New College of the Humanities

Captain Cook and His Times

The Spanish Lake

O. H. K. Spate

The collection of academic papers by Fisher and Johnston, read at Simon Fraser University in 1978, cover an extraordinary range, and are more concerned with Cook's reputation than with the self-dependent captain whose personality remains as though obscured for ever by the glamour of his astounding achievements. David Mackay is most illuminating on Sir Joseph Banks, and Howard T. Fry, in a brilliant footnote, presents Alexander Dalrymple as a key person in Cook's story. This youthful genius insisted that Endeavour fitted requirements: 'A Navy oracle told me I was much mistaken if I thought I should have just what stores I pleased, that there was an Establishment, altho' I might be allowed an anchor and cable extraordinary on such a voyage. My reply was that there was no Establishment but what the ship could carry.' Sir James Watt's contribution is the most disturbing: 'James Lind had initiated the concept of the controlled clinical trial in 1747 on board HMS Salisbury. It demonstrated conclusively the power of orange and lemon juice over other popular remedies to cure scurvy... The Sick and Hurt Board ignored his brilliant experiment with the citrus fruits. Cook conducted no trial, yet lent his considerable authority to the promotion of malt as an effective antiscorbutic, which condemned many thousands of seamen to death.'

Bernard Smith is entertaining on Philip de Loutherbourg's ridiculous picture The Apotheosis of Cook, and so is Terence Armstrong on Soviet Russian writers on Cook trimming their sails to changing political winds. Robin Fisher on Resolution in Nootka Sound takes the reader a long distance from Cook's plain and telling prose; and Christon I. Archer, in the middle of a fascinating essay on the quick succession of visits to the Sound by the Russians, the Spaniards, the Americans and the British, says: 'The events of the Nootka Sound Controversy are too well-known to require repetition.' This is irritating; the book-buyer expects a book, not a transcription from tape, and he deserves the aid of good maps, not the illegible quarter-page affairs here provided. The book also lacks information on Cook's education. How and when did the son of a migrant Scottish farm worker learn hydrography, spherical trigonometry and astronomy? From two foreign engineer officers trained at Woolwich and serving on the Quebec expedition led by General Wolfe, whom Bernard Smith erroneously calls 'an old-fashioned military hero'.

The Spanish Lake is an analysis of Portuguese and Spanish colonial achievement in the Pacific during the sixteenth century. Exploring and mapping an ocean of learning in his 160,000 words and sixty pages of references and notes, Professor Spate seizes upon opinion from this side and that, argues pro and con and leaves the reader, full of curiosity, to make up his own mind where the truth lies. His jocular, mocking tone, with its constant parentheses, suggests that he is addressing a student audience totally lacking in understanding of, or sympathy for, the soldiers and sailors, craftsmen and traders, missionary priests and penniless desperadoes whose comradeship, endurance and courage no voyage however long, no privations however severe, seemed capable of quenching. Imperialism and colonialism are supposedly dead and de mortuis non nisi malum seems to be in order; perhaps the Inca and Aztec dominions ought to have been left intact to provide modern researchers with suitably horrific thesis material? At the same time there are exciting advantages in the author's satellite-view of the Spanish lake, seeing the Portuguese making their great thrust round Africa to Goa, the Moluccas and Macao, and the Spaniards simultaneously pressing from Mexico to Acapulco and the Philippines, learning the different winds and currents required for the outward and homeward voyage: 'It took five years for the round transit Seville-Manila-Seville or Lisbon-Macao-Lisbon.' What defiance of the cruet sea that sentence conceals.

The scramble to be first in the race to the Spice Islands and Cathay had been far more hazardous than that to be first on the moon. How Magellan had reached and crossed the Pacific remained a closely guarded secret for a generation, and Drake's words concerning his own circumnavigation are deliberately vague and confusing so much so that, according to two of the scholars quoted, H. R. Wagner and Eva Taylor, it was 'basically a peaceful venture'. How debased a word 'basically' has become.

One thing is particularly puzzling: the repeated failure to devise a healthy and sufficient diet for seafarers, The men behind these expeditions knew their Caesar; his legions marched with handmills on their belts to grind the flinty grains of wheat and bottles of wine vinegar to slake their thirst. They did not care for meat. For men crossing the Pacific there was dried meat, rotten biscuits and stinking water, causing all the horrors of scurvy and dysentery. The illustrations and maps are, considering the size and cost of the book, decidedly disappointing both in number and quality.

Captain Cook and His Times

Croom Helm, London, 1979; 278pp.

The Spanish Lake

Croom Helm, London, 1979; 372pp.

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