Captain Cook

2 August 2014

Graeme Lay has written a trilogy of novels based around the life of James Cook. I recently read the first one The Secret Life of James Cook and enjoyed it immensely. I have long been fascinated by this man – child of illiterate Yorkshire country folk – who became an officer in the Royal Navy and was entrusted with missions to circumnavigate the globe and observe the transit of Venus from the south seas.

His early promise was recognised by a local landowner who sponsored him through school and got him his first apprenticeship as a grocer’s assistant in a coastal town. Here young James watched the fishing boats and listened to the tales of the seamen who frequented the port. He forfeited his position in the store and sought an apprenticeship in Whitby. After eight long years he was able to join the Royal Navy. He served with distinction in the war against France in Canada and successfully charted the coast of Newfoundland. This work brought him to the attention of the Admiralty and the Royal Society. This was extraordinary in the 18th century when navy officers came from the upper classes and the Royal Society was dominated by aristocratic, wealthy amateurs. One of these was Joseph Banks, who funded the Society’s scientific contingent aboard the Endeavour.

The reader gets to know something of the character of Cook through his official journal, which is a historical document, and his private journal written for his wife Elizabeth, which is not and which Lay uses as a convincing fictional device. It works well. The vexed relationship between Cook and Banks is explored and, when Cook is annoyed by Banks’s superior attitude, one feels his irritation and sense of inadequacy. Lay strikes a comfortable balance between the facts of Endeavour’s journey and Cook’s inner (imagined) thoughts about the gentlemen scientists, the men under his command (their diets and the ever-present threat of scurvy, their quarrels, their drinking and how they were disciplined), his family back home in England, and his duty to the navy, king and country.

Graeme Lay is something an expert on the Pacific and his version of the Endeavour’s visit to Tahiti is well-drawn and informative. For New Zealanders, the chapters about the voyage around the our coast and Cook’s naming of bays, inlets, mountains and rivers is especially interesting. For this reader, looking at our beautiful pastel drawing of Young Nick’s Head by Gisborne artist Zoe Alford while reading the relevant chapter, was particularly poignant.

I read one review that listed some of the historical inaccuracies in the novel. They seemed minor to me and don’t detract from Lay’s account, which is, after all, fictional. Another review found Lay’s portrayal of Cook passionless but I liked his stalwart, somewhat buttoned-up character. Cook must have been made of very stern stuff to have accomplished all that he achieved. His humanity is revealed in his soul-searching about the deaths of some of his men and his longing to see his wife and children.

I already have the next book of the trilogy (James Cook’s New World) on my bedside table and will buy the final book as soon as it is published.

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