As my cotton-gloved hands examined the woven fabric, I felt the thrill of encountering a link to the age of discovery. Over a hundred years old and probably unseen and untouched for decades, this artifact of the Cook Islands was being carefully prepared by us technicians to be moved to the Smithsonian Institution’s storage facility. Some twenty years later, Professor Nicholas Thomas’ Cook: The Extraordinary Voyages of Captain James A. Cook has given me much better perspective on these pieces of the past.
For a newly-minted graduate with a degree in anthropology, the job of readying hundreds of objects for long-term preservation was simultaneously tedious and fascinating. Working in conditions quite suitable for an alien autopsy (harsh lighting, facial masks, gloves, plastic-covered tables, and vials of mysterious chemicals), we quickly and thoroughly swabbed and scraped literally centuries of accumulated dust and other foreign matter from relics that had once been a part of the material culture of Pacific islanders. At the time, I knew little about the area or the man who explored it for the British Crown, but I was curious.
Twenty-some years later, I found an excellent way to satisfy my long-dormant curiosity on the library’s shelves. Cook: The Extraordinary Voyages of Captain James A. Cook
is not lightweight reading, but it does contain fascinating passages throughout—from Cook’s attempts to place the Tahitians within the context of a Christian paradise to his final miscalculation that resulted in his very lurid death. It’s the sort of historical examination that has me dipping into and out of it again and again for information on both the tribal cultures and the culture of European sailors who interacted with them in both fierce and friendly ways. Then there’s also the lure of a good sea story. A very competent captain, Cook’s dangerous voyages took him across the uncharted Pacific at a time when other English captains were engrossed in fighting us rebellious American colonists. Few could have managed the seamanship required, but he did and for that and his discoveries he is remembered.
I was a little concerned that a modern telling of Cook’s expeditions would completely demonize him, taking every opportunity to bend the story into a tidy 21st-century morality lesson. That isn’t the case here. Author Nicholas Thomas, a professor of anthropology at the University of London, has done well in thoroughly researching the subject and noting the cultural differences of both the explorers and the Pacific islanders. What results is not a simple story, but rather a rich regional and cultural history laid out and examined--and not speedily--under the harsh glare of modern proclivities. Instead Professor Thomas gives us a leisurely and gently enlightening examination of worlds long lost.