Rediscovering Captain Cook

I wonder how many Australians are as ignorant about our pioneering heroes as me. I’ve just read Rob Mundle’s biography of Captain James Cook and am ashamed to admit I’ve lived so long knowing so little about this extraordinary man who was so important to our history.

There are many biographies of Cook but Mundle’s book focuses on the three voyages he made to the Pacific in search of new lands including the so-called Great South Land and later, the North-West Passage. Cook was not only a great navigator and instinctive seaman, an intrepid and tireless explorer and a leader highly respected by his men, he was the first long-distance seafarer to figure out how to keep his crew healthy and free of scurvy.

His care for his sailors’ health led him to be very fussy about food and long before Vitamin C was known, he realized that fresh food, especially green vegetables and fruit, were crucial. He took small herds of live animals for meat and a goat for fresh milk. (Indeed, the same goat went on two round the world trips with him!) He carried beer and spirits of course, but also a lot of wine, and we know wine contains valuable minerals and vitamins.

Cook’s numerous adventures make this book a riveting read, and his many escapes from imminent catastrophe are miraculous. Of course it all ends tragically with the terrible misunderstandings on Hawaii that led to him being stabbed and clubbed to death and butchered by the natives. They had thought Cook was one of their gods who had fulfilled a legend by returning (a sort of second coming), and they treated him as such, until he ran into a storm leaving the island and had to return for repairs. They twigged that he wasn’t a superhuman at all, and the relationship went downhill fast, as the natives had given away much of their store of food to the ‘god’ and his two shiploads of sailors.

Rob Mundle is a Sydney sailing writer who has published a number of books, all concerned with sailing. I’d read and enjoyed his biography of Sir James Hardy years ago, and now I’m starting on his biography of William Bligh, another great (but unfairly maligned) sailor, navigator and explorer. It promises to be another ripping yarn. 

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