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James Cook:

The Story Behind the Man Who Mapped the World

by Peter Fitzsimons

Hatchett Australia, 2019

ISBN: 073364127X

528 Pages




Ive probably read 4 or 5 Cook biographies over the years, and with 2020 marking 250 years since his first voyage on Endeavor, I thought "why not take in one more."   Ive been a fan of Fitzsimons work for some time, and thoroughly enjoyed his treatments of other maritime and Australian histories.  HIs style is often well researched, though presented in such a way that makes for light reading and immersive and enjoyable stories.   I also find his subtle yet poignant contrasts to modern world issues and their connection to the histories he is exploring to be timely and spot on.   He can also be quite funny in a quiet, dignified sort of way.


In this new biography, Cooks story is told from much more equal footing to that of the men he sailed with.   A unique and interesting figure for sure, but also just another person dealing with the pressures and social structures of the time.   The title of the book is misleading as the author (one of the first Ive read) acknowledges that Cook wasn't the first to map the world, but someone who also mapped the world.  Any fan of the golden age of discovery will now just how much Cook relied on his Portuguese and Dutch predecessors, and frankly just how much LUCK may have been a part of his legacy.  


The book also explores Cook's shipmate and benefactor, Joseph Banks.  The author gives near equal treatment to his background without too much of the bias that is so often found in Cook stories.   While likely a bit of a pompous, classist and elitist aristocrat, he was also a genuinely interested and ambitious man of science, who shed many of the trappings of his background to pursue something greater.  Though he is often portrayed as an antagonist to Cook, Fitzsimons places him with more care and gives credit the vast impact the man had on science AND the first voyage. 


The story overall only covers the first voyage in detail, and is as much a history of Endeavor as it is a story of Cook.   With both the ship and mans later life covered in a brief summary chapters at the end. However the focus on this one voyage is what I think makes it all the more unique, especially when paired with the many anecdotes and contemporary correspondence of those people involved or peripherally involved in his life, the voyage or the aftermath.   Particularly enjoyable were those parts that told of Lord Sandwich.    


Finally, the author attempts to acknowledge and comment on the larger historical impact of Cooks voyage and the fallout of his interactions with populations of Natives across the South Pacific.   Perhaps as historians are starting to reevaluate the man and his legacy, Fitzsmons here tries to weigh in on a subject that, as an Australian, he is uniquely positioned to do.   Im not in a position to say wether he is right or wrong in his comments, but I did appreciate his near irrefutable proof that at some point in the mans life, Cook did feel that European contact with native populations would enivatably lead to forced assimilation and the obliteration of their culture.  Something he, at the time, deeply regretted.  While his actions in later life don't necessarily show a continued sensitivity to these issues, it is helpful to have the available primary sources and a focused commentary, that give some balance in our evolving judgement of him.


All in all, I really enjoyed this book and was sorry it didn't continue on with the same detail to treat the second the third voyages.   That book would have been too immense to hold comfortably but Fitzsimons style would have kept me plodding along to the end, even if it took a year to get there. 

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