Comprehensive exploration chronicle with biographical interludes
Kippis’s detailed review of the sailors’ journals calls to mind the similar after-the-fact History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by Elliott Coues and published in 1893. In both cases, the text is loaded with details of daily activities, some of which could even qualify as mundane, that in totality add up to a vivid recreation of the experience of the explorers. Both books are intended for popular audiences and therefore leave out much of the scientific data published in volumes intended for specialists. The most important and frequently covered topic in Kippis’s account is the English expedition’s interactions with the Indigenous inhabitants of the lands visited. Of second priority are details of sailing and navigation, such as the location of good harbors, the availability of provisions, and the geographic coordinates of landmarks. Of less prominence in the narrative are the botanical and zoological wonders encountered on the journey, yet occasionally there appears an exciting discovery like the first European sighting of a kangaroo.
Kippis also covers Cook’s life before and in between his three voyages, but not to any great extent. Most of Cook’s explorations took place among islands in the South Pacific, but he did venture farther afield as well. Cook did not discover Australia or New Zealand, but he more thoroughly explored those lands than any previous European. His biggest contribution to geography was the European discovery of Hawaii, which he named the Sandwich Islands. Cook searched for a rumored “Southern continent” but did not find Antarctica because too much ice forced him to turn back before he saw any land. The same is true of his search for the Northwest Passage, approaching North America from the West. He ventured North of the Bering Strait, where ice blocked his way, but he did explore the coastlines of the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Siberia.
Compared to the Spanish conquistadores, Cook was relatively respectful in his dealings with Indigenous peoples, but still inevitably imperialistic. His short-term goal was exploration and trade, not colonization. As the representative of Britain in foreign lands, however, he considered himself the law and dispensed justice as he saw fit, which in some cases included the killing of Natives when the Brits felt threatened or robbed. As part of his mission, Cook deliberately seeded the Pacific islands with European livestock and crops. We now recognize that these were invasive species that negatively impacted biodiversity, but at the time it was intended as a generous gift to the Natives and to prepare the islands for future settlers. The topic of sex between English sailors and Native women is brought up on several occasions in a surprisingly frank manner but discussed with a vocabulary of utmost gentility.
One unfortunate aspect of Cook’s travels that make them more interesting than most is that he died on his third voyage, killed by Native Hawaiians in a dispute over some stolen property. Kippis’s account of the series of escalating incidents that led to his death is harrowing and tragic. Kippis brings the book to a dull close, however, with excessive eulogizing of Cook, including the quoting of much mediocre poetry. As an exploration narrative, this is really a remarkable book, but Kippis gets rather carried away with the funereal epilogues.
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