Cook - from sailor to legend

If you're like me, you are interested in history, but you want it administered in easy bites. It doesn't have to be pre-digested, but at least it should be laid out on the plate so you can see what you're getting.

However, this 'Cook' book is not about eating. It concerns the life and travels of the world's greatest sailor, cartographer and explorer. Author, Rob Mundle, is the obvious and ideal person to write a book about Captain James Cook. Not only has he been dubbed 'the voice of sailing' (he has been a competitive sailor for five decades and has written several books about sailors and the sea) but he is also a journalist and, best of all, a consummate story-teller. So this account, although of course drawing heavily on Cook's own journals and other papers, sets the reader right in the midst of the story, lashed by gales, spitting out salt water, thrilled at each new discovery.

Most people only talk of the final 11 years of Cook's life, when he carried out all three of his major and defining voyages, criss-crossing every one of the world's oceans. Yet Cook had already had an illustrious and pivotal career as a cartographer in Canada before all this, and so this is also covered in this book, as it underpins much of his success in those later voyages. 

For while there were irritating times when the ship was becalmed, was almost wrecked, surrounded by dense fog or ice, or needing repairs, there were shining moments when Cook and his men were the first British to sight the east coast of Australia and many islands of the southern Pacific;  the first to touch a rare unknown plant; or sight a strange new animal or reptile.

What's most apparent from the first page of this book is that you have the privilege of being told an amazing and rivetting story. Rather than filling his book with tedious and time-saving excerpts from Cook's logs, Mundle, as the journalist he is, has excerpted the best bits - and fascinating many are too. In one anecdote when the ship moored at Middleburgh Island, the astronomer, William Wales, had his shoes stolen by the locals as he stepped ashore. The captain himself, later negotiated for the recovery of the astronomer's footwear, we are told.

And perhaps this is the heart of Cook, the book. Mundle pulls back the historical curtain of awe and respect for this great man, and readers are allowed to form their own opinion of Cook, the man. Cook the leader and captain of his ship was harsh and uncompromising, we learn, and no doubt he needed to be on journeys where he and his men would be crowded together in a 30-metre ship, sometimes for years.

But Cook was also a large-hearted man, one who would embrace native people who had never seen a white man; one who traded and gave gifts to gain trust. Perhaps he misjudged his charisma and his fellow-humans, as the book's natural conclusion is with Captain James Cook's murder in Hawaii in 1779, caused, it seems by a simple error of judgement.

Despite this, nothing can take away from Cook's legacy, his reputation, Mundle says, as 'the world's greatest maritime explorer'. 

Cook – from sailor to legend, by Rob Mundle, published by ABC Books, 2013, hardcover, rrp A$49.95, ISBN: 9780733332340

- reviewed by Sally Hammond

 

 

 

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