BOOK REVIEW: The Captain Cook Encyclopaedia


The Captain Cook Encyclopaedia By John Robson

Chatham Publishing Soft cover; 288 pages; US$49.95

Review by Brian Richardson, Windward Community College, O‘ahu 

The Captain Cook Encyclopaedia, edited and largely written by John Robson, is an attractive, well-illustrated guide to the life and voyages of Captain James Cook. The book is also connected to a Web site that offers some additional, but currently limited, information and links: > (note the English spelling). It is written for a general readership and would be accessible to readers who have little knowledge of Cook's voyages.

[PIR editor’s note: The link noted above was not functioning when this article was placed on our website. Another site > appeals to be the one referred to in this article.]

Up until the publication of this encyclopedia, the best reference source on Cook was the index in J C Beaglehole's monumental Life of Captain Cook (1974). The biography still has a greater number of entries and sometimes a more comprehensive discussion, but the encyclopedia is better organized as a reference work and has some more up-to-date entries, such as a half-page discussion of "Endeavour replica," a half-page discussion of the "Captain Cook Society (CCS)," and other entries that talk about portraits, stained glass, and stamps. While Beaglehole focuses on Cook's biography, the encyclopedia also considers Cook as a historical and cultural icon, which is often more interesting than the details of the voyages themselves.

The appendixes to the encyclopedia are also very useful. In addition to lists of books and logs, there is an appendix that lists relevant libraries, archives, and museums, giving their addresses and Web sites; a list of the crew, with some biographical information; and a gazetteer of places named after Cook and his crew (although this does not include things such as streets).

The trivia embedded in the encyclopedia makes Cook, his voyages, and his subsequent mythological presence fascinating.

Evaluating an encyclopedia, however, is different from evaluating a regular book. Most books make arguments or narrate events, but an encyclopedia is supposed to offer a sense of an entire subject. With an encyclopedia, it is not the coherence of the narrative or the argument that matters. [End Page 197] What are important, instead, are the comprehensiveness, the arrangement, and the depth of the topics discussed. Thus, while it is often unfair to criticize a book for failing to mention a specific topic, unless the topic actually fits into the book's discussion, to leave an important topic out of an encyclopedia is a serious shortcoming.

This encyclopedia does not offer a comprehensive guide to the different places that Cook visited during the voyages or a workable system for handling the variations of names and spellings. There is an entry for "Easter Island/Rapa Nui," but none for islands such as Atiu, Tubuai, or Thule. Atiu and Tubuai are mentioned in longer articles that summarize an entire voyage, and they can be found listed in the index, but in a comprehensive encyclopedia, all of the places in Cook's voyages should have entries, however insignificant they might be to the voyages. Some entries for places are also inconsistent. Why, for instance, is there an entry for "Hawaiian Islands and Hawaiians" but separate entries for "Tahiti" and "Tahitians"?

The entries for place-names are typically organized by their modern names and spellings, which has its benefits, but also hinders anyone using the encyclopedia while actually reading Cook's voyages. There should have been a cross-reference in the text from variant names and spellings to the one used as the main entry. An obvious example is the lack of a path for readers to move from Otaheite to Tahiti, a connection that might be obvious to many readers, but still should not have been assumed.

While places and place-names should have been handled in a more comprehensive and consistent way, the encyclopedia is very good at providing biographical information on people connected to Cook's life and voyages. There are entries for people such as William Anderson, John Webber, and Sir Edward Hawke, who was the First Lord of the Admiralty when Cook's first voyage was planned and implemented. Some of these biographical entries provide useful and interesting information about people who may not be crucial, but who are at least relevant for a study of Cook's life and voyages.

Some entries could be confusing to readers. For instance, the only entry under "O" is "Other Cooks," which includes short biographies of two other James Cooks. This is interesting and useful information, but putting it under "Other Cooks" is not only strange, but also not very helpful. Including them under Cook, James (other) would have been better. Incidentally, some entries for "O" that should have been included but were not are a cross-reference for Oberea; an entry for Observatory Island (there are two distinct ones in Cook's voyage); a cross-reference for Omai; a cross-reference for Otaheite; an entry for Ori (a chief of Huahine Island); anentry for Orio (a chief of Raiatea Island); and a cross-reference for Owhyhee.

The relationship between entries is sometimes confusing, suggesting that the classification of different entries should have been clarified. [End Page 198] For instance, a long entry headed "Literature of Cook's voyages" relates, among other things, Beaglehole's argument on how Cook learned to write more than a ship's journal while on the first voyage. Not only is the entry itself unfocused, it also points the reader to an entry headed "Published accounts," which provides bare details on the first published accounts and then points the reader back quite expectedly to "Literature of Cook's voyages" and also to an entry headed "Logs, journals and muster rolls." The latter entry illustrates the simplicity (and paucity) of atypical ship's log in slightly more detail than the discussion found in "Literature of Cook's voyages," but otherwise the entry could just as easily have been added to the "Literature" entry. The problem here is not factual, but organizational: there is no sense for why these three entries are organized in this way or why there is no entry for "Journals of Cook's voyages." Ideally, the encyclopedia would have had separate but related entries for journals, logs, printed books containing firsthand accounts, printed books reprinting the voyages, and printed books of secondary literature. There should also have been entries for engravings (discussing techniques, limitations, history, and so on) and paintings (which would have afforded a chance to talk about Bernard Smith's analysis of the graphic production connected to Cook's voyages).

Finally, there are also entries that should have been included but were not. For instance, the encyclopedia should have discussed weaponry, whether as a general topic or somehow divided into subsections: European, native, ship, and personal, or what have you. Readers might like to know what grapeshot is, or be able to find some discussion of the production, character, and reliability of gunpowder, which played such an important role in Cook's death.

In fact, little in the encyclopedia engages with the darker aspects of the voyages. There are no entries for such topics as cannibalism, theft, or violence, while the text in other entries generally does not point to these aspects of Cook's voyages. One of the few entries where a discussion of violence occurs is headed "Discipline and punishment." Here, however, the tone is more apologetic than descriptive, appealing to the need for punishment on a ship of the Royal Navy, providing a table that simply summarizes the number of punishments during each voyage, and failing to mention such things as incidents where Cook punished natives for some offense or another. It is as if Cook could do nothing wrong.

The book also makes little or no mention of Cook's mistakes, including geographical ones. For instance, while Robson mentions Vancouver Island in various entries, he does not consider Cook's insistence that the coast where the English stopped at Nootka Sound was part of the North American continent and not, as Vancouver would demonstrate on his next voyage, an island.

With these limitations in mind, Robson has done an impressive job with The Captain Cook Encyclopaedia. There are many high-quality illustrations throughout the book, [End Page 199] including eight pages of colored ones, and the entries are well written. Robson clearly enjoyed the process of putting the encyclopedia together, and the result would work well as a basic reference book for Cook and his voyages. However, a comprehensive and academic encyclopedia of Captain Cook must be more than a personal project. Many more entries, and many more perspectives, should have been included. An encyclopedia must anticipate a variety of different users. But the evident goal of this book is like any regular book on Cook's voyages: to make the readers believe a single account and evaluation of what happened. Cook is not described so much as he is celebrated. While this goal may be admirable, it is not the proper task of an encyclopedia to try to achieve it.

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