State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 41 Autumn 1988


The Literature of Cook'S Voyages

Although Richard Hakluyt's classic Principall navigations, voiages, and discoveries of the English nation might have been expected to initiate a tradition of maritime narrative, it was not reprinted between 1600 and 1809 and, for a nation which boasted ad nauseam of its dominion over the Oceans, England had remarkably little voyaging literature of any note in the seventeenth century before William Dampier. His New voyage round the world1 (1697), simply but vividly written and replete with lively human interest, was an instant success with five editions in six years.
The New voyage began a boom in voyage narratives; Dampier's publisher, James Knapton, became a specialist in the genre. Dampier had sailed as a buccaneer; others of the craft, as well as the less disreputable privateers who followed them, cashed in on the new trend — Betagh, Funnell, Woodes Rogers, George Shelvocke. Dampier provided raw material for eight of Defoe's novels and for Swift's Gulliver's Travels; while Coleridge's Ancient mariner was drawn from a mate of Shelvocke's. By about 1715 the voyage narrative was well established as a distinct branch of literature, though its writers were often decidedly unliterary. They excused themselves by pleading that they were blunt unlettered seamen, a defensive attitude which persisted until George Vancouver in 1798, and beyond.
All these earlier voyages, however, except for Dampier's unhappy expedition to New Holland in 1699, were unofficial. A change came when private enterprise was succeeded by public in the great government-run explorations of the second half of the eighteenth century. In official circles, at least, these called for more formal treatment.
The first official British expedition to the Pacific, however, that of George Anson in 1744–48, was not exploratory but predatory, a giant raid on Spain's holdings and commerce on both sides of the Ocean. Care was taken over its recording in A voyage round the world by George Anson, published by James Knapton's sons. With the help of competent writers a professional narrative was produced; it was not the mere chronological outpourings, overloaded with navigational detail, of the privateers' — it was structured and it set a standard. Yet alongside the official presentation were private narratives exploiting the many spectacular incidents of the voyage. These too became a tradition.
The great explorations of the Pacific were not just disinterested pursuits of knowledge. Behind the screen of scientific enquiry there was an underlying motive, the search for new commercial opportunities and for positions of geo-strategic advantage; science was both an essential tool and a convenient camouflage, just as it is today in the sparring for positions in space by the superpowers. Much speculation hinged on the legendary Terra Australis incognita; the ratio of known land to sea in the northern hemisphere far exceeded that in the southern, and it was thought that to preserve that balance of the globe a compensating landmass must lie in the South Pacific. This was a central theme in the influential book by Charles de Brosses, Histoire des navigations aux Terres Australes (Paris, 1756), translated (without acknowledgement) by John Cal-lander in Terra Australis cognita (Edinburgh, 1766–68), and in Alexander Dalrymple's Voyages to the South Pacific Ocean of 1770; Dalrymple had hoped for command of what became James Cook's first voyage.
Such a continent, by analogy with other lands, must teem with spices, precious metals, and other riches. Terra Australis was an objective in the voyages of Samuel Wallis and Philip Carteret, as well as of Cook himself until, on his second voyage, he demolished it by sailing several times over its supposed position. Until then, however, its discovery promised an addition to national wealth, power and prestige; hence the admiralties, both British and French, naturally sought to control the dissemination of information which might lead to its discovery. All logs and journals were, by order, to be handed in before the end of a voyage and not released, if at all, until the official compilation had appeared; there was a conflict between the prestige of publicity and the demands of security. But it proved impossible to prevent the appearance of ‘quickies’ by junior members of the ship's companies, anxious to make some more or less honest guineas out of their experiences, and their narratives found eager, if not always reputable, publishers.
Cook's first task on his first voyage (1768–71) was to observe the astronomically important transit of Venus from Tahiti, discovered in 1767 by Samuel Wallis and visited by L.A. de Bougainville, a disciple of de Brosses, in the following year. Cook was then to search for the southern continent; this brought him to New Zealand, discovered by Tasman
(although Tasman had not landed upon it, nor had it since been visited) in 1642. After having circumnavigated both islands, the Endeavour was no longer in a fit state to cope with the stormy direct passages to either the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. Cook decided to return by the unknown east coast of New Holland, a coast which he named New South Wales.
An English translation of Bougainville's narrative had appeared in 1772 and, as it would never do to allow the French to gain renown by British default, it was decided to publish the accounts of Cook and his predecessors (Byron, Wallis and Carteret) in one work. Moreover, this work was to be produced by a man of letters who would have access to all records. The choice fell upon the well-reputed John Hawkesworth, and his labours appeared in 1773 as An account of the voyages undertaken by order of His Present Majesty for making discoveries in the southern hemisphere, the rotund title matching the style of a man who was considered a rival to Samuel Johnson.
Hawkesworth's editorial methods were decidedly peculiar by modern standards. His use of the materials was very loose; he was capable of switching reflections from Tierra del Fuego to New South Wales to point out his moral. He came under very severe criticism, said to have hastened his death, for infidelity in suppressing all references to Divine Providence in hazardous situations, and for immorality in his descriptions of the love-life of the Tahitians; though here, if anything, he rather toned down his main source, which was Joseph Bank's journal. Hawkesworth put everything into the first

‘Botany Bay in New South Wales’. From John Hawkesworth's An account of the voyages undertaken by order of His Present Majesty.

person, merging the individual personalities of his heroes into one generalised and magnanimous personality, “I”, always humane, level-headed, and in complete command of circumstances. Hawkesworth thus presented a patriotic epic of the British Commander as Hero2 and his book, which ministered to a flattering national image, was an immediate and long-continued success, as well as being a very popular borrowing item from the circulating libraries which were then spreading in provincial towns. From this period onwards, travel literature was probably ranked next to theology and/or fiction in such borrowings.
Cook's first voyage was the first British one to carry a naturalist. Joseph Banks, a wealthy young landowner with a passion for botany, brought back stores of specimens and drawings in natural history and had elaborate plans for publication; plans so grandiose that the project collapsed under its own weight, and his great Florilegium is only now being published in a magnificent de luxe edition.
Of the unofficial publications on Cook's first voyage, the anonymous Journal of a voyage round the world (1771) was a rush job, brought out only two months after the Endeavour's return. It is, on the whole, poor stuff. Its better parts owe a good deal to Sydney Parkinson's more important Journal of a voyage to the South Seas. (Although Parkinson's Journal did not appear until 1773, there was a good deal of exchanging of journals on board). Parkinson, a young Quaker employed by Banks as an artist, died at Batavia and his journal was published by his brother, though not before some unpleasantness with Banks, who had claim to Sydney's papers. It is an unpretentious book which gives a very agreeable view of young Parkinson's engaging personality.
Cook's second voyage (1772-75) was his greatest. Explicitly in search of Terra Australis, he dissipated that ancient dream by two deep probes into Antarctic waters and by two great tropical sweeps which added enormously to knowledge of the South Sea Islands and their people. It is clear that Cook, like Carteret who had also been through Hawkesworth's mill, was dissatisfied with that author's rather fancy versions. Cook took good care to do the basic writing of A voyage towards the South Pole, and round the world (1777) and to have it capably edited by Canon John Douglas, later doubly Bishop; there would be no more infidelity or immorality.
Banks, who was to have accompanied Cook on the second voyage, withdrew after a squabble concerning his inordinate demands for accommodation. He was replaced as naturalist by a German scientist, Johann Reinhold Forster, who in turn

Kangaroo. From John Hawkesworth's An account of the voyages undertaken by order of His Present Majesty.

brought along his son George; each produced a notable book. The elder Forster, a good scientist but a cranky cantankerous man, thought he was the proper person to write the official record and, when the Admiralty disagreed, there was a fine row. Taking advantage of his unofficial status, his son George produced A voyage round the world (1777), basing it much more on his father's journal than either would admit. This was just as well for, as writing, George's book excels any other contemporary voyaging account. Although in general the Forsters were solemn, given to rancorous disputation and high-flown sentimental moralising (this was the ‘Age of Feeling’ and the rise of Romanticism), and had no small conceit of themselves, the book has some humour as well as lively narrative and lyrical descriptions of paradisiacal islands and gloomy wild prospects. It is a young man's book — George was under eighteen when he sailed — and, while sometimes absurd, it is full of life.
Very different is Johann Reinhold's Observations made during a voyage round the world, on physical geography, natural history, and ethic philosophy (1778). The more strictly scientific data and hypotheses are historically significant, while ‘ethic philosophy’ — observations and reflections on the conditions of human life and human relations in this newly discovered world — is really an attempt at a sociology and, while sometimes weird to our modern knowledge, is always that of an acutely enquiring mind. Although Beaglehole sneered at Observations, historians of modern geography honour Forster as a founding father.
Also of importance, if, in a sense, ephemeral, is The original astronomical observations (1777) by William Wales (who attacked George in Remarks on Mr. Forster's account of Captain Cook's last voyage (1778)) and Charles Bayley. However, being mostly dense arrays of figures, this publication is now less digestible than the Forsters' works. The anonymous Journal of the Resolution's voyage (1775) is a catchpenny production of no significance.
After the triumph of the second voyage, Cook's last (1776–80), although a remarkable exploit in itself, led to tragedy. He was only forty-eight when he sailed, but that was more advanced in years than it would be today. There were no routine medical checks then, and nobody could know that he was losing his energy and judgement, almost certainly owing to the sapping effect of an intestinal parasite. He was only six months back from his second wearing circumnavigation when the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich, invited him to a little dinner at which Cook was asked for his advice on the leadership of a new voyage. As Sandwich probably hoped and expected, Cook volunteered himself; it was not expected that it would take him to his death.
Thanks to Cook himself, Terra Australis was no longer on the agenda. The objective was now to find the long-dreamt of northwest passage between the Pacific and the Atlantic. The voyage fell seriously behind schedule, and Cook no longer showed his old eagerness in seeking out new islands; he delayed, inexplicably, in the South Seas. Making from Tahiti for Drake's ‘New Albion’ — northern California — Cook came upon the hitherto unknown Hawaiian Islands. His reception was most friendly and, when his first northwards thrust failed to find a passage either northwest or northeast, it was natural that he should return to winter in this friendly haven.
This time he was received with rapture. His arrival coincided with the annual festival of the God of Peace, Lono, and he was literally worshipped as a deity. A week after he had left for the Arctic a storm forced him back to repair a damaged mast. This time his reception was cooler. The strain of provisioning so many men was beginning to tell on the Hawaiians, and Lono's festival was over; Ku, the God of War, was in the ascendant. At Kealakekua Bay, on the main island of Hawaii, the theft of a longboat led Cook into an impatient and ill-judged attempt to seize the ruling chief as a hostage and, in the ensuing affray, he was killed. Greatly shaken by this disaster, his officers nevertheless, with remarkable resolution, made a second and again unsuccessful Arctic voyage before returning home via Macao.
The official publication, A voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1784), was again edited by John Douglas. It was based on the journals of Cook himself and, after his death, of lieutenant James King with, of course, contributions from other officers, notably the surgeons William Anderson and David Samwell. Douglas knew his job and produced a very readable narrative. In the crucial section on Cook's death, however, King, an attractive but too smooth a character, slanted things to show both his Captain and himself in an impeccable light.
Of the unofficial accounts, first off the press was an anonymous production, Journal of Captain Cook's last voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1781), which was actually by Lieutenant John Rickman. This is a hack job, with a good deal of padding and even romantic invention. John Ledyard borrowed excessively from it for his A journal of Captain Cook's last voyage to the Pacific Ocean (Hartford, Connecticut, 1783). Ledyard, an American sergeant of Marines, was Cook's emissary to the Russians at Unalaska; a most remarkable young man, he set out to reach Alaska overland from St. Petersburg, got as far as Irkutsk before the Tsarist police caught up with him, and later died in Cairo on his way to find the sources of the Nile. As a source, neither Rickman nor Ledyard are of much account, except for the latter's account of his visit to the Russians. Ledyard, at least, gives us a lower-deck view of Cook by one outside the charmed circle of his Royal Navy officers.
This lower-deck view, however, applies more strongly to Heinrich Zimmermann's Reise um die welt, mil Capitain Cook (Mannheim, 1781; there are translations published in Wellington, 1926, and Toronto, 1930). Zimmerman was a simple Able Seaman, yet his naive little book helps us to understand why Cook was so generally loved by his crews. William Ellis' An authentic narrative of a voyage performed by Captain Cook (1782) is hardly worth mentioning, but David Samwell's A narrative of the death of James Cook (1786) is required reading for the light it throws on his hero's character, though it has a certain constraint arising from his anxiety to avoid appearing to condemn Cook for the fatal error which led to his death. Samwell's published book, however, is much less lively reading than his uninhibited shipboard journal, which can be found in the third volume of J.C. Beaglehole's Hakluyt Society edition of The journals of Captain Cook (Cambridge, 1955–1974).
Of the books so cursorily sketched here, perhaps only George Forster's and possibly, in its way,
Hawkesworth's, could stand on their own as works of literature. Although both are in a style now outmoded, Forster's is by far the more lively and personal in appeal. But taking them all together, the bad with the good, they form a remarkable record of seafaring life under sail, and a remarkable monument to a great age of exploration. A tradition in maritime literature had been firmly established.

Exhibition Items

Matra, James Mario, 1748?-1806
A journal of a voyage round the world, in His Majesty's ship Endeavour, in the years 1768, 1769, 1770, and 1771 …. London, Printed for T. Becket and P.A. de Hondt …, 1771. (4to) Published anonymously. Variously attributed to Banks and Solander, Richard Orton, William Perry, and the publisher, Thomas Becket, although James Matra is now favoured. Beddie (2nd ed.) 694; Holmes 3.
Parkinson, Sydney, 1745?–1771
A journal of a voyage to the South Seas, in His Majesty's ship the Endeavour… London, Printed for Stanfield Parkinson, the editor: and sold by Messrs. Richardson [etc.], 1773. (4to) Beddie (2nd ed.) 712; Holmes 7.
Hawkesworth, John, 1715?–1773
An account of the voyages undertaken by the order of His Present Majesty for making discoveries in the southern hemisphere … London, Printed for W. Strahan; and T. Cadell …, 1773. (4to) Beddie (2nd ed.) 648; Holmes 5.
Cook, James, 1728–1779
A voyage towards the South Pole, and round the world. Performed in His Majesty's ships the Resolution and Adventure … London, Printed for W. Strahan; and T. Cadell …, 1777. (4to) Beddie (2nd ed.) 1216; Holmes 24.
Cook, James, 1728–1779 [and] King, James, 1750–1784
Troisième voyage de Cook; ou, Voyage à I'Ocèan Paciflque … Paris, Hotel de Thou, 1785. French translation of A voyage to the Pacific Ocean … first published London, 1784. Volumes 1 and 2 are written by Cook, volume 3 by King. Beddie (2nd ed.) 1556.
Banks' Florilegium. A publication in thirty-four parts of seven hundred and thirty-eight copperplate engravings of plants collected on Captain James Cook's first voyage round the world in H.M.S. Endeavour, 1768–1771 … London, Alteco Historical Editions in association with the British Museum (Natural History), 1980–.
The plates from which this ed. was printed were prepared under Banks' direction by various engravers, principally D. Mackenzie, but were never used until 1973, when a selection of them was published under the auspices of the present owner, British Museum (Natural History), as: Captain Cook's florilegium.
Flamsteed, John, 1646–1719
Atlas coelestis. By the late Reverend Mr. John Flam-steed, Regius Professor of Astronomy at Greenwich. London printed, [s.n.], 1729. (fol.) Celestial atlas used by Cook on his voyages. Beddie (2nd ed.) 3702.
[Cook'S Celestial Globe]
Globe and Flamsteed's Celestial atlas presented to the Public Library of Melbourne by Alderman C.J. Ham, 24th Oct. 1882. Beddie (2nd ed.) 3702.
Cook, James, 1728–1779 [and] King, James, 1750–1784
A voyage to the Pacific Ocean, undertaken by command of His Majesty for making discoveries in the northern hemisphere ….[atlas]. London, Printed by W. and A. Strahan: For G. Nicol … and T. Cadell …, 1784. (fol.)
VSL copy contains the 62nd plate by Bartolozzi, after Weber, representing the death of Cook. Beddie (2nd ed.) 1543; Holmes 47.
[H.M.S. Endeavour (Barque)]
Three masted vessel with square rig, converted from Whitby collier. Model made by Edward Freeman Prentice in 1937. (Item displayed by courtesy Museum of Victoria)


Except when otherwise stated, the place of publication of all works mentioned in this essay was London.


See W.H. Pearson ‘Hawkesworth's Voyages’, in R.F. Brissendon (ed.) Studies in the eighteenth century II Canberra, Australian National University Press, 1973, pp. 239–258.