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Saturday, April 5, 2008

Captain James Cook

The Extraordinary Voyages
of Captain James Cook.
By Nicholas Thomas.
Illustrated. 468 pp. New York:
Walker & Company. $28.

Perhaps no explorer has inspired such a voluminous bibliography as James Cook, and it is not hard to understand why. In his three great expeditions to the Pacific between 1768 and 1779 he surpassed all previous European voyagers to that ocean in the accuracy of his maps, finally pinning down the locations of fabled islands as well as encountering many unknown to European geography. His second and third voyages effectively disposed of two chimeras that had obsessed European cartographers for centuries -- the Great Southern Continent and a temperate-latitude Northwest Passage. And in the generous latitudes between, he became the central figure in a series of encounters between the strange cross-section of European society that his ships embodied and the peoples of some 10 major Pacific island groups, more than 40 individual islands, probably initiating more cross-cultural ''first contacts'' than any other person in history.

Although J. C. Beaglehole's ''Life of Captain James Cook'' (1974) is still indispensable for its scholarship and thoroughness, Nicholas Thomas's ''Cook'' will surely become established as one of the finest of the recent books that have a more anthropological focus. Deep in its research, broad in its sympathies, imaginative in its reconstruction of events and thought processes and graceful in its prose style, ''Cook'' presents a winning combination of qualities. In essence, it is a series of informative and sometimes inspired meditations on the various meanings an event might have had to its different participants. In this Thomas seems consistently more thorough and successful than Anne Salmond in her recent book, ''The Trial of the Cannibal Dog,'' which covers the same ground with an ostensibly similar approach. In describing the initial meeting between Cook's first expedition and the Maori of New Zealand in 1769, for instance, Salmond spends one page relating the event with little comment, while Thomas gives a psychologically and culturally penetrating account of how gift-giving and nose-rubbing turned into jostling and shooting as the initiative ebbed and flowed between the two groups.

Although the European side of each encounter is obviously better recorded, the view from ''the other side of the beach'' is reconstructed as far as possible from later recovery of oral tradition, as well as from research that has documented the wider worldviews through which Pacific peoples would have understood these meetings. Unlike many writers on Cook, however, Thomas, a professor of anthropology at the University of London, has also done his homework on, and writes illuminatingly about, the less fashionable and usually overlooked meetings with the peoples of Tierra del Fuego and Nootka Sound.

An anthropological approach also brings to the fore the social relationships among different elements of the ships' crews, underscoring the ambivalence of Cook's own position. He was the son of agricultural laborers, with limited formal education or social polish -- a background closer to that of the common seamen than to his officers, let alone the gentlemen scientists like Joseph Banks. The Polynesian leadership caste, knowing nothing of this, took Cook's position at face value and treated him as an aristocrat like themselves, forging personal alliances through the custom of exchanging names. These friendships often put Cook under obligations to individual chiefs that were at odds with those to his crew: a gentleman might complain that his gun had been stolen, but sometimes Cook felt he had to let the matter drop so as not to create a difficult situation with a chief who, he believed, considered him a friend.

At the same time, he was often inflexible in pursuing stolen goods if they were expedition property rather than personal property -- a distinction lost on Polynesians and sailors alike, who were amused by his ruthless pursuit of a stolen goat across one island. The introduction of European livestock, brought with infinite pains halfway round the world, was one of the prime objectives of the third voyage, and Cook's sense of obligation to ensure that breeding pairs reached their intended destinations brooked no opposition. Single goats cannot breed. It was the theft of such a piece of expedition property, one of the ships' boats, that led to the series of chaotic confrontations in which Cook was killed at Kealakekua Bay in Hawaii. Most commentators have regarded this as an almost inevitable climax to what they see as a deterioration in Cook's conduct during the third voyage, especially an increase in the severity of punishments. This is presented either (as Beaglehole does) as a symptom of mental fatigue, after a decade spent mostly in the Pacific with the sole responsibility of command, or (as the more hostile Gananath Obeyesekere does in ''The Apotheosis of Captain Cook,'' 1992) as a descent into irrationality and savagery. Thomas dissents from the assumptions underlying both interpretations, pointing out that Cook's growing distance from his crew (which he links to the pressures arising from Cook's ambiguous social position) can be dated to the middle of the admired second voyage, not the third, while fewer indigenous people were killed on the third voyage before Cook's death than in either of the two earlier ones.

There is something poignant in Cook's consistent attempts to do the right thing, whether it was his refusal to partake of the frequently offered sexual hospitality, his efforts to prevent his men from spreading venereal disease, his scrupulous sharing of fresh food among the whole crew or his refusal to punish the leader of a group of Maori that not only attacked and killed a party of his men but ate them (Cook thought it likely his men had provoked the incident). Even when the outcome was not as beneficent as he hoped, he always followed his own lights -- a mixture of his Quaker-influenced upbringing, Enlightenment rationality and the autodidact's passion for acquiring knowledge. One of the most oddly moving passages shows Cook not only observing but becoming caught up in an island ceremony. Desperate to know what was going on, he put aside his dignity as captain, stripping to the waist and untying his hair to comply with ritual requirements and becoming part of a large crowd that had to run, leap or sit with downcast eyes before the high chief, the Yorkshire laborer's son mixing it with the Polynesians, losing himself in the quest to understand.

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