Form and Content
Sir Ronald Syme’s Captain Cook: Pacific Explorer is an engaging, ninety-six-page essay without subdivisions but enlivened every few pages by one of William Stobbs’s thirty-five black-and-white illustrations, each of which covers either a full page or a half page. Readers are further informed by an essential two-page map of James Cook’s three major voyages. Cook’s life and career unfold chronologically, from his school experiences in Yorkshire, England, at the age of eight to his death on a Hawaiian beach forty-three years later.
The heart of the story lies with Cook’s love of the sea, which carried him to partially or utterly unexplored and unmapped reaches of the vast Pacific Ocean. At the age of sixteen, he left an amiable employer to become an apprentice, then a common merchant sailor in the harsh training ground of the North Sea. There he gained a mastery of both navigation and leadership. Despite a promise of his own command, Cook left the merchant fleet at the age of twenty-seven and, without the prospect of a commission, joined the British navy at the lowest rank as an ordinary sailor. Shortages of trained officers during the extended war between England and France, however, brought him swiftly to notice and to promotion, first to master’s mate and then to master. He played a useful role in the navy’s missions during the British siege of Quebec and, more important for his future, distinguished himself in precisely mapping the...
(The entire section is 494 words.)