James Cook is probably the world's greatest
His name adorns many geographical features around the South
Pacific and he is even said to have inspired parts of the
Star Trek franchise.
It is hard not to like him. Occasionally, tenured academic
post-colonialists may slam him as a precursor of imperialism,
but Cook was also a self-made man, enlightened for his time,
culturally sensitive, humane in his treatment of his crews
(at least until that famous, fatal third Pacific voyage),
courageous and always, always, a brilliant seaman.
Every year, books, TV series and movies explore elements of
Decades ago, New Zealander J.C. Beaglehole wrote the landmark
history and edited the journals.
Since then, there have been popularisers such as Richard
Hough, scholars such as our own Dame Anne Salmond and the
incomparably eccentric American Tony Horwitz in Blue
Latitudes (the American title). The Cook books are
Australian author Rob Mundle, probably best known for Fatal
Storm, has been working his way through the great mariners of
I liked his reassessment of Bligh, but have not yet read his
account of the life of Matthew Flinders. Cook: From Sailor
to Legend completes the trilogy.
The front-flap text talks about ''an extensively researched
new biography'', but the absence of endnotes and the skimpy
four-page discussion of sources suggest that this is a work
of synthesis, not of original research.
In just over 450 pages, Mundle covers the familiar story:
birth, upbringing, apprenticeship, marriage, maritime
technology, British aspirations, the great southern voyages
and eventual death in Hawaii. It is a great tale despite his
wife's destruction of their personal correspondence.
Mundle is a competitive sailor, so he brings a seafarer's
love of the sea to the book and his knowledge of the sea and
of sailing leaps off every page. His discussion of Cook's
escape from near disaster on the Great Barrier Reef has the
smell of salt about it.
Is it worth reading? Not if you have a shelf of Cook books.
But if you are new to the subject and are looking for a
mainstream narrative history free of academic jargon,
Cook: From Sailor to Legend will not disappoint.
- Gavin McLean is a Wellington historian.