18 Dec 20
Posted by: M. K. Barritt

Contemporary discussion of James Cook almost invariably revolves round issues of ‘first discovery’ and ‘encounter’ with ‘first nations’, so it is refreshing to be asked to adopt a different perspective, laid out by an enthusiast. Dr Hamilton is a philatelic historian of some note, and this interest appears to have drawn him into The Captain Cook Society. This volume has been built up from articles which have appeared in the Society’s journal.

Polar enthusiasts may be misled by the billing: “The first detailed study of Captain Cook’s search for the unknown southern continent – Antarctica”. In fairness to Dr Hamilton, it is important to highlight that Cook’s instructions from the Admiralty were to search for “that Southern Continent which has so much engaged the attention of Geographers and former Navigators”. This was postulated as a temperate, inhabited continent embracing far more than what we term Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic zone. Indeed, Cook’s three crossings of what is now defined as the ‘Antarctic Circle’ and his exploration of sub-Antarctic regions were brief episodes in his disproving search. They occupy rather less than half of this book. Whether a full description of the entirety of Cook’s three voyages is needed to put them in context is debatable, and the author’s methodical style leads to some repetition.

It is certainly a ‘detailed study’, perhaps reflecting the author’s intent that this should be a book for ‘a general audience’. But there is much that is peripheral e.g., controversy over publication of the account of Cook’s second voyage. The author’s enthusiasm and delight in analysis can carry him away, as in a long chapter on the separation of Resolution and Adventure which ends without any startling fresh insights. There is padding. A large concluding section explains how Cook’s penetration led to the incursions of the sealers and whalers, and also makes a useful comparison with the later expedition of James Clark Ross. Thereafter a lengthy telling of the story of exploration and activity in the region right into the 20th century does little to underscore Cook’s legacy.

The introductory section laying out the background to the quest for Terra Australis Incognita and the preparation for the voyages is useful. There are handy reference tables of dimensions and fittings of the ships and lists of the ship’s companies. But sadly, Dr Hamilton has not sought specialist advice, and a lack of understanding of the organisation and hierarchy of the Georgian Royal Navy spills out into the narrative. There is, for example, misleading reference to the relative seniority of Cook and Furneaux. Given that the only relevant reference in the bibliography is Dava Sobel, it is perhaps to be expected that the promised ‘fascinating insight’ into eighteenth-century seamanship and navigation is slight and far from sound. Even the naming of watches is not properly explained.

Whilst dangers lurk here for the general reader, this affordable volume can be commended to a NR audience. There are insights from the full range of both published journals and manuscript originals in the Admiralty papers at the National Archives and the Board of Longitude papers at the University of Cambridge. Here is colour and atmosphere. The voices of the natural scientists will bring back memories for readers who have experienced the environment of South Georgia. Veterans who had responsibility for enforcing the strict regimen of 1982 may smile wryly at Midshipman Elliott’s drip about Cook’s restriction on heating below decks. There was no high drama to match the famous ordeal of Ross and Crozier, but those of us who have patrolled and surveyed in these regions have cause to salute Cook and his companions as they pioneered the way in the days of sail.