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Abel Tasman's journal, 1642-45, made for Joseph Banks

James Cook: The Voyages

24 June 2018 Suzanne Frost

It is 250 years since the Endeavour first set sail from Plymouth in 1768. The British library, in their most successful year for exhibitions yet (thanks to Harry Potter), aims to tell the story of the three arguably world changing voyages through their collection of objects, artwork and artefacts. Maps, sketches and journals entries from Cook and his crew speak of adventures in the unknown, but the exhibitions also casts a sharp look at the legacy of Cook and the unresolved story of exploitation and empire it triggered. There are very strong opinions about Cook, especially in Australia and New Zealand, where he is a household name, albeit a controversial one.

Curators and the Klencke Atlas

James Cook, a farmers son from Yorkshire, was only chosen for the job because he was very good at charting maps. In 1768, there were still vast blank spots on all European maps and scientist speculated that the landmasses they knew in the northern hemisphere would have to be balanced by a considerable counterweight in the South, sparking the obsession with “a great southern continent” waiting to be discovered.
 
(c) FraserMuggeridgestudio

The path through the exhibition is a chronological one, so you discover as history unfolds. Phenomenally designed by AOC Architecture and Fraser Muggeridge studio, the exhibition is a thing of beauty. Dividing the space are separating walls in the shape of the respective island, so you are going to Tahiti, to Hawaii, to Antarctica, always surrounded by walls in every shade of sea blue, aquamarine and turquoise. Cook’s first voyage went to Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia so a team of astronomers could observe the transit of Venus. They did not originally set out with a goal to exploit.

Pencil sea urchin & mouthparts of squid (Royal College of Surgeons of England)

On board the Endeavour were not just scientists but also artists – how else were they going to document their discoveries? There are sketches and paintings, artefacts and objects, specimen of strange and exotic flora and fauna, a 200-year-old squid preserved in a jar.

Joseph Banks and a Maori by Tupaia (c) British Library Board

The exhibition marks out that all the sketches we see were created with a European lens looking at the unknown and sharply contrasts these records with paintings created by Tupaia, a Tahitian high priest they befriended and who became a translator for the English crew when they sailed on to New Zealand. Tupaia’s drawings depict his people and his land in his own style and reverse the gaze onto foreign exotic things when he depicts Cook. The first voyage, quite literally, put New Zealand on the map. It marks the start of British Colonisation but when the sketches on display were drawn, none of that history had happened yet. They depict, almost innocently, the very first encounter of Europeans and Maori.



Cook almost didn’t return from his first expedition (it is one of the great What if’s of history). One night the Endeavour runs aground on the Great Barrier Reef, which nobody knew was there, the sharp coral ripping a hole into the hull. It takes Cook and his men six days to pull the dangerously wounded ship to shore and, through need, they land in Queensland, Australia. Among the many neat and detailed botanical sketches of Sydney Parkinson is the image of a strange creature utterly unlike anything he had ever seen back home in Britain, “about the size of a grey-hound, a head like a fawn’s, ears like a hare’s, of a mouse colour and very swift. Nothing certainly that I have seen at all resembles him." He is the first European to draw what the locals call a gangurru.

 ‘Kangooroo’, Sydney Parkinson’s sketch. Photograph: Natural History Museum

The immense peril and risk these men took, the life and death stakes of the expeditions become even clearer in the second voyage. Setting out to find that elusive “great southern continent” – hopes are high for a new America, somewhere rich and exploitable – Cook is the first man to cross the south polar circle and discovers Antarctica. On a wooden sailboat with no heating, no equipment, no Canada Goose jackets – it is impossible to imagine what these men have gone through. They were literally sailing into the unknown, uncertain if they would ever come back. They are setting foot on land no human eye had ever seen in the most intense weather. It must have been terrifying. They collect loose bits of ice and melt it for drinking water. William Hodges, an up-and-coming painter risking it all to go on Cook’s second voyage, draws sketches of penguins and albatrosses.


The purpose of Cook’s third voyage was really just to find a route from the North Atlantic to the South pacific, known as the North-West-passage. If Britain could find a way to enter the Pacific without having to round the treacherous Cape, it could open up all manner of trade advantages and the western coast of the Americas. This time they took a lot of livestock, corn and other British goods in an effort to bring “enlightenment” to Tahiti.

On their way towards Alaska, they chance upon Hawaii. Cook has orders to find a way through the frozen coastlines of North America but they are met with an impenetrable wall of ice. Cook returns to Hawai’, which he understandably preferred, to sit out the winter. Cook and his crew are set on having a good time and trading with the locals but eventually wear out their welcome. When Cook tries to take Kalaniʻōpuʻu, a Hawaiian chief, hostage to forcibly get his will, a tactic he has used often before, violence breaks out on the beach and Cook is fatally stabbed. The British Library displays two accounts of his controversial death and you are encouraged to make up your own mind as to which one is more believable, or neutral for that matter.

Sir Savid Attenborough attends the exhibiton. Photo: Krisztian Sipos
 
For all their bravery, their invaluable research and scientific discoveries the legacy of Cook is one that needs re-examining and the British Library makes a huge effort to include many different and modern perspectives. The fascinating and extremely beautiful exhibition feels like a trip around the world, marvelling at all the wonders it holds. Incidentally, for preservation purposes of the very old, precious and delicate objects on display, the temperature is dropped in the exhibition rooms which adds a lot to feeling like you are actually in Antarctica!
 
James Cook: The Voyages is at the British Library’s PACCAR Gallery until 28 August. Tickets are £14.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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