James Cook – The Journals

I was not sure what to expect when I started to read The Journals (1779) by James Cook, the famous explorer. It is an abridged version covering his three expeditions into the Pacific Ocean. The book is more than 600 pages long, so there is plenty coverage of events.

While it is an official journal describing the daily progress and technical details and complications of the journey, Cook adds in a lot of observations. He is not simply recording where they are and what they encounter, he also tries to understand the people and cultures he meets and explain it in the right frame of mind. He is not simply an explorer, he pursues scientific research. He is careful in his approach, prefers to hold back and not judge too quickly, avoiding violence if possible even if the people he encounters have rather barbaric habits. He tries to understand them and does not push his values upon them. He is knowledgeable on previous explorations of the unknown and the errors that were made in those, leading to enmity and misunderstanding between explorers and natives. He tries not to abuse them from his superior position, although his expedition is limited in resources he always needs to trade for food in the most profitable way as he does not know how long his journeys will be.

While writing his accounts on what takes place, the reader gets insight in his character and behavior. He also gives his opinion on the situations he encounters. Often he seems very lenient towards the natives he encounters. This is only as long as they don’t cross certain boundaries that might cause undesired side effects. When this happens he immediately steps into action and does not stop until matters are resolved to his satisfaction while making sure he limits any negative impact from his actions. This approach made me reminiscent of the so-called Prime Directive from the Star Trek series. Cook himself reminded me much of captain Picard from the Next Generation Star Trek series. It almost seemed to me that his character had to be inspired by Cook. Because of his personal contribution to the journal it also resembles much of a diary. So this is not just a travel book, but also a partial autobiography.

The journals cover three expeditions. The first is to the Pacific Ocean. This is very new territory and most of the serious discoveries take place on this first journey.  It is also the most dramatic of the three journeys. Cook encounters more dangers and hardships than on the other expeditions.

The second expedition aims at finding the unknown southern continent. As we already know there is only ice there is not much to discover. Even so, Cook returns to some of the places he has been before and some new ones in between his attempts to find the southern continent. As he spent much less time in those places during the first journey we get a better view.

The third journey aims at exploring the northern Pacific Ocean, especially the Arctic. This is a quite different kind of journey. In the first place is the style of the journal. Cook lets go of the daily notifications and tries to write more of a travel story than a journal. Before heading to the northern Pacific he returns to earlier places and spends much more time there, giving many more details of rituals and other local matters. In his behavior Cook has also changed. He has less patience with the nasty habits of the natives and he treats them harsher. Perhaps he believes they should know better after several visits.

The abridged version focuses mainly on the discoveries and the events the expedition encounters. General descriptions of the lands and details that are similar to earlier ones that have been described are mostly left out. Only in a few cases I wanted to have read them. In most cases I was fine with the chosen cuts.

The edition I read kept Cook’s original writing style. Most prominent is the lack of consistency in the way he writes his words. Often he uses a phonetic version and this version can vary as well as if he is not sure how to write certain words. Fortunately it does not hamper the readability of the journals. One just has to get used to it and then it reads easily enough. Despite the use of phonetic words Cook’s prose is quite readable. I’ve read old journals before and I had much more trouble with them. I had expected I would need several to many months to finish this book, but it went much faster. Nevertheless this is not a book to read in long sessions. I simply read for like an hour per day and that worked fine.

The Journals of James Cook is certainly a very interesting read to anyone wanting to know about late eighteenth century shipfaring and the Pacific cultures and peoples of those times, even when you don’t know what it all means, but you know as much as the explorers do so you feel like you are part of the mission. It is a fine story of a careful and scientific approach to exploration. I enjoyed it quite a bit, much more than I expected.


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