Fascinating but flawed portrait of a master ebbs and flows

Captain Cook, Master of the Seas

The Mad Monk, it is alleged, was first poisoned with a massive dose of cyanide, shot in the back four times, then bludgeoned, and his still-living body wrapped in a carpet and thrust under the ice of a frozen river. All this because his assassins feared their victim had superhuman powers.

In Captain Cook’s case, his killers, a band of ferocious Hawaiian warriors, believed their victim was a god reincarnate. So they battered the explorer with heavy clubs, stabbed him repeatedly with spears, and held him underwater to drown. Afterwards they cut up his corpse and distributed the body parts among their villages. Either they wanted to parcel out his magical spirit, his mana, or make sure that when he came back among them he would not be entirely whole.

Cook’s followers determined to retrieve their captain’s remains. They bombarded the shore with cannon and landed a squad of sailors armed with muskets who rampaged through the nearest village, burning and shooting. They decapitated two of their victims and stuck the heads on poles. The Hawaiians were told to hand over the captain’s body. They collected what they could — mostly the ‘long bones’ and Cook’s skull which they delivered wrapped in a black feather cloak. Other bits and pieces trickled in later, though the ‘small bones’ were kept as talismans among the Hawaiian chiefs.

Writing a new biography of Captain Cook follows much the same process: earlier biographers — of whom the greatest by far was J C Beaglehole — have already delivered the ‘long bones’. We are left with the smaller bits and pieces, re-wrapped.

Frank McLynn is a prolific, as well as proficient, writer of historical biography and military history. He averages almost a new book each year, and his subjects have ranged from the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius to psychologist Carl Jung. Therein lies the strength and the weakness of his life of Captain Cook.

His breadth of knowledge means he puts forward some novel ideas about the great navigator.

The most striking — and one he comes back to several times — is that he brackets Captain Cook with HM Stanley the Victorian who blazed trails through central Africa and is famous for the phrase “Dr Livingstone, I presume ...”

One suspects that McLynn has been influenced by his own biography of Stanley, because few historians of exploration would be likely to agree that Captain Cook and HM Stanley can be rated equally. Cook displayed much more technical skill as well as leadership than Stanley, and though both men had humble origins and burning ambition, it is several steps too far to lump together a professional sailor from the Royal Navy with a newspaperman-turned-explorer.

Where McLynn’s expertise serves him better is when he describes the context of Captain Cook’s remarkable career. He’s like a portrait painter paying close attention to the background against which his main subject is displayed. He inks in small and interesting details, adds perspective, cleverly makes his subject stand out. For example, a good, clear section describes Cook’s early days spent charting the coast of Newfoundland where he honed his skills as a maritime surveyor. Later, whenever Cook returns to England from one of his voyages, the reader gets an elegant, easy-to-follow account of the politics and intrigue at home.

All this is done very professionally so that it jars when the portrait painter uses a awkward brush stroke or slaps on a discordant dab of colour, in this case, when the biographer inserts a clumsy and anachronistic turn of phrase. Cook ‘shoots himself in the foot’ and a Pacific islander has a ‘hissy fit’.

To be fair, McLynn has set out to provide a modern re-appraisal of Captain Cook, and he succeeds. But he spoils the effect when his vocabulary veers abruptly from clinical to casual and from scholarly to cosy.

Cook is such a towering figure that every generation will produce at least one biographer in addition to numerous essays and commentaries. McLynn’s account of the Master of the Seas is timely because he gives space to recent criticisms and re-appraisals of Cook whether favourable and unfavourable, sensible and thoughtful or just plain silly.

On one central point, though, everyone should agree: Captain Cook and his crew were superb shiphandlers. If they need proof they should look at the opening illustration to chapter 14.

It shows Tongatapu Harbour in what became known as the Friendly Islands because the Tongans gave Cook such a hospitable welcome there. The long and difficult entry channel is shown, so too is the track of Cook’s vessel groping her way into the anchorage.

The vessel zig-zags back and forth again and again, 35 times in all, often tacking at the last moment before colliding with a coral reef that would rip the bottom out of her. A modern sailor can only be awed by the sheer competence and matter-of-fact skill of captain, master and crew.

Finally, there’s a suitably quirky Irish connection to Captain Cook, Master of the Seas. The book’s cover is a head-and-shoulders portrait of Cook, wearing a captain’s undress uniform.

It was painted by William Hodges, the official artist on Cook’s second voyage. From-the-life portraits of Cook are very rare, and this one was lost for many generations. In 1986 it turned up in Kilkenny in an auction of the contents of Mount Juliet, then the property of the McAlmont family.

The picture was considered so precious to the history of Britain’s seafaring that its National Heritage Memorial Fund contributed £250,000 so it could be purchased by the National Maritime Museum in London.

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