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Pioneers of the Pacific: Voyages of Exploration, 1787-1810

By Nigel Rigby, Pieter van de Merwe, Glyn Williams

Review By Christon Archer

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 153 Spring 2007  | p. 135-7

In 2002, the National Maritime Museum in London published Captain Cook in the Pacific, introduced by Glyn Williams, with the succeeding chapters written by Nigel Rigby and Pieter van der Merwe. The present book by the same authors includes seven chapters, beginning with an introduction by Williams, “In the Wake of Cook,” followed by studies on Arthur Phillip, the Comte de La Pérouse, William Bligh, Alejandro Malaspina, George Vancouver, and Matthew Flinders. Williams underscored the importance of Captain Cook in stimulating other nations and private entrepreneurs to organize voyages, to launch trading expeditions, to hunt whales, and to open the trans-Pacific maritime fur trade. In London, Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, promoted new voyages of scientific exploration. For some time, hope lingered that a navigable Northwest Passage might be discovered.

The explorers who followed Cook illustrated the challenges, hardships, tragedies, brilliance, and sometimes the eccentricities and flaws that bedevilled their careers. Arthur Phillip was well known for his grasp of science and languages as well as for his broad general knowledge. He was an experienced naval officer and an excellent choice to undertake the difficult task of establishing a convict colony at Port Jackson (Sydney) in Australia. In command of the Astrolabe and the Boussole, La Pérouse had the expertise and the talent to rival Cook. Nevertheless, a succession of tragic accidents occurred, and bad luck during a powerful tropical storm shipwrecked both vessels at Vanikoro Island. There were a few survivors, but the rescue expe ditions failed to find them. Captain Bligh, an irascible and flawed character, was also an outstanding navigator and a courageous naval commander. The mutiny on the Bounty led by Fletcher Christian was a confusing affair that followed a lengthy stay at Tahiti, where the seamen enjoyed the charms of the Native women. Although Bligh led his loyalists in an epic boat voyage to safety, his bad temper and eccentricities continued during his subsequent career.

The next generation of explorers, including Alejandro Malaspina and George Vancouver, conducted detailed surveys, prepared accurate coastal charts, undertook scientific exploration, and sought to establish sovereignty. Although the Spanish visited the Northwest Coast from New Spain beginning in 1774, in the wake of the 1789 Nootka Sound Controversy, the imperial government appointed Malaspina to lead an ambitious expedition in command of the Descubierta and the Atrevida to strengthen Spain’s claims and to conduct a thorough reconnaissance of the Pacific. Desertion, lengthy stays at Spanish American ports, and Malaspina’s interest in court politics in Madrid distracted him and later ruined his career. However, he surveyed the Northwest Coast to determine the extent of Russian penetration and detached officers to lead the expedition of the Sutil and the Mexicana, which encountered Vancouver during his circumnavigation of what became Vancouver Island. In the western Pacific, Malaspina examined the Philippine Islands and spied on the British Australian settlement at Port Jackson. Returning to Cádiz after more than five years to prepare the publication of seven volumes on the scientific conclusions of his expedition, Malaspina’s political plotting soon led to his imprisonment and, later, to his permanent exile in Italy. For the longer term, Spain’s failure to publicize Malaspina’s achievements probably benefited George Vancouver, who spent three seasons surveying the Northwest Coast and banished any lingering hope about the existence of a navigable Northwest Passage. Vancouver had his own problems with Thomas Pitt, later Lord Camelford, and others but not enough to deter him from the prodigious effort of charting the coastline.

The final chapter on Matthew Flinders’s expedition to trace the coastline of Australia and to search for natural resources once again illustrates the successes as well as the idiosyn- crasies of the explorers. In 1801, the British Admiralty gave Flinders command of the Investigator, a leaky old collier that had seen better days. Flinders relied on Cook’s anti-scorbutic treatments, neglecting lemon juice, which had been adopted by the navy. As a result, many members of his expedition suffered from, and some died of, scurvy. Although his expedition was the first to circumnavigate Australia, scurvy, tropical diseases contracted at Timor, and tragic accidents took their toll. When the Investigator became irreparable, Flinders began the return voyage to England with a small schooner. Forced to put in at Ile de France (Mauritius), the French authorities perceived him as a spy and, partly owing to his haughty behaviour, held him prisoner for six years until 1810.

The three authors, all experts in their fields, develop a modern analytical interpretation of the major post-Cook voyages. Their essays offer an excellent introduction for general readers and also serve to place the exploration of different parts of the Pacific Ocean into context.