Book Review: James Cook: The Voyages - the British Library exhibition catalogue

This fascinating exhibition catalogue accompanying the British LIbrary 2018 show tells the story of James Cook's three major voyages across the globe through the Library's rich Captain Cook collection.

James Cook: The Voyages


The book is organised chronologically and features thoughtful and well-written essays that are peppered with paintings and drawings from these voyages as well as excerpts from eyewitness together. It vividly brings to life the extraordinary challenges of Cook's voyages.


Spread from James Cook: The Voyages

Spread from James Cook: The Voyages showing Alexander Buchan's 1769 painting of expedition life on the left-hand page and 'A Man of the Island of Tierra del Fuego' and 'A Woman of the Island of Tierra del Fuego' (1769) on the right-hand page


Many of the paintings and sketches featured are a record of the expeditions' first encounters with peoples, lands and flora and fauna. There are drawings of the Huash people, native to the island of Tierra del Fuego, by Scottish artist Alexander Buchan; depictions of the Maori by Sydney Parkinson; scientific sketches of animals and flowers and William Hodge's powerful pictures from the second voyage showing the Resolution and the Adventure in the vast black seas of the Antarctic.

The Resolution and Adventure Taking in Ice for Water, William Hodges, 1773
The Resolution and Adventure Taking in Ice for Water, William Hodges, 1773


The book also includes the only surviving paintings by Tupaia, a Polynesian high priest who joined Cook's ship at Tahiti and sailed to New Zealand and Australia as navigator and intermediary, interpreting local rituals and ceremonies. 

[Banks and a Maori] 1769, Tupaia

[Banks and a Maori] 1769, Tupaia


The book explores a number of themes including scientific discovery, the crew's first encounters with indigenous cultures and the navigation and charting of the Pacific.  

The Klenke Atlas, 1658
The Klenke Atlas, 1658 which shows the partially charted Australia

Before Cook's voyages, the South Pacific was largely an imagined space. While there was a general belief that a Southern Continent existed and counterbalanced the land in the northern hemisphere, large swathes of land and sea remained uncharted and unknown. Over the course of his three voyages, Cook was not only able to disprove the notion of the Great Southern Continent, but also to fill in other blank spaces on the map including New Zealand, the East Coast of Australia and Antarctica. In short, Cook changed our understanding of geography.

However, today there are questions about his legacy from the results of imperialism in Australia and violent encounters with the Maori in New Zealand to the beginnings of a devastating fur and whaling trade.  The exhibition at the British Library, that accompanies this book, cleverly poses these questions and weaves films examining Cook's legacy within the sections presenting Cook's achievements. The book takes a more straightforward approach, focusing instead on 'using [the British Library] collections, to let the protagonists speak for themselves.' p 13. It feels like a bit of a lost opportunity.

Nonetheless, this handsome book is a readable and scholarly book filled with beautiful reproductions which vividly bring Cook's three voyages to life.  It is an excellent record of the exhibition and works well as a standalone book - in short,  a great addition to any history lover's bookshelf.

Our thanks to the British Library for providing a review copy of this book.