​Cook's mixed endeavours

Sea of Dangers: Captain Cook and his Rivals by Geoffrey Blainey, Viking, $49.95

The Death of Captain Cook: A Hero Made and Unmade, by Glyn Williams, Profile Books, $39.95

THE FACTS OF JAMES Cook's life and death are straightforward. He led three prolonged voyages around the Pacific, during which he added considerable detail to the European maps of that ocean. In February 1779, on a Hawaiian beach, Cook was struck down, killed and his body dismembered.

The news of his death, which took almost a year to reach London, caused an outpouring of grief by a nation that was smarting from the loss of its American colonies. Yet, as Glyn Williams points out in The Death of Captain Cook, there was some ambivalence about a man who allowed himself to be treated as a pagan god by the people of Hawaii. Some English observers also had misgivings about the implications of Cook's voyages for the people of the Pacific.

To his credit, this was something that Cook readily conceded in his journal, noting that the arrival of the English introduced "wants and diseases which (the islanders) never knew before and which serves only to disturb (their) happy tranquillity ..". Although he made some effort to prevent the worst effects of European contact, Cook could not help being the harbinger of death and destruction.

His reputation has been contested ever since. His successes were many, yet so too were his failures. He charted the east coast of Australia but failed to discover that there was a strait separating Tasmania from the mainland. He was anchored for days at Botany Bay without realising that one of the finest harbours in the world was within walking distance. When he continued his voyage, he sailed past the entrance to Sydney Harbour without investigating it.

The principal purposes of his voyages were not achieved. Rather than discovering the continent that was thought to exist in the South Pacific, Cook showed there was no such place. His search for the north-west passage that was believed to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans was similarly fruitless. He could have been the first to discover Antarctica, but he retreated in the face of the testing seas and freezing temperatures.

In his slim and authoritative book, Williams is more concerned to trace the ways in which Cook has been remembered since his death, both by the people of the Pacific and by his fellow Europeans.

He relates the ways in which Australians and New Zealanders embraced the image of Cook, the civilised navigator, as the founding father of their colonies and later nations, disregarding the earlier European discoverers and, of course, the indigenous peoples whose lands they were.

Williams concludes with a survey of recent writings by Cook scholars, concentrating on the sometimes fierce disputes about the cause of Cook's death. Was he a god who revealed his human frailty to the Hawaiians or was it a more prosaic defence against an alien expedition that was placing unbearable demands on their food supplies and posing a possible threat to their control of the islands?

Williams suggests an even simpler explanation. He points to the events immediately preceding Cook's death, when the irascible captain assaulted the local Hawaiian leader and then found that his small shot was ineffectual in stopping the anger of the crowd from being unleashed upon him. Such inflammatory behaviour could be a death sentence in any society.

In Sea of Dangers, Geoffrey Blainey reminds us in often vivid prose that Cook was not alone in the Pacific. In the late 18th century, the ocean was the scene of rivalry between the English, French and Russians as they sought to undermine the crumbling Spanish empire and assert their own pre-eminence.

While Cook was crossing the Pacific in 1770, scanning the horizon for some sign of the supposed great south land, French trader Jean de Surville was leaving the Indian port of Pondicherry with a cargo of goods that he hoped to trade with the people of that same non-existent land.

The two explorers, approaching from opposite sides of the Pacific, are described as rivals, though each was oblivious of the other and their intentions were dissimilar. Cook had been instructed to claim the great south land for Britain, while deSurville was intent on profiting from its trade. In sailing about the south-west Pacific, deSurville came so close to eastern Australia that his crew reported that they could smell it.

Rather than following his nose, de Surville headed towards New Zealand, expecting that there was a better chance of profitable trade with its inhabitants. It was there that his ship almost came in sight of Cook's Endeavour.

The meeting of the two captains could have been an interesting historical moment. But it never happened. Instead, de Surville headed east for the non-existent continent, while Cook went west to the continent everyone knew existed but which noone was much interested in claiming.

The story of Cook's charting of Australia's eastern coast is a familiar one, but Blainey's characteristic curiosity and close re-reading of the shipboard journals raise new questions about Cook and his reputation, particularly his decision to sail through moonlit seas likely to conceal dangerous coral reefs.

Cook's reputation as a navigator would have received even greater damage than the Endeavour had he and his crew not been able to haul it off the Great Barrier Reef and repair the damaged hull on the banks of a nearby river.

The Age, 8 November 2008