James Cook’s New World, by Graeme Lay (HarperCollins, 2014), 368 pp., $37
Ah – if only we could have had such literary works in schooldays, when our prescribed textbooks fiercely competed against each other for dryness and boredom. Graeme Lay has done a masterful re-creation of James Cook’s late-eighteenth-century world and given us a finely nuanced and well-drawn characterisation of the man himself. This is no mere flight of the imagination; the author’s many sources are detailed in the Acknowledgements, along with his thanks to the individuals who helped ensure its historical, technological and geographical accuracy.
Bernard Cornwell has set the bar at an Olympian height in the field of historical novels, and on first impression Graeme Lay’s work seems a little low-key in comparison. I would prefer to see this as an observation rather than a criticism, since readers will soon find themselves subtly drawn into Cook’s world as the newly promoted captain sets out to make his second historic and lasting contribution to cartography and exploration.
Almost two and a half centuries later our concept of unexplored and uncharted portions of the globe is limited to a few undersea trenches. Even the moon is relatively familiar territory. Lay transports us back into Cook’s world where fact and fiction intertwine assisted by scientific ignorance coupled with earlier explorers’ exaggeration and imprecise navigation. Lay also captures Cook’s personal situation as an outsider amongst the scions of privilege who rule and control his world. His portrayal of the naturalist James Banks as a lascivious womanising rake is a colourful departure from that noble gentleman’s generally held public image – but quite plausible given the recorded activities of many of his peers.
As we enter Cook’s world we are reminded of the time-scales involved. Another three-year separation from his wife and children looms with no means of communication. The loss of his infant son, coupled with the earlier loss of a daughter, is a stark reminder of the appalling rate of infant mortality which was the norm until the medical advances of the twentieth century. James Cook the man gradually becomes more familiar to us via the personal journal he keeps for his wife along with his less personal official record. Lay faithfully records Cook’s pioneering efforts in successfully eliminating the scourge of scurvy amongst his crew. Any resistance on their part to his revolutionary concepts of proper diet and hygiene soon wilts before the prospect of duly prescribed naval discipline.
Lay’s pen deftly paints the other chief characters. We easily share Cook’s growing distaste for Joseph Banks’ botanist replacement – the insufferable Johann Forster – as he arrogantly bestows his pious Lutheran sensibilities on all within earshot. Likewise we feel Cook’s frustration with the captain of the consort vessel Adventure, who fails to maintain the discipline required to ensure the health and survival of his crew. We stand among the ship’s officers, watching the bawdy baptisms of seamen crossing the line (equator) for the first time, and gaze down from the poop deck with bemused distaste as the lower ranks copulate enthusiastically across the decks with visiting native maidens. The subtly differing characters of the various Polynesian cultures are well captured, along with the sense of wonder felt by the Europeans on beholding these tropical island paradises for the first time.
Lay has no problems describing when drama intrudes. Our stomachs tighten as the tidal current threatens to sweep the ships onto a Tahitian reef. We breathe a sigh of relief when Cook’s shouted commands avert the ship’s near destruction, and strain along with the oarsmen in the longboats as they tow the ship to safety. In polar latitudes we share the apprehension of the crew swarming aloft to struggle with the reefing of frozen canvas sails and the pain of torn and bloodied fingers. Fortunately we are just able to avoid the sudden loss of our last meal as we come face to face with the brutal reality of the native New Zealanders’ cannibalistic practices.
Three years at sea is a long story to tell. Lay captures the variety of experience and keeps our interest alive as we share the wonder of it all. Finally, the cry of ‘Land ho, off the starboard bow!’ signals the end of their travels. Sixty thousand nautical miles after leaving, the Resolution is back in Portsmouth. Cook is finally reunited with his family, secure in the knowledge he is home to stay. Naturally, and tragically, we know better.
BRIAN CLEARKIN is a writer and reviewer who lives on the Coromandel.