The difficulty of praising a book that is finely researched, erudite and modest is that it risks an unintended allusion of slightness. But this handsome, perfectly sized book is one of the few historical accounts that engages directly and convincingly with Captain James Cook as a cultural subject whose meaning has changed and will continue to change with different contexts and different political impetuses.
Glyn Williams succeeds partly because his focus, on the multiple meanings of Cook generated through his death, is tight. This has enabled Williams to re-tell some well-known parts of Cook's story (did the Hawaiians think he was a god? A sign?) and remind readers that to allow yourself to be considered a god in England in 1778 was a terrible sin and understood as such by many in his native country.
The book creaks painfully into an opening. It repeats the English mantra, the imperial spin, that Cook was "devoted to the arts of peace", never "wantonly or unnecessarily opened fire", and was first ashore with "hands outstretched in a gesture of friendliness". Really? At Botany Bay? At Possession Island? And then it is as if Williams pulls himself together and states his real intention, which is "that the circumstances and reporting of his death are the key to his reputation". Williams' claim, unnecessarily colonial and reminiscent of Humphrey Gilbert's "possessing" of Newfoundland, is that this approach "breaks new ground". We can also understand this emphasis on representation and change as a traditional cultural studies project. But this is cultural studies (with its emphasis on the productiveness of texts in producing cultures of subjects and audiences) in the hands of a sensitive but traditional historian. The result is terrific.
Williams takes us through Cook's last journey in a tellingly simple way. Every sentence, every fact and figure is settled within its whole as only someone who has been "doing" the Pacific and Cook for so long can do. The spreading out from the specifics of that journey to the ways in which the muddle of Cook's death became imperial celebrations, national hagiographies and postcolonial blame serves to bring us closer than a historian ever has to Cook's peculiar malleability and availability to modern myth-making.
Williams' summations of the ways in which Australia took up Cook as a kind of nationally sanctioned cult that continues to mask indigenous sovereignty as well as Australia's white convict origins is succinctly told. His coverage of Australia and New Zealand and then the contrast with the emerging figuration of Cook as the "venereal disease spreader" in Hawaii is very important. This is not a relativising text, but one that is acutely aware of the cultural and historical differences that have given rise to the very different modern inventions of Cook.
Why these nationally bound stories became attached to Cook has much to do with the enormous popularity of Cook's published (and edited) accounts of his travels. In this sense, the figure of Cook is a very early example of a "celebrity complex", where he was known internationally through the texts that defined him, but some of which he had very little control over. His death, therefore, enabled that existing mythology to be augmented by further ones.
But where other writers might go down a path of absolute separation between the "real" man who died and the subsequent popular depictions of him as imperial hero and original invader, Williams' care with context lets us see that many of these diverse manifestations of Cook also had some connection to events that Cook himself seemed to have done or condoned in his journals. This is a very useful book and it is also very well told.
The Death of Captain Cook: A Hero Made and Unmade
By Glyn Williams
Profile Books, 224pp, £15.99
Published 28 August 2008