Captain Cook Essay - Critical Context

Ronald Syme

Critical Context

Without condescending to young readers, Syme has written a well-paced, intelligent, and factually sound biography of Cook. Cook’s famous journals, logs, pilot books, and his eighteenth century multivolume best-sellers about his voyages are familiar to scholars. In essence, Syme has distilled some of the important drama from these events without significant distortion while emphasizing the qualities of mind and character that transformed Cook into one of the singular figures of his age.

Syme’s Captain Cook is a durable tale widely circulated in public libraries and approved by numerous boards of education. Because the author intends Cook’s story to be inspiring, he treats Cook’s faults implicitly as those of the times. Thus, while Cook did flog his crew, this was a common practice, and Syme argues that not all captains cared so attentively for their crews. Similarly, Cook tried friendly persuasion with native populations—an uncommon trait in his day—but, when confronted with unyielding hostility, he met force with force. Syme commiserates with the lot of Cook’s wife and children, as their father pursued a life at sea that kept him for years from his London home, but he notes that such was the accepted fate of women marrying merchant or naval captains. Syme admiringly underscores Cook’s virtuous and relentless ambitions, his tenacity, skill, bravery, ingenuity, and resourcefulness as he single-mindedly pursued his missions. Because Syme’s tale of Cook is well told, readers may be encouraged to move on to the Australian historian J. C. Beaglehole’s monumental and exciting The Life of Captain James Cook (1974) for a lengthy and detailed discussion of this extraordinary character.