“It was now just eight o’clock, when we were alarmed by the discharge of a volley of small arms from Captain Cook’s people, and a violent shout of the Indians… Captain Cook and four marines had fallen in this confounded fray.” So writes James King from his vantage aboard ship, upon taking over captaincy of the Resolution after James Cook was slain by provoked Hawaiian natives in 1779. One eyewitness declaims that “matters would not have been carried to the extremities they were, had not Captain Cook… first unfortunately fired.”
In the eyes of the traditional historian, this event is the tragic death of a hero, akin to the slaughter of Orpheus by hysterical Bacchantes; yet for revisionist champions of native peoples, the repulsion of the English becomes a temporary victory for the people of Kealakekua Bay. A reprint of an 1860 compilation by naval historian John Barrow, this concise edition condenses four tomes of Admiralty records by excising navigational details, thus offering an eminently readable narrative. Highlights include: Cook’s discovery of Australia during his first voyage, resulting in the British Crown’s decision to establish a penal colony at Botany Bay; the events leading up to Cook’s demise during his fated third voyage, including a stranger-than-fiction account of how the Kealakekuan natives mistook him for an earthly manifestation of the god Lono; and Cook’s painstaking descriptions of Tahitian and New Zealand natives during his second voyage.
In these descriptions of natives and their customs, the heart of the Voyages, Cook displays a nearly modern sophistication. Resisting the romantic racism of the 18th century, he assiduously refuses to treat natives as noble savages, children of nature, or heathen devils. Barrow illustrates this sensitivity by juxtaposing another contemporary description of Tierra del Fuegans (“perfectly nude, wild and shaggy… like so many fiendish imps”) with Cook’s more humanitarian perspective (“These people appeared on the whole to be the outcasts of human nature; their only food was shellfish; and they were destitute of every convenience arising from the rudest art”).
Although relentlessly mild by today’s standards, the Voyages were immensely popular, consistently titillating readers from their first publication through the 19th century. Just as those who wanted to see naked men and women in the pre-Playboy era would look through National Geographic, many would turn to the Voyages of Discovery to read about the promiscuity, license and nudity of natives.
Publisher: Academy Chicago
Paperback: 555 pages