The latter date is incorrect; Cook died in Hawaii on February 14th. But this simple gravestone speaks more eloquently to the distance Cook had traveled than any of the grand monuments erected in his name. Cook was born just a few miles from his family's grave plot, in a mud and thatch hovel: a building type known in the North Riding of Yorkshire as a biggin. Farm animals wandered in and out of the hut's two small rooms. Sacking and meadowsweet, spread on the dirt floor, kept down the damp and odor.
Cook's father worked as a day laborer, close to the bottom of Britain's stratified society. The prospects for a day laborer's son were bleak, even if he survived the harsh conditions that killed most of Cook's siblings in early childhood. Public education didn't exist. There was very little mobility, social or geographic. The world of the rural poor remained what it had been for generations: a day's walk in radius, a tight, well-trod loop between home, field, church, and, finally, a crowded family grave plot.
James Cook didn't just break this cycle; he exploded it. Escaping to sea as a teenager, he became a coal-ship apprentice and joined the Royal Navy as a lowly "able seaman." From there, he worked his way to the upper reaches of the naval hierarchy and won election to the Royal Society, the pinnacle of London's intellectual establishment. Cook's greatest feat, though, was the three epic voyages of discovery he made in his forties -- midlife today, closer to the grave in the eighteenth century.
In 1768, when Cook embarked on the first, a third of the world's map remained blank, or filled with fantasies: sea monsters, Patagonian giants, imaginary continents. Cook sailed into this void in a small wooden ship and returned, three years later, with charts so accurate that some of them stayed in use until the 1990s.
On his two later voyages, Cook explored from the Arctic to the Antarctic, from Tasmania to Tierra del Fuego, from the northwest shore of America to the far north coast of Siberia. By the time he died, still on the job, Cook had sailed over 200,000 miles in the course of his career -- roughly equivalent to circling the equator eight times, or voyaging to the moon. "Owhyhee," a sun-struck paradise unknown to the West before Cook arrived, was as far as a man could go from the drear Yorkshire churchyard he seemed destined at birth to occupy.
Cook not only redrew the map of the world, creating a picture of the globe much like the one we know today; he also transformed the West's image of nature and man. His initial Pacific sail, on a ship called Endeavour, was the first of its kind in Britain -- a voyage of scientific discovery, carrying trained observers: artists, astronomers, naturalists. The ship's botanists collected so much exotic flora that they expanded the number of known plant species in the West by a quarter. This seeded the modern notion of biodiversity and made possible the discoveries of men such as Charles Darwin, who followed the Endeavour's path aboard the Beagle.
Similarly, the art and writing of Cook and his men, and the native objects they collected, called "artificial curiosities," transfixed the West with images of unfamiliar peoples: erotic Tahitian dancers, Maori cannibals, clay-painted Aborigines. Sailors adopted the Polynesian adornment called tattoo, and words such as "taboo" entered the Western lexicon. A London brothel keeper offered a special night to her clients, featuring "a dozen beautiful Nymphs" performing the ritualized sex Cook had witnessed in Tahiti. Poets and philosophers seized on the South Seas as a liberating counterpoint to Europe. On the other side of the Atlantic, Benjamin Franklin issued an extraordinary order, in the midst of the Revolutionary War, commanding American naval officers to treat Cook and his men as friends rather than foes.
Copyright © 2002 Tony Horwitz
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