Arts / James Cook – hero or a harbinger of doom?

The National Library’s “Endeavour Journal”.

CAPTAIN James Cook, enlightenment hero or agent of Western imperialism? The National Library is about to address this question as libraries do, through journals.

Director-general of the Library, Marie-Louise Ayres, says it’s a “world-first”; two “Endeavour” journals from the British Library in London will join the NLA’s own “Endeavour Journal”, in a free exhibition designed to mark the 250th anniversary of the voyages.

When the words “change the date” and “no pride in genocide” were painted on a statue of Capt James Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park last year, there was a media explosion.

John Webber’s 1782 portrait of Capt James Cook. Image: National Portrait Gallery

For the previously unimpeachable Aussie icon and hero of the European Enlightenment was in the process of being reassessed here and in the region as a harbinger of doom for all the first peoples of the Pacific.
It’s part of the discourse about the damaging effects of colonialism that have been explored in recent years, including by actor Sam Neill in his book and History Channel documentary, “The Pacific in the Wake of Captain Cook”.

Now in a magnificent coup, the National Library of Australia will have all three of Cook’s handwritten journals from his Pacific voyages on display in an extended show that lets the public decide for themselves about the complex scientist, discoverer and map maker.

“Reuniting these journals is significant because they are Cook’s own record, in his own words, of how he experienced the three Pacific voyages from 1768 until his death in 1779,” Ayres says.

In addition, Cook’s last logbook, which ends about a month before his death, also on loan from the British Library, will be shown.

“CityNews” caught up with co-curator of the show, Susannah Helman, who says the exhibition, the library’s big summer show, has been in preparation for a couple of years.

She is quick to assert that neither she nor co-curator and map expert Martin Woods has any political agenda, telling us: “After 250 years the library thought it was timely to have another look at Cook, to let the diaries speak for themselves and let the public make up their minds”.

She says they’re not taking sides in an argument about Cook, but have gathered all the voices, including those of first nations people in the Pacific.

Her response to our question about Cook’s dubious popularity in NZ and Hawaii, is measured: “It’s very interesting these days to see how different people look at Cook differently and what he means across the Pacific and in the world today”.

With that in mind, she explains, the library has assembled documents and artefacts from its collection and other museums and libraries, ranging from watercolours to rare maps, notebooks to even a playbill inspired by Cook’s voyage.

The Endeavour leaves Whitby Harbour 1768. Painting by Thomas Luny, circa 1790).

They’ll also mount a public program plan to talk about why Cook is such a central figure.

So, why is he? Helman doesn’t conceal her admiration.

“He was essentially a mapmaker, a self-made man who succeeded incredibly through his own energies and efforts,” she says.

Cook mapped a huge part of the Pacific. Europeans had been there before but those parts did not appear on maps. He completed the map of Australia and NZ, too. He taught mapping to the famous navigator William Bligh.

“These maps meant that the world would never be the same again,” she says.

“Perseverance was one of his defining attributes but as a man, he was quite ascetic. He was one of the only people on board not to exploit female islanders on the travels.”

The exhibition is a thoroughly modern one technically, with digital images to allow people a close-up look at the diaries – visitors will be able to turn pages in the multimedia displays.

“Cook was a very complex man so the exhibition raises complex issues,” Helman says.

“His personality was widely admired but in his last voyage he was increasingly tired; at 50 it was very old to be at sea.”

The last voyage, she says, “was very hard and isolating and he had a lot of trouble with his ships”.

A keen observer, he was the navigator who got on to the role of vitamin C in scurvy, but the focus in the show will be more on Cook as a man of serious science.

“After all, he went to the Pacific primarily to observe the transit of Venus,” Helman says.

“Cook and the Pacific”, National Library of Australia, September 22-February 10. Free exhibition.

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