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The voyage that never ends: ‘discovering’ our worlds

Cook

Of all the 18th-century publications about Captain Cook’s voyages at Senate House Library, the major one is undoubtedly that compiled by George William Anderson, A New, Authentic, and Complete Collection of Voyages round the World, explains Dr Karen Attar, the library’s curator of rare books and university art.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, on 7 October 1769, Captain Cook sighted New Zealand. This was a European rediscovery rather than a discovery, because Abel Tasman had discovered New Zealand in 1642 and named it ‘Staten Island’, wishing to take possession of it for the States General of the Netherlands. However, following an attack by the Maori, Tasman did not land. Part of James Cook’s commission was to sail south until he either discovered the great unknown south land or fell in with New Zealand.

Unlike Tasman’s, Cook’s journey had long-lasting effects, for both in 1769 and on subsequent journeys, he spent considerable time in New Zealand. He established that New Zealand consisted not of one island, as Tasman’s scrawl had made out, but of two principal islands. He circumnavigated New Zealand and mapped it accurately, with charts that were used well into the 19th century and sometimes into the 20th.

He recognised the relationship between Maori and Tahitian culture. With some of the crew of his ship, the Endeavour, Cook began to document Maori language and material culture. So successful was he that, in the words of Michael King in his Penguin History of New Zealand (2003), ‘The corpus of knowledge which he and his men assembled on all his visits to New Zealand would be a book to scientists, historians and anthropologists for the next 200 years’.

Cook introduced the Maori to elements of European life formerly unknown to them, such as metals, European weaponry, and certain root vegetables. His reports of New Zealand and its resources both fired the European imagination through his mutually respectful relationship with the Maoris and quickened British interest in colonisation and trade. Many places in New Zealand are named after him or members of his ship – most obviously, the Cook Strait separating the North and South Islands and Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain – and his image is to be seen on bank notes and stamps.

To me the most striking testimony in the Senate House Library collections of contemporary interest in Cook’s activities is, An Authentic Narrative of a Voyage Performed by Captain Cook and Captain Clerke, by Captain William Ellis (3rd edn, 1784). It indicates the wealth of literature on the subject by noting: ‘So much has already been said of the natives, with their manners, customs, houses, furniture, canoes, &c. &c. that, as we can make no improvement, a repetition would be both tedious and useless’ (p. 30).

That the book is the third edition in as many years testifies to the widespread popularity of Cook’s voyages. This copy came to Senate House Library from the collection of a high-ranking Anglican clergyman, Bishop Beilby Porteus (1731–1809), so provides material testimony to interest among leading intellectuals and thinkers. Porteus also owned an acclaimed elegy on Captain Cook by the Romantic poet Anna Seward (1780).

Yet of 18th-century publications about Cook’s voyages at Senate House Library, the major one is undoubtedly that compiled by George William Anderson, A New, Authentic, and Complete Collection of Voyages round the World. It focuses on Cook as ‘the ablest and most renowned circumnavigator this or any other country has produced’, whose voyages ‘have made us acquainted with islands, people, and productions, of which we had no conception’. The preface highlights the work’s authenticity and completeness in a competitive market:

The public curiosity being excited to the highest degree respecting Capt. Cook’s voyages … it is necessary to caution the public against the imposition of all mutilated, imperfect, and spurious editions, abridgements, and compendiums of these works; such publications not being calculated to convey to the reader that satisfaction so naturally expected.

To the volume’s attractions are included, adds the preface, more than 220 illustrations, and affordability. Printing in two columns in a small but clear type enables maximum content in minimum space, and the whole was published between 1784 and 1786 in 80 separate parts at six pence each.

Cook

The description of New Zealand occupies four folio pages. Reading them, one can well understand why the British colonial interest was excited, with such statements as:

 The [northern island] is stored with wood, and in every alley there is a rivulet. The soil in those valleys is light, but fertile and well adapted for the plentiful production of all the fruits, plants and corn of Europe. The summer, though not hotter, is in general of a more equal temperature than in England; and … the winters were not so severe. …
The sea that washes these islands abounds with delicate and wholesome fish. …
Here are forests abounding with trees, producing large, strait and clean timber. …

There is a mixture of the known and unknown, with various fish and flora new to Europeans. The description of the people extends beyond physiognomy and behaviour to hairstyles, tattoos, costume, jewellery, diet, health and longevity, the making of cloth, tools, boats, agriculture, fishing equipment, weapons, music, fortified villages, and religious beliefs.

Cook further lists some common words, such as the numbers from one to ten and body parts, in the language of the northern Island of New Zealand, the Southern Island where known, and, to demonstrate the relationship with South Sea Islanders, Otaheite. He admits frankly that there is more to be learned, as when he says: ‘how they [men and women] divide their labour, we cannot determine with certainty’, ‘Their mode of worship we could not learn’, and ‘With regard to the manner of disposing of their dead, we could form no certain opinion.’

One might not agree with all of Cook’s impressions or his expressions of them. Yet to remember the early days of British exploration into New Zealand, perusal of the 18th-century sources is invaluable.

Dr Karen Attar is the curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.

Other articles on the collections in Senate House Library
Remembering Napoleon Bonaparte in ‘sumptuous’ print
Master of the essay: a review of Joseph Addison’s European ‘Grand Tour’
Multifaceted Good Omens: exploring the Colin Smythe Terry Pratchett Archive
Robinson Crusoe at 300
From daily sermons to satire, the rediscovered musings of a long-lost German polymath
King Lear: 400 years of the second quarto of Shakespeare’s great tragedy
Joyful tidings: 175 years of Christmas cards
Looking back at the Thirty Years War
The decapitation of Sir Walter Raleigh: villain or victim?
Celebrating the 450th anniversary of the ‘Bishops’ Bible’ 
Queen Victoria’s journal reveals her rosy view of Scotland
Shakespeare scintillation: Senate House Library’s first folios
From daily sermons to satire, the rediscovered musings of a long-lost German polymath

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