Cook: The Extraordinary Voyages of Captain James Cook relates the adventures of Captain James Cook and his crew during three exploratory ocean voyages as commissioned by the Royal Society in the 1770’s. Cook and his men explored and charted major portions of New Zealand, the Australian coast, and the Pacific Islands. Their travels carried them from the Antarctic to the Arctic. They experienced hardships, braved frozen seas, endured tropical diseases, and broadened Europe’s understanding of the world.
Nicholas Thomas’s work adds to the multitude of biographies about this controversial master explorer. Thomas endeavors to neither continue the extensive hero-worship, nor vilify the man. Rather, he attempts to present Cook as a human being capable of wise and unwise decisions during his quest to make history.
The book is rich in description and language, and draws from the journals of Cook and his fellow travelers. Use of the old writings slows the pace of the narrative dramatically. Although quotes from witnesses holds appeal for the historian and the neophyte, lengthy passages encumbered by obscure spellings and grammatical differences require deeper thought than a typical read. The comparison of journals does reveal how events affected different participants and demonstrated variations in their moral codes.
The author skirts the nature of most biographies by covering the time before Cook departs on the first voyage until just after his death. This selectivity allows a more focused examination of each journey and the impact on indigenous peoples and their cultures as well as the implications for later European conquests.
Cook moves into the realm of sociology. It presents the actions of the men from their viewpoints and the 1770’s social context, providing an interesting examination of the past for readers dominated by politically correct concerns and behaviors.