The Pacific in the Wake of Captain Cook, with Sam Neill
Meaghan Wilson Anastasios
Is there anything new to say about Captain James Cook’s expeditions to the Pacific? Edited accounts of his voyages appeared from 1773 and, in just the last 20 years, over 200 books on this remarkable explorer and mariner have been published. However, it is now 250 years since Cook departed on the first of his great voyages to the South Pacific and, being an anniversary year, what better time to tap into the publicity surrounding his feats? The Pacific in the Wake of Captain Cook accompanies a lavishly-produced television series presented with a comfortable balance of gravitas and intimacy by New Zealand actor Sam Neill. But is this book a cast-off from the television series, or does it stand on its own in any way as a useful contribution to the literature on the topic?
To attempt to answer this, it is first necessary to establish where this book is positioned on the spectrum of works about Cook. It is clear, based on a combination of its casual prose style, its comparatively slight content (roughly 120,000 words to encompass a mass of material relating to all of Cook’s voyages in the Pacific), its slim bibliography (just three and a half pages), and the absence of any referencing or even an index, that The Pacific in the Wake of Captain Cook is less a work promising new insights than one that is largely derivative, and aimed at a more popular market.
This is not a criticism, provided that the book engages the reader, that it reaches people who might find more scholarly works forbidding, or that it offers an accessible overview of a large and intricate subject. The Pacific in the Wake of Captain Cook attempts to fulfil these criteria, but does so unevenly. The author of this work, the Australian art historian and cultural economist, Meaghan Anastasios, makes an important and surprising concession at the start of the book: “I’m not a historian, I’m not a sailor, I’m not a navigator, I’m not an expert at anything much.” However, despite this claim of being an enthusiastic amateur without any specific expertise, she achieves an interesting alchemy through the way she has arranged the material in the book. In addition to a broadly chronological narrative, there are boxes of text inserted in almost every page which contain extracts from the accounts of Cook and some of those who travelled with him, as well as comments from representatives of the various indigenous groups in the region recounting their impressions of Cook from their own cultural traditions, plus Neill’s own observations as he follows the route of the great navigator.
This technique could end up cluttering the content, but is effective most of the time, largely because each extract is kept brief enough so as not to overwhelm the text, and particularly because of the idiosyncratic nature of Neill’s contributions. His voice is one that variously reflects on people and situations, draws on personal experiences, illustrates comparisons, and helps animate some aspects of Cook’s explorations. From Neill’s sensation when standing on the exact spot where Cook once did, to his assessment of how indigenous Australians were regarded by the Admiralty, his frequent vignettes elevate the book from the ordinary.
One such example has Neill discussing with the captain of an Artic fishing boat what it would have been like for Cook’s crew being confined in cramped quarters for more than a year. The answer is instructive: “My guys would have strangled each other”. It is the sort of insight from someone who knows from experience what the nature of life at sea can be like, and Neill’s conversation elicits this sort of information almost effortlessly. In another passage, Neill observes with his wry humour that, in an attempt to ration rum supplies by mixing the spirit with coconut milk, Cook may have inadvertently invented the piña colada. Such comments do more than serve as interesting asides to the main narrative. They help enhance the human aspect of Cook’s voyages – something that is often missing from the captain’s written records of his expeditions. And, intentionally or otherwise, they also assist in making this 18th-century history take on a sense of relevancy for the present time that, otherwise, would not be as acute.
Despite this comparatively innovative feature, there remain pitfalls, though, for any writer now embarking on a work about Cook. A century ago, he was still lauded as much for being the great flag-bearer for the British Empire as for his nautical achievements, but recent historiography on the man and his accomplishments has provided readers with more nuanced interpretations, and have largely dispensed with this earlier, uncritical triumphalism. At the extremities of current revisionism on Cook are accusations that he was somehow guilty of genocide, although such claims tend to be more an indictment on the writers than their subject.
In The Pacific in the Wake of Captain Cook, Anastasios navigates through the history of Cook’s ventures in the region, carefully avoiding the wilder revisionist claims about the mariner, while still offering an account of the voyage that reflects some of the current scholarship on the period – particularly that relating to the encounters between Cook and the various peoples of the Pacific.
Some aspects of the book might be revelatory to those familiar only with accounts of Cook’s voyages popular in previous generations. Anastasios addresses the view that was common until at least the 1950s, for example, that Cook “discovered” Australia, New Zealand, and Hawai’i. This claim of discovery ignores the fact that there were established communities in those territories long before Cook reached the region, and is in keeping with recent arguments in this vein made by other scholars. However, Cook’s use of the term “discover” is generally interchangeable with “find”, and he never actually claimed to be the first person to “discover” New Zealand. It would have been illogical for him to do so, for no other reason than that he was travelling with the published account of Tasman, who had reached the country over 130 years earlier. The argument about Cook’s “discovery” of New Zealand is therefore moot, but this level of nuance is largely absent from the book. Instead, it is as though the author has latched onto one fairly recent issue of interpretation and added it as a way of demonstrating how the book accommodates “indigenous perspectives”.
Likewise, the inclusion of quotations from various “indigenous” people throughout the text was probably intended to provide some sense of cultural balance (without the author specifying how that might apply to issues of historical interpretation), but more often than not, this method misses the mark. The indigenous contributions appear compartmentalised – literally – and, in too many cases, their value to the narrative is slight. As an example, one contributor states that “Before Cook came here, the land was just like the line where the sky meets the sea – that feeling, it was like the feeling of a sunrise … the feeling of a sunset … just calm and beautiful.” I have read this segment a few times and am still unsure what it means, and even less sure of how it enhances anything contained in the surrounding text.
And, as much as the narrative strives for the inclusion of contemporary approaches to interpreting Pacific history, there is a surprising lapse into noble-savage territory at times, despite the fact that Anastasios decries such an impression of the peoples of the Pacific. Much of the region is depicted as “paradise on earth”, with the “people on the beach who were not too dark but just the right colour” (this is a quotation from an “academic”). And, in case being “just the right colour” is not insidious enough in the objectification of Polynesians, they were also said to “have had all their teeth …. So, of course, who wouldn’t have been attracted [to them]?” It is difficult to fathom how such commentary made its way into the book in the first place, and what function it is intended to serve.
In another instance of banality, one commentator says: “I think Cook explored the world and we learnt a lot from him, and I think we need to understand and learn about these things.” Such statements make no useful contribution and are the sort of text that most writers would shun. The inclusion of these types of comments is even more inexplicable given the absence – for whatever reason – of anything by Dame Anne Salmond, who is a world authority on Cook. Salmond’s voice could have added enormous value to this work, but, instead, too many comments have been sourced from people of more modest expertise.
The Pacific in the Wake of Captain Cook is very much a popular account, with its use of contractions, colloquialisms (and clichés) designed to give the prose a more contemporary, conversational feel. Cook is described as “a bit of a looker”; long-distance travel was “an extreme sport”; Cook “got the extinction ball rolling” in New Zealand; and the 18th century is mentioned cringingly in one instance as being “back in the day”. In very modest measures, such language can possibly come across as being quaint or folksy, but, in this work, the reader is swamped with it, and the attempt at being unpretentious ends up looking contrived.
In addition, there is a tendency to generalisation in the text. Anastasios writes that as a result of frustration with the Industrial Revolution in Europe, “more and more people tried to find a way out”. This does not quantify how many, clarify who, and explain what constitutes “a way out”. Instead, it is left to the reader to piece together an impression of the meaning conveyed in such segments. Similarly, she states that Cook encountered “extreme climates and near-death experiences … on a daily basis in the Pacific”. Every day? Hardly. Yet, these sorts of statements epitomise the book’s “relaxed” approach to accuracy, in which the reader is lumbered with the responsibility of determining what is figurative and what is literal.
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of The Pacific in the Wake of Captain Cook, though, is the number of errors it contains. In some cases, it is the commentaries from “experts” which detract from, rather than augment, the text. One academic, for example, when discussing the trade in mokomokai, is quoted as saying that preserved heads were “[o]nly those of the aristocratic, or the revered, or the admired”. In fact, as demand for mokomokai outstripped supply, the heads of slaves were increasingly used – some of which were tattooed post mortem. There is plenty of evidence for this, which makes the academic’s statement surprising.
The section on the Treaty of Waitangi (the inclusion of which is odd, given that it is well outside the scope of Cook’s era) is riddled with errors that betray not even a basic understanding of the agreement, how it was devised, or what its purpose was. And Hone Heke’s rebellion (again, outside the timeframe of the book and irrelevant to Cook’s voyages) is said to have started “two years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi”, whereas it commenced four years later. These basic errors should have been picked up and resolved during the editing process.
Tackling one of the most written-about navigators and explorers in history inevitably raises expectations that a new book on Cook and his voyages will throw light on some aspect of this history that has previously been underexplored, or that it will configure existing material in a manner that opens up the story to readers in a new way. Unfortunately, The Pacific in the Wake of Captain Cook achieves neither of these objectives and does not fulfil its stated promise of being “fascinating, engaging, compelling, and vital”.
Paul Moon is a professor of history at Auckland University of Technology.