Saturday, March 15, 2008
The Life of Captain James Cook
Our book today is The Life of Captain James Cook by J.C. Beaglehole, a womping-huge 1974 masterpiece that will stand forever as a near-perfect example of the biographer's art. The thing is 700 pages long and has not one word that isn't beautifully chosen.
The book's subject will attract biographers as long as men draw breath, and naturally so. It's a singularly rare thing when the last of a breed is also the best of that breed, but so it was with Captain Cook, the last voyager to new worlds. Neil Armstrong and Edmund Hilary are contemporary members of this most exclusive of all clubs, but they pale in comparison and would be prompt to admit it. They each have their moment of almost intolerable glory - but Cook saw dozens of Everests. He was a frequent visitor to Tranquility Base.
With wooden planks and wind-filled sails, he threw back the borders of the known world as only Alexander the Great, with his sweating armies, had done before him.
Unlike Alexander, Cook's story has humble origins, with our legendary hero tending shop and looking like nothing spectacular. His hagiographers have made much of this, and right at the onset of his immense book, Beaglehole is quick to settle their hash:
The building which contained his house and shop was close to the sea, and as early as 1812 was pulled down lest it should be washed away, to be rebuilt at its present position in Church St. by his successors in business; the counter on which the youth measured out raisins and ribbon was removed in 1835 to Middlebrough, 'Captain Cook's shop' is but dubiously his. Over the original site the waves flow deep. The importance of this shop-keeping interval is not commercial. What Cook learned from it, obviously, was that he did not want to be a shop-keeper.
Once he first went to sea, all danger of his being a shop-keeper was past. When time and circumstance align perfectly, a person can find their perfect medium, can become their destiny in a way no dint of simple work can achieve. Alexander as a provincial Macedonian king, having his food tasted and engaging in occasional border-skirmishes? Unthinkable. Michelangelo a restless seminarian? Equally unimaginable - although not from want of trying - is a young Corporal Hitler, frustrated soldier, frustrated artist, and ultimately frustrated anti-Semite (the alignment works both ways, alas). And Captain James Cook as a land-bound retailer? Fate would not allow it.
And it was not to be: he born in 1728 and rated commander while still a young man. after which his seaborne accomplishments follow hard after each other. He circumnavigated New Zealand, charted the coast of eastern Australia, surveyed the St. Lawrence and the Newfoundland shoreline (mapped first by him), visited Java, the Cape of Good Hope, the barren extremities of the Antarctic, Tahiti, the New Hebrides (mapped first in detail by him), New Caledonia (which he discovered), a dozen or so other South Pacific archipelagos (which he also discovered and mapped), the gorgeous Sandwich Islands (which he also discovered), the Hawaii-an islands in all their scarcely-plumbed glories ... Cook voyaged across the whole of the known world, and he did so because the arcane additions of descant and horizon came as a natural language to him, allowing him to ply the known - and unknown - world as no mariner ever previously had.
Beaglehole is good at evoking the daily reality of such mariner-feats, as he does with contrapuntal regularity to the over-claims of the myth:
On 26 December 1770 the restored Endeavor weighed and came to sail. She was to have eleven days of the same frustrating sort of passage she had had through the Strait of Sunda three months before, in reverse, with unpleasant squally rainy weather for the last part of it. She was like a hospital ship, said Cook, upwards of forty of her company sick, the rest in a weakly condition except for the sail-maker, more or less drunk; yet the Dutch captains congratulated him on his good luck in not seeing half his people die.
Cook was killed when he made an ill-advised landfall among the previously-friendly inhabitants of Krakakoa Bay in Hawaii ... the natives stove in his head with rocks and would have overrun his entire crew if it weren't for the implemented safeguards that were always a part of Cook's designs.
He died a brutal, ugly death in the small surf of one of the only islands on Earth he didn't himself discover. Stupid tribal rivalries, the sectarian eagerness to crow a victory, the atavistic urge to display a celebrated skull-bone: who knows, but it doesn't really matter anyway - the legend, this time based entirely on facts, had already taken on a life of its own. After 700 pages, we would expect Beaglehole to have some affection for his subject (who in real life was a very difficult man to know and an impossible one to love), and it shows nowhere more poetically than in his farewell to the great captain:
There are statues and inscriptions; but Geography and Navigation are his memorials ... [New Zealand chief] Te Horeta would repeat the Maori saying, e kore to tino tangata e ngaro i sote, to tokomaha, a veritable man is not hid among many. Such things; Geography and Navigation; if we wish for more, an ocean is enough, where the waves fall on innumerable reefs, and a great wind blows from the south-east with the revolving world.