Springing a trap for islands, Phil Barton

Captain Cook’s World: Maps of the Life and Voyages of James Cook RN 
John Robson
Random House, $59.95,
ISBN 1869414098

The publisher’s blurb states that the book under review  “is an atlas, chronology and biography of the life and voyages” of James Cook. It is indeed!

There are 399 coloured maps and insets (enlarged parts of the maps) on 128 pages with 76 pages of text. The text adds to the detailed captions printed on the maps and insets. There is a 15-page gazetteer, which lists place-names given by Cook, names which have replaced those given by him and more recent names given to commemorate specific historical aspects from the three voyages. The atlas is also a biography of Cook in map- and text-form from birth to death and covers all of his known life and activities.

As John Robson, a map curator at Waikato University Library, notes in his introduction, even The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World does not give in detail the many places visited by Cook on the three voyages, nor the places named by him. Nor is such information shown clearly enough in Andrew David’s three-volume The Charts and Coastal Views of Captain Cook’s Voyages (1988-98). Moreover, David’s work is expensive and often available to the general public only at major libraries – unlike this new atlas of Robson’s.

The gazetteer lists all place-names appearing on the maps, but no geographical co-ordinates are given. While it was not possible to include these on the maps and insets, they could have been included in the gazetteer, following the place-names. This information would have been valuable for researchers wanting to locate and consult modern hydrographic charts, which sometimes are the only cover for islands – also suitable-scale modern topographic maps covering larger areas of land. In the Pacific, hydrographic charts are sometimes the only cover available for islands such as, say, Nuku Hiva. Topographic maps would be available for Vancouver Island.

Robson’s accompanying text supplements the captions on the maps and insets. With a work of this kind, it is easy to lose your place on a map when referring back to the text. The only sure way to solve the problem would be to make the text detachable so that it could be used visually alongside the maps. This of course would add considerably to the cost. Here, fortunately, the problem is minimised by including essential information in the extensive captions. Another useful addition would have been a modern map of the world similar to Henry Roberts’ 1784 A General Chart Exhibiting the Discoveries made by Captn. James Cook in This and His Two Preceding Voyages; with the Tracks of the Ships Under His Command. Again such an embellishment would have markedly increased the cost.

On p49, mention is made of the possibility that Spanish, Portuguese and Malay vessels visited Aotearoa before the Dutch visit in the Heemskerck and Zeehaen in 1642. Again, on p53, mention is made of the possibility of visits to the Australian east coast by Malay, Chinese, Arab, Spanish and Portuguese vessels before the appearance of the Endeavour in 1770. The Dutch vessel Duyfken is the first recorded visit to northern Australia in 1605-1606. Before visits to either Australia or Aotearoa by any of the foregoing can be positively confirmed, evidence in the form of ship’s logs, charts and journals must be located and positively identified. Without such evidence, such visits can only remain putative. So far no archival records of Spanish or Portuguese visits have, in fact, been located – though it must be added that time and natural disasters like the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755 have played havoc with the archival systems of both countries.

There are, perhaps inevitably, a few minor errors. On p12, Skelton should be R A Skelton; on p162, Bangka Strait is on Sumatra’s east not north coast; on p212, the Select Bibliography omits Anne Salmond’s Between Two Worlds, which is important for its interpretation of British and Maori 18th century cultures and attitudes.

After a detailed study of the atlas, I am impressed with the research and hard work that has gone into compiling it. Captain Cook’s World fills a gap, and I can strongly recommend it to anyone interested in Cook and his three voyages.


Phil Barton was the map curator at the Alexander Turnbull Library, 1973-86.


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Posted in Art, Biography, History, Non-fiction, Pacific, Review
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