The Secret Life of James Cook, by Graeme Lay (HarperCollins, 2013), 368 pp., $36.99.
Captain James Cook is prime candidate for being considered the greatest explorer of all time. Is there a better one? His three epic voyages, as daring as voyages to the red planet, had the advantage of traversing our greeny-blue orb (with its extraordinary bonus of oxygen) as never before. They opened up and charted the Pacific, exceeding in length and scope anything that had happened in previous centuries. He surpassed the exploits of the semi-legendary Odysseus, of the fifth century BC Hanno (who scoped out the coast of Africa), of St Brendan (piously coracled to Ireland), of Sinbad the Sailor (early manifestation of magic realism), of Eric the Red (red-blooded Viking), of Madoc Ab Owen Gwynedd (Welsh Atlantic crosser circa1170), of Vasco da Gama (opener of the Indian spice trade), of Zheng He (seven foot-tall eunuch who brought back a giraffe for the Chinese emperor in 1416), of Christopher Columbus (who stumbled on the Americas), of Magellan (intrepid explorer), Sir Francis Drake (pirate and adventurer), and of William Dampier (buccaneer possessed of an observant naturist’s eye): Cook tops the lot.
The diligent, determined, sober, private, ice-nerved master-navigator and chart-maker from Yorkshire resolved the issue of the great southern continent — Terra Australis Incognita — by proving it didn’t exist. The great unknown continent turned out to be Aotearoa, an archipelago lacking continental bulk. Cook charted Australia too, but Australia had been Euro-landfalled as far back as 1606, though Cook charted it more extensively than any of his predecessors. Cook was to sail into Antarctic waters three times, reaching a latitude more southerly than any previous expedition, and came to believe that no one would go further than he — but we are futurising beyond the scope of Lay’s immediate novel.
Though Cook eventually overreached himself with an overly arrogant attitude to the local tribes and paid the penalty with his life, his skill as a navigator and thoroughness as a cartographer created a legacy that remains impressive. There have been many accounts of Cook’s voyages but no novels until now, or so the publishers have inaccurately claimed. (Perhaps they should have consulted The Captain Cook Encyclopaedia: Graeme Lay did.) Nonetheless, it is true that fictional portrayals of Cook’s great journeys have been thin on the ground; Lay’s may well be the best and the fullest to date.
Dreary, politically-correct noises have recently implied that Cook was an exploiting colonist and so on, when he was the most fair-minded of men, a paragon among officers, though tough when he had to be. An eighteenth collier, however well furbished for the daunting task of circumnavigating the globe might well find itself marooned in the vastitude of the blue Pacific or Sargassoed in the spiteful Atlantic, and certainly could not have a man at the helm who was a poltroon or a patsy. For was not England the mightiest nation on earth and the mightiest sea-faring nation in history, greater than Rome or Carthage? With Spain and Portugal having over-extended themselves, France became Britain’s chief rival. The French, were never far behind Cook, he was dogged by them as a manta ray is parasited by a persistent remora.
Maori discovered these islands before the Europeans, but between first Maori arrival around 1250 and Tasman in 1642 there have been some alternative history claims of other beachheads made, each one more exotic than its predecessors. They do not materially effect Maori sovereignty over these greeny shores but they tend to undermine Cook’s pre-eminence and prompt Maori to assume unnecessarily protective strategies. However the pre-Tasman claims are either unprovable or balderdash, though rainbow-colourful. I do not, for example, accept Captain Menzies’ claims that Zheng He made a New Zealand landfall as early as 1421 AD. Nor can I accept Ross Wiseman’s vividly romantic and colourful (if neo-Mandevillianesque) theories that Mauryan, Arabic or Phoenician expeditions achieved landfall prior to Maori. And let us have no tales of Spanish caravels, of their morions de-ballasted and carelessly cast into Wellingtonian waters, of sand-dune-hidden skeletons armoured to the shoulder, of hidden stone altars in northern kauri forests, of shipwrecks alluringly glimpsed from helicopters in tantalisingly shallow waters but never actually set foot on. Nor let us believe that any pre-Tasman Portuguese caravels drifted anonymously into Aotearoan waters.
The Secret Life of Captain Cook is a highly readable and well-researched book, the first of two such, or possibly part of a trilogy. When the novel begins, Cook is sixteen and working on his father’s farm. He is a restless young man, and in the eighteenth century any young Englishmen seeking great adventure went to sea, sailing to lands which seemed as distant as the moon. It is fascinating to speculate what, if the young Cook had not been offered a job as a haberdashery apprentice in the town of Staithes bordering the sea, might otherwise have become of him.
Lay vividly evokes the effects of the smell, sound and sight of coastal waters on the young Cook: he is entranced, like one who must go down to the sea again, and again. James Cook supplements this sensory impact by reading about the voyage of Sir Francis Drake, the first Englishman to sail around the world. Soon, by candlelight, he is devouring accounts by Magellan, da Gama and Columbus. By the roundabout happenstance of the story of a rare coin, he learns of the South Sea Bubble, an ambitious scheme involving trade with South American countries that collapsed in 1720, ruining many investors. Rather than the notion of the economic ‘Bubble’, it was the phrase ‘South Sea’ that held Cook’s interest – a premonition of the great voyages to come. For many a decade, the South Sea (or seas) was the very quintessence of remote romance.
Before Cook gets to sea, however, he must work his way through an infatuation with a local lass. Alas, she turns out to be whorishly giving herself to her employer. Lay’s prose has never worked more finely in describing Cook’s shocked awareness of the two-backed beast, toing-and-froing in a blind yet malign ecstasy. Though the serving wench admits Cook is honest, kind, strong, and hard-working, he is merely a shop worker with no prospects. Her dismissal of him and the discovery that she is virtually a prostitute only strengthens his resolve to go to sea.
If ‘taking to the waters’ meant more than the steaming embrace of a warm geyser, it meant for Cook the healing balm of the unknown vastitude and the tantalising promise of its virtually-undiscovered lands. Thence Cook learns how to use a handspike, to heave on the windlass, to eat while standing upright as the ship pitches sharply, and to set the barometer — along with the meaning of those three L’s: ‘lead, latitude and lookout’. It sounds more gruelling than my three years at sea aboard the interisland ferries, where our most demanding task was heaving over the pitching side the bagged vomit of 1000 passengers within a single hour.
But to return to the Yorkshireman: Cook is justly famed for leading the first long voyage without losing a single man to scurvy. He fed his men pickled cabbage, or sauerkraut and wort of malt, and kept replenishing the ship’s supplies with fresh food. Less known, but prominently featured in the novel, is his enforcement of this diet by flogging. And perhaps even more important was getting the officers to eat the rather unappetising food with relish, thus encouraging the sailors to do likewise.
Two aspects of the novel work very well. First is the conflict with the snobby, aristocratic, though nonetheless charming Banks, the rich naturalist who financed the expedition. Naturally, the narrative takes sides with Cook who usually has his way, but it also respects Banks for his insatiable scientific curiosity. And it is Banks who insists on bringing along the Polynesian Tupaia who proves indispensable to the success of the enterprise – particularly in New Zealand. Cook is faultlessly loyal to his wife and does not indulge himself with the nubile young women of Tahiti. The great captain (actually, still a lieutenant) is reluctantly tolerant but severe with two marines who desert.
The other outstanding aspect of the book is the reconstruction of Cook’s journals which is done in masterly fashion. In real life, his wife burnt the journals. Whatever one might think of Cook he was a great leader of men, hard when he had to be, though not brutal by the standards of his time. And captain though he was, Cook was not too proud to accept the solution of fothering a sail over the hull when said hull was breeched by an Australian reef.
A serious weakness of the book — happily the only one — is the woodenness of the dialogue which contrasts somewhat oddly with the strength of both the narrative and nautical detail and the overall sense of grandeur and exploration that the novel so richly conveys. But I must be cruel to be kind: several times people greet each in a banal way that does no justice whatsoever to the eloquence of eighteenth century idiom. To wit: ‘Good day, sir.’, ‘And good day to you, sir.’ on page 71, which is virtually repeated on page 123. Other dialogue is comparably mundane. The point may be that greetings of the time were crisp and formal, but a writer as experienced as Lay should have found a way to make the dialogue more sprightly and colourful, as it is often stiff rather than fluent. Dialogue aside, the book is a lively read which should prove popular with anyone interested in the great eighteenth century explorer.
Are there still great men? The French deconstructionists seem eager to deny the possibility, not to mention feminists and other aggressively up-to-date ideologues. The French play witty games, arguably not a lot more, with the French mind; and these otiose coruscations are best left to the Gallic cerebral cortex. Frederic Jamieson is an excellent cure for Derrida, not to mention John Searle who has taken apart the Algerian savant with a pitchfork of Russellesque logic.
The concept of a great woman does not appear (in the current context) to be so noisily debated. Tempted as I am to agree with Lay that Cook is the greatest Englishmen since Shakespeare, Newton must loom as an intellectual colossus of comparable stature, for he is still surely regarded as the greatest of all scientists (at least in the Anglo-American tradition). And if, in his modest way, Newton claimed to be merely wandering the shoreline of knowledge picking up a few bright pebbles that tickled his amusement, the metaphor may also comfortably accommodate the great seafarer.
I look forward eagerly to a sequel. Lay’s resolute prolificacy has not yielded thus far in my view much of stratospheric calibre, but now he is hitting his stride. A fair wind has filled his spinnakers and his craft is white-capping adroitly forwards. I like the cut of his jib, though magic realism has never been Lay’s aesthetic bag, so I doubt that further voyages of the Resolutionwill present a kraken extending enormous tentacles to the yard-arms. Regardless, Lay’s novel confirms that the mantra pertains : Cook tops the lot.
MICHAEL MORRISSEY is a novelist, short-story writer, poet and anthologist. He was the 2012 Writer-in-Residence at The University of Waikato. His two most recent books are the poetry collection Memory Gene Pool (Cold Hub Press), and the novel Tropic of Skorpeo (Steam Press).
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