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Arctic Ambitions: Captain Cook and the Northwest Passage

By James K. Barnett, David L. Nicandri

Review By Robin Fisher

May 30, 2017

BC Studies no. 194 Summer 2017  | p. 201-202

James Cook was the greatest navigator of his, and perhaps any, age. He did more than any other individual to make the Pacific, which covers one third of the earth’s surface, known to Europe. Through three epic voyages he ranged from west (the Great Barrier Reef) to east (Nootka Sound) and from South (below the Antarctic circle) to North (beyond the Arctic circle and into the Bering Sea). Cook’s achievements in navigation, discovery, charting, ethnography, science, and shipboard health, to name but a few, are really remarkable, and evaluating his contribution has produced an ocean of writing, both scholarly and popular. So is there, we might ask ourselves, anything new to say?

Cook’s first two voyages were partly about the search for the mythical southern continent whereas the third involved a search for the elusive, but existing, northwest passage. It is true, as Robin Inglis points out in the preface, that there is more scholarship on Cook’s southern voyages than on his sojourn in the north, though there is certainly more on the north now than there was nearly thirty years ago, when Hugh Johnston and I made this point in another Cook book (xii) (Captain James Cook and His Times, Douglas & McIntyre, 1979). There have been monographs and collections of essays on Cook in the north since then and so these waters are better known to scholars than they were.

Of the eighteen essays in this volume there are some that contribute new knowledge. Glyn Williams, for example, does what he always does particularly well. He takes a piece of the story, in this case the planning and preparation for the third voyage, and tells it with precision and insight. David Nicandri provides a useful overview of Cook’s third voyage. I.S. MacLaren has some intriguing comments about John Douglas’s role in the published version of Cook’s third voyage and how it compares to Cook’s own journal. Some of the most interesting contributions are those that examine the legacy of Cook’s voyage in the Arctic today. Harry Stern looks at sea ice and the effects of climate change since Cook’s time. Stern believes that, given the extent of the sea ice in the late eighteenth century and the timing of Cook’s probe as far north as Icy Cape, he had a fifty-fifty chance of getting further along the north Alaska coastline. Now the sea ice has retreated so much that were Cook to arrive in August today he would have no trouble finding a northwest passage. So there are some new things to say but there is also a fair bit in this book that, one way or another, we have heard before.

There is one attempt to say something different that is very curious. In a prologue Nicholas Thomas describes J.C. Beaglehole’s view that Cook was losing his grip on the third voyage as “at best speculative” (xvi) and concludes by noting that, “There has been much myth making about Cook” (xvii). He then provides three throwaway comments about Cook’s third voyage without benefit of evidence or substantiation. Perhaps he was thinking that, in a field apparently replete with speculation and myth making, he should provide more of each for future scholars to chew on.

If new perspectives are to be so superficial perhaps it is just as well that much of this book repeats things that we already know. The initial piece on the third voyage sails familiar seas and the article on navigational technology in Cook’s time tells us how it was done. The sections on Cook’s visit to Nootka Sound and on George Vancouver’s meticulous survey of the northwest coast cover familiar ground. A piece on the natural history and ethnographic items collected by Cook traces their provenance in collections around the world. These too, are pathways that have been followed before and, in the case of the ethnographic material, this approach tells us very little about the people and cultures that produced these “artificial curiosities.” Indeed one of the limitations of this collection is that, with the exception of Robin Inglis’s section on Cook’s “Encounters” at Nootka Sound, there is not a lot of attention paid to the impact and legacy of Cook’s third voyage on the First Nations people of the northwest coast.

This book was published to accompany an exhibition of the same name that was presented in Anchorage, Alaska, and Tacoma, Washington in 2015. Arctic Ambitions is appropriately, in that context, a lavish and exceptionally well-illustrated volume. Bringing the material record of Cook’s third voyage to public view and retelling this history is valuable in itself. Repeating history should at least mean that we are not forgetting it. But this book begins by proclaiming that it will bring “fresh perspectives” on Cook’s experience in the north Pacific and in that ambition it is not so successful.

Arctic Ambitions: Captain Cook and the Northwest Passage
James K. Barnett and David L. Nicandri, editors
Victoria: Heritage House, 2015; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015. Pp xvii, 429. $59.95 cloth.