I like doing book reviews. It forces me to read the odd book from cover to cover (a rare thing in academia), and it's a great way to keep up with the latest offerings in the field. I figured I'd put the odd review up here, just for kicks.
CaptainJames Cook in Atlantic Canada: The Adventurer & Map Maker’s Formative Years. Jerry Lockett. Halifax: Formac Publishing Company Limited, 2010. Pp. 198, $29.95. Jeffers Lennox, University of British Columbia
(this review appeared in the Canadian Historical Review 92, 3, [Sept 2011])
When Captain James Cook’s mutilated remains were discovered at Kealakekua Bay in February, 1779, they were identified as his because of a scar on his right hand. Fifteen years earlier, while surveying in Newfoundland, a powder horn had exploded and nearly severed Cook’s thumb. As Jerry Lockett argues in this insightful study of Cook’s formative years, the famous explorer who met an early demise in the Pacific cut his teeth – and valuable extremities – in Atlantic Canada.
There are dozens of biographies examining the life and times of Captain James Cook. Lockett’s study is a valuable contribution because he takes as his focus not the “captain,” but rather the “master.” Instead of recounting Cook’s famous exploits, Lockett addresses a curious gap in much of the literature: how did the time Cook spent in Atlantic Canada, the skills he learned there, and the people he met influence his development as surveyor, navigator, and future explorer? Answering these questions involves engaging with naval, geographic, and medical histories, each of which speak to a different element of Cook’s experience, including his ability to manage a ship and its crew, his study of chart making and surveying, and his fascination with preventing scurvy and assessing available antiscorbutics.
Lockett’s narrative weaves through the various phases of Cook’s early years: his experience on merchant ships and his decision to transfer to the navy (likely because of better working conditions and more advancement opportunities); his impressive work as a master serving under Captains Hugh Palliser, George Simcoe, and others; his encounter with Samuel Holland on the beaches of Louisbourg after the fortress fell in 1758, which inspired Cook to take up surveying and hydrography; and, finally, how Cook used his newly-acquired skills to impress his superiors and move up the naval ranks. Lockett describes the good fortune Cook had to serve under men such as Palliser and Simcoe, while also stressing that Cook was hard working and self motivated, two traits that brought him to the attention of his captains. The young Cook was eager to learn from others and benefitted greatly from Holland’s instruction in surveying; but he also taught himself astronomy and arithmetic better to perform his duties as Master and increase his chances for personal advancement. His charts of the St. Lawrence (with Holland) and especially Newfoundland were remarkable achievements that served the British navy well.
By investigating Cook’s time in Atlantic Canada, Lockett inadvertently illustrates why other historians have overlooked this period in Cook’s development. The extant records, including Cook’s log books which “were so lacking in matters of human interest” (99) provide only glimpses of personality or lived experience. The 21 months Cook spent in Halifax – during a time when the growing settlement was awash in rum, peopled primarily with soldiers and seamen, and surrounded by powerful Mi’kmaw forces – “is the period of his life about which we know the least” (105). To compensate for these blind spots, Lockett traces the development of related historical topics. The causes and treatment of scurvy, a pestilence that Cook went to great lengths to prevent, receive several pages of investigation; the search for longitude at sea, including the development of John Harrison’s marine chronometer and other technological advancements, is similarly subjected to lively examination; and the maintenance of ships at sea and on land is fully described. At times the historical context almost overwhelms the subject, which suggests just how difficult a task is assessing Cook’s time in Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Newfoundland.
Similarly frustrating is the lack of adequate references for what sources do exist. Lockett is writing a popular work, which means historians hoping to follow his leads and assess his use of evidence will be ultimately disappointed. Though the book draws on archival research from London and Halifax and features several illustrative maps and images, the inability to evaluate sources and build on the foundation Lockett has provided is a significant shortcoming for a book that aims to fill a persistent lacuna in Cook’s history. However, Lockett restrains himself from conjecture and speculation admirably and relies on other scholars – including N.A.M. Rodger, Julian Gwyn, and J.C. Beaglehole – to inform his interpretations.
Captain James Cook in Atlantic Canada offers scholarly and popular audiences a window into Cook’s formative years, his experiences in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and his progress from an ambitious merchant seaman to one of the world’s most famous explorers. His ability to learn quickly, manage a ship’s crew effectively, and survey with great precision secured Cook the position of Captain in the Royal Navy. As Lockett demonstrates, these skills were honed, if not born, during Cook’s time on Canada’s east coast.