Review | James Cook: The Voyages at The British Library

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James Cook: The Voyages, British Library.

By Charlie Allen

James Cook: The Voyages, British Library, 69 Euston Road, NW1 2DB

It is appropriate that an exhibition about nautical exploration should take place in the British Library. Sea-travel and sea-exploration have always been curiously aligned with books and the imagination. Homer’s Odyssey, a founding text of Western literature, is essentially a peripatetic tale of a meandering seafarer. The novel and the Golden Age of piracy were conceived at similar times, and our perception of pirates has been inordinately warped by the print culture of Grub Street in the 18th century. The sea abounds in Shakespeare’s world, as in the world of Hugo, Melville, Conrad, Woolf and Joyce. The literary imagination has always been drawn to the wine-dark (or snotgreen) sea.

But this exhibition at the British Library is rooted in the real and the historical – although the reality of the historical, particularly the Western European historical, is sometimes questioned. The first room of the exhibition drops us into the intellectual culture of late 18th century England and successfully emphasises the importance of knowledge codification in this era. Dictionarists, gardeners and cartographers alike were all trying to make sense of the world through a process of listing, defining and collecting. The exhibition displays original texts like ‘The Gardeners Dictionary Containing The Best and Newest Methods of Cultivating and Improving the Kitchen, Fruit, Flower Garden and Nursery’. The title goes on, until it culminates in a promise to offer ‘directions for propagating and improving from real practice and experience, all sorts of timber trees’. Catalogues, it seems, were à la mode in 18th century Britain.

This scientific, Enlightenment approach of the late 18th century towards the collection and dissemination of useful information seems reasonable, admirable even. I felt primed for exploration, ready to observe the majesty of Cook and his crew, ready to celebrate their empirical and observation-driven approach to anthropology, ecology and zoology. But then, of course, problems arose. The exhibition succeeds in reasonably (to my mind, anyway) demonstrating the complicated ethics of celebrating Cook’s legacy. His achievements are undeniably celebrated – and rightly so – but there remains a palpable uneasiness about the ongoing impact that Cook’s expeditions have had on the native people of the Pacific. To be sure, Cook was no Christopher Colombus. He was ambivalent about the imperialist project.

The visitor to this exhibition senses that he was not driven by the imperial desire for domination, but rather by an almost childlike curiosity. Frequently, I was left bemused by the crew’s charming fascination for the world around them.  On the 3rd March 1769, Joseph Banks described in his journal the moment he found a squid lying on the surface of the ocean. It was ‘so pull’d to pieces by the birds that his Species could not be determin’d’. However, it ‘made one of the best soups I ever eat’. The decision of the exhibition’s curators to assign a glass container of pickled squid to this journal entry certainly does not give us a desire to sample the aforementioned dish: mangled He-Squid.

Later, we see a drawing of this same Banks (a naturalist on board, and probably the main support role in this exhibition) meeting a Maori native. This is one of the highlights of the exhibition: a moment of warmth, communality and peace amid a maritime history that is so often riddled with the theft and violence of colonizing forces. Tupaia, who made the drawing, acted as a sort of diplomatic intermediary between Cook’s crew and the islanders. He was a priest and navigational expert, as well as an invaluable asset to Cook and his crew. With Tupaia’s help, ‘you would always get people to direct you from Island to Island and would be sure of meeting with a friendly reception and refreshments at every Island you came to.’ Interestingly, a present day native islander describes Tupaia as a traitor in one of the video commentaries.

Of course, this ‘friendly reception’ was not always guaranteed. The museum offers accounts, both pictorial and verbal, of the islanders’ range of reactions to Cook’s arrival. Sometimes, they showed immense hospitality, eager to share information and goods with Cook and his crew. Other times, there was more hostility. One indigenous present day inhabitant of what is now Canada – then called Ykot – describes an episode in which Cook and his people heard the islanders shout  ‘Nookat! Nookat!’. The man in the video translates the phrase as an imperative verb, meaning ‘go around’ or ‘keep going’. He laments, poignantly but with a subdued rage, that Cook did not ‘go around’ or ‘keep going’, but rather stepped ashore and continued his cultural and scientific conquest.

One of the final slideshows in the exhibition shows the range of ways Cook has been presented in art. Webber’s painting of Cook’s death sees him as martyr-like and peaceful in his final moments.  Clevely offers a more realistic depiction, with a greater emphasis on the chaos and brutality of the scene. Modern artist Daniel Boyd transforms Cook into a pirate, while fellow modern Paddy Wainburranga offers a flattened, abstract offering of Cook’s legacy, more reminiscent of Tupaia’s work than the European style of Webber and Clevely. The ghostly paintings of Cook’s boats traversing the sublime barrenness of the Antarctic sea are chillingly atmospheric, anticipating 19th century engraver Gustav Doré’s illustrations of Dante’s Inferno. A frozen emptiness fills both Doré’s depiction of Canto 34 (Satan in the depth of hell) of the Inferno and Hodges’ Cook in Antarctica.

Ultimately, this is an exhibition of jostling and frequently contrary impulses, opinions and accounts. The detractors and admirers of Cook clamour for a prioritized view in the mounted video commentaries, and the visitor feels obliged, and desirous, to learn more once they leave. To me, this is always the sign of a successful exhibition. But despite the complexities of Cook’s legacy, behind the darkness and the controversy, there sits the undeniably staggering nautical achievement of Cook and his crew. As David Attenborough notes, with an almost religious awe, these men sailed through and into conditions that worsened every day in freezing, wind-blasted seas renowned for their immense roughness, all for the sake of curiosity – or maybe not.