Latest Cook biography has smell of salt about it

COOK: FROM SAILOR TO LEGEND<br><b>Rob Mundle</b><br><i>ABC Books</i>
COOK: FROM SAILOR TO LEGEND<br><b>Rob Mundle</b><br><i>ABC Books</i>
James Cook is probably the world's greatest navigator.

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 his legacy.

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 everywhere.

Australian author Rob Mundle, probably best known for Fatal Storm, has been working his way through the great mariners of Australian history.

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.

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