a lot to have a record of his thoughts and feelings on first sighting the sea. But for eighteen months he was resolutely land-based. His employer was William Sanderson, a grocer and haberdasher, who had been impressed by Skottowe's tales of the mathematical prowess of his protégé and agreed to take him on trial as a trainee shopkeeper; there were no formal indentures as this was not an apprenticeship in the true sense. Sanderson's emporium was on the seafront and was a 'double shop', with two front doors leading, respectively, to the grocery and the drapery. Sanderson and his family lived above the shop, and Cook took his meals with them, but he was in no sense 'one of the family', since he made a primitive 'den' under the shop counter and slept there with his handful of possessions. Dutiful and hard-working, Cook swept out the shop, opened it in the morning, closed it at night, served behind the counter and kept accounts. Yet it was clear very early on that his heart was not in his trade, and that he had already heard the call of the sea. The entire town of Staithes was permeated with talk of fishing and the oceans, and after-hours yarning with the sailors led the 17-year-old to experience vicariously the thrills of venturing outside the bay into the open sea. Many people are put off by their first encounter with this cruel and malevolent mistress but Cook, always endowed with superlative physical courage, brushed aside the Jeremiahs who stressed the dangers of the North Sea. His determination to forge a maritime career must have hardened over eighteen months of 'fumbling in a greasy till' (Yeats's phrase), but the story usually told of his 'career crisis' is probably apocryphal. The tale goes that Cook one day received as payment a shilling piece minted around 1720 at the time of the South Sea Bubble, bearing the legend of the great South Seas. Besotted by this talisman, he replaced it in the counter drawer with an ordinary shilling piece of his own. Sanderson spotted that the striking coin was missing and accused Cook of stealing it. The misunderstanding was cleared up but, at least on Cook's side, left a sour taste, so he gave in his notice. Sanderson evidently forgave the 'theft', for when Cook said that it was his ambition to go to sea the shopkeeper said he would help him. However, many doubt that the incident ever happened and Cook's great biographer John Beaglehole dismisses the anecdote as 'a trivial affair blown up to dramatic proportions by more than one romancer'.

Local tradition is adamant that Sanderson was instrumental in introducing Cook to his next employer, a wealthy Quaker shipowner named John Walker of Whitby, who discerned promise in the lad. This time there was a formal apprenticeship and Cook signed a three-year indenture as a 'servant', hoping to learn the craft of a merchant seaman. The indenture was a standard 'boilerplate' contract for the merchant navy, but it has an odd ring to modern ears. The contract with Walker committed Cook 'not to play at dice, cards, bowls or any other unlawful games ... (nor) haunt taverns or playhouses ... commit fornication nor contract matrimony'. In return Walker agreed to provide lodging, food and drink, laundry, and instruction and training in 'the trade, mystery and occupation of a mariner'. For the first six of his nine years in the merchant navy Cook lived with Walker and his family in a large house in Haggersgate on the west bank of the river Esk. (Even though Beaglehole long ago established that Walker did not move to his well-known house in Grape Lane until 1752, successive writers on Cook insist on peddling the myth that that was where the young man did his navigational studies of an evening.) There need be no serious doubt about the studiousness, which especially recommended him to John Walker and his brother and partner Henry. Indeed the Walkers' housekeeper Mary Proud turned young Cook into something of a 'teacher's pet' by providing him with a special table and extra candles to aid his studies. Without question Cook absorbed some of the heavy Quaker ethos at Haggersgate, but the extent of the influence of the ideology of the Friends is problematical. The role and status of the great Quaker families – the Walkers, Chapmans, Taylors, Saunders, etc. – in the Whitby shipping industry can hardly be overstated, though they were living on borrowed time, for Quaker austerity proved unable to hold the line against the eighteenth century's ever increasing hedonism, consumerism and permissiveness. Nonetheless, during Cook's apprenticeship the Friends were still 'hegemonic' in Whitby. Cook certainly imbibed a work ethic from them and the conviction that work should be regarded as good in itself. Other salient influences can be traced in his modesty, plainness, taciturnity, hatred of idleness and gossip, disbelief in a transcendent god, and general humourlessness. As someone who always disliked arguments and confrontation, he learned from the Quakers the skill of arbitration by observing their pacific method of settling disputes. On the other hand, by 'flashing forward' to Cook's later career we can see that there were limits to the legacy of Quakerism. He made a point of addressing people by their titles, as the Friends did not on the grounds of egalitarianism. And he quickly learned the art of flattery and sycophancy to his social superiors – necessary for an ambitious man but alien to Quaker principles. Nor he was a pacifist. Although physical force was never his first port of call, he believed in it as the ultimate deterrent and, as he grew older, came to believe in it more and more.


Excerpted from CAPTAIN COOK by Frank McLynn Copyright © 2011 by Frank McLynn. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Charting Cook xiii

Chapter 1 A Yorkshire Apprenticeship 1

Chapter 2 The Seven Years War 19

Chapter 3 Charring Newfoundland 43

Chapter 4 The Challenge of the Pacific 65

Chapter 5 First Contacts with Tahiti 93

Chapter 6 The Isle of Cythera 119

Chapter 7 Peril in Australasia 129

Chapter 8 Homeward Bound 155

Chapter 9 Antarctica 181

Chapter 10 Tongans and Maoris 203

Chapter 11 Mastering the Pacific 227

Chapter 12 Lost Horizon: The Great Southern Continent 253

Chapter 13 The Last Voyage 281

Chapter 14 Tahiti: The Final Phase 309

Chapter 15 Quest for Illusion: The Northwest Passage 337

Chapter 16 Hawaiian Nightmare 365

Chapter 17 Tragedy on Kealakekua Beach 387

Conclusion 411

Appendix 419

Notes 422

Index 473

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