London: “James Cook: The Voyages” @ the British Library

Many’s the time I’ve spoken of my fascination with Captain Cook and his voyages, so I’m sure you can all guess that I was pretty excited to learn that Cook would be the subject of the BL’s latest exhibition. It’s the rare sort of exhibition I would have rushed out to see, but I was back in the States when it opened at the end of April, so I went to check it out on my first day off work after I got back (I don’t know why I always fly back the day before I need to go back to work; well, actually I do, because obviously I’m trying to maximise my time back home, but my first week back in London is always a big pile of jet lag, ennui, and homesickness).

Cook’s map of New Zealand, from          Wikipedia.

Admission is £14, but National Art Pass holders get 50% off. Although there were other visitors, it was pretty quiet by British Library standards and I didn’t have to queue to look at anything (huzzah!). The exhibit opened with a large map showing Cook’s voyages, and a small room about the Georgian age of exploration, and from there moved pretty quickly into Cook’s first, and most famous voyage, aboard the Endeavour (as always, no photos were allowed in here, so I’ve endeavoured (see what I did there?) to find some of the images online and available for reuse).  This is of course my personal favourite voyage, because of a certain dishy Joseph Banks, naturalist, botanist (more like hotanist, am I right?), rich guy, casanova, etc (I know I talk about Joseph Banks every time I talk about Cook, but I just love that Joshua Reynolds painting so much. And guess what? It was in the exhibition, so now I finally have an excuse to include it in a post, instead of just sneakily hiding the link somewhere).

Joseph Banks by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas, 1771-1773.

As always, the BL excelled with the choice of objects – whilst some pieces were on loan from other London museums, a great deal of it was handwritten objects like diaries, letters, and maps that I had never seen before. I never realised Joseph Banks had such messy handwriting, whereas Cook’s, whilst lacking flourish like the man himself, was very neat and legible (which makes sense, when you think about it, since Cook attended a local school where the boys would have been trained to be clerks, where neat handwriting was an imperative, whereas wealthy Banks could have gotten away with any old messy scrawl).

Tupaia’s drawing of Joseph Banks bartering for a crawfish, c. 1769. Wikimedia Commons.

I’m also kind of in love with Tupaia’s drawings, many of which were included in this exhibition. Tupaia was a priest and navigator that the Endeavour voyagers befriended in Tahiti, and he agreed to travel onward with them and act as their interpreter (which worked well in Polynesia, as the languages all share a root, but was less successful in Australia because the Aboriginal language was completely different, though he still managed to communicate through hand signals). Sadly, Tupaia picked up a fever in Batavia which killed him and his servant as well as two dozen crew members. Honestly, I liked his drawings better than the ones by Sydney Parkinson (who also died en route home, and he only took over as artist after the expedition’s original artist, Alexander Buchan, died in Tahiti (but the expedition actually had a low mortality rate by 18th century standards!)) – they were way more full of character than Parkinson’s work (though I do love his sketches of kangaroos).

Tierra del Fuego by Alexander Buchan, Wikimedia Commons.

The exhibition definitely devoted the most time to the first voyage, which is fair enough, since it was the most iconic one, and the second and third ones got even more ethically murky and depressing, but the second and third voyages did each get a gallery, albeit smaller ones than Endeavour. I was particularly intrigued by a small display before the second voyage that explained why Joseph Banks didn’t end up going as intended (there was an argument about accommodation), and talked about how he went to Scotland and Iceland instead. This included a display of paintings from that trip, which was interesting because those are the artists that would have accompanied the Resolution if Banks had gone, so you could see how very different the images produced on the second voyage would have looked if things had gone just a bit differently (as it was, Banks’s artists did make some cracking paintings of geysers, which is pretty cool).

Drawing of a New Zealand War Canoe by Sydney Parkinson, Wikimedia Commons.

The second voyage was mostly Antarctic in nature, as Cook carried on with the futile search for the great southern continent that was meant to be hiding somewhere down there, and he did make it further south than any man had gone before, but obviously paintings of ice and snow are not as exciting as ones of previously unknown (to Europeans) people and places (though I’m not knocking polar exploration, because I love that too). They did visit Tahiti on this trip too, but it was more of a pick up provisions/reward the men for the awful time in the Antarctic type of thing than a trip of exploration.

Sea Horses by John Webber, David Rumsey Collection.

Of course, the third voyage is the most depressing of all, because this is when Cook’s personality began to change in weird ways to led to him getting killed by the Hawaiians at the end of it (he had become alarmingly hot-tempered, which led to a lot of rash decision making that pissed the Hawaiians off, and rightly so). Before that though, he did embark on another pointless search, this time for the Northwest Passage (like seriously, I’m not a fan of heat, but I would take pineapples over ice and snow any day. He should have stopped agreeing to do this shit), which resulted in some DELIGHTFUL paintings of walruses (walrii?), which they called “sea horses” and sea otters. There was a video at the end of this section that was meant to explain why Cook’s voyages are problematic today, but it seemed a little like an afterthought, which is interesting, because throughout the exhibit, I felt like the curators may have been holding back a little when writing the signage for fear of causing offence. The whole thing was just a little bland, and I think I would have preferred if they had just explained everything in more detail, and included more information from the perspective of the peoples Cook encountered to provide a fuller picture throughout, rather than dancing around cultural misunderstandings the whole time.

Sea Otter by S. Smith, after John Webber, Wikimedia Commons.

Because the start of the exhibition was just a rehash of things I already knew (which is understandable, because I know not everyone is as into Cook as I am), I was worried that it would prove a disappointment, which would have been a shame because of how excited I was to see it. In the end though, whilst I was familiar with most of the material covered here, the artefacts made it well worth my while. It’s not every day you get to see a drawing by Tupaia, or a log written in Cook’s own hand, and those things made it an enjoyable experience (I had also somehow forgotten or overlooked the fact that Botany Bay was originally called Stingray Bay due to the large number of them hanging around the ship. I am shitscared of stingrays, and never would have gone wading there had I known. Good thing (I guess) it looks pretty polluted these days, as it probably drove them all away). The Cook aficionado will find lots of fascinating artefacts here, and people who know less about him will learn something new, but not quite as much as they could have learned if the exhibition had been a bit more forthright. A large part of what makes Cook’s voyages so interesting was the clash of cultures and how Europeans reacted to the unknown (even though their reactions were often horrifically racist and contact ultimately led to governmental policies that were far more destructive than the voyages themselves); and really, by the standards of the time, Cook was a relatively enlightened man (except for on the last voyage) – without his efforts to understand the different societies he encountered, his voyages would not have been the rich source of information about the world that they were, which is worth mentioning (it seems like the exhibition dwelt more on his navigational skills, which in addition to being awesome, were also far less controversial). I’ll give the exhibition 3.5/5.


  1. That was an excellent review of the exhibit, since you clearly know this subject very well. Why do you suppose Cook’s personality changed? Did he suffer from syphilis or something?

    1. Thanks! That’s an interesting question, and there are various theories floating around. Cook suffered from stomach troubles, so it’s conceivable he may have had an intestinal blockage which caused a Vitamin B deficiency, or became addicted to the opiates used at the time to treat stomach complaints. It may have also been some other kind of vitamin deficiency, or even just simple exhaustion. I think syphilis is unlikely though – Cook was married, and he was a straitlaced kind of guy who disapproved of moral laxity in his crew and tried to keep them in check as much as he could (he was deeply saddened by the way syphilis had spread to Tahiti as a direct result of his crew visiting and having sex with the women there).

  2. I was going to ask Eilene’s question, which you’ve already answered. I am glad you weren’t disappointed in the exhibition, and agree about Banks. Movie star good looks. (Though maybe Reynolds prettied him up a bit?)

    1. Maybe he did, but Benjamin West’s portrait of 1773, whilst not quite as smoldering as Reynolds’s, portrays similar features and a similar expression on Banks’s face, and the ladies did seem to love him everywhere he went, so I think it’s safe to say he was a handsome man.

  3. Your reviews are always an engaging read, filled full of interesting information (I often feel like I have learned something new by the end). I’m pleased you enjoyed the exhibition; I also agree about Joseph Banks – that picture definitely deserves to be better known!

    1. Thank you – it’s so nice to hear that! I think one of the most fun things about history is discovering all these people to have historical crushes on; also, Joseph Banks had a frog-printed waistcoat, which makes me like him even more.

  4. Like a dummy, I’ve only just realized I can minimize the reading pane on this enormous monitor at work so I can sneakily read your posts – though my snort-giggle at “endeavour” and “hotanist” probably gave me away. … Hotanist – too good.
    Yeah, I agree with you – pineapples and heat over freezing to death in a barren landscape any day.
    Oh, poor Tupaia. I can see why you prefer his drawings – they’re so much more lively than the others. I like the startled look he gave both men in the bartering picture. Though as you pointed out, Webber’s walruses are pretty great too. They’re a little Edward Gorey-esque, somehow.

    1. Yay! I think I’ve said before, but I can’t get away with anything at work because I share an office with the curator (actually curators, but it’s a job share so only one of them is ever there at a time) and they sit behind me and can see everything on my screen. The only time I get to do anything non-work related is if I work on a Saturday because they’re not there, which I guess is some compensation for working on a Saturday (actually, Gary Oldman came in last Saturday and I got to meet him, so that was compensation as well!).
      Now that you mention it, I agree that they are Gorey-esque, which makes me like them even more. I wish I could have found a better copy of the image though.

      1. Gary Oldman?! Holy smokes – that’s some decent compensation. He’s one of the few modern actors I’d love to meet. Was he nice? Please tell me he was nice.

      2. He’s very nice! His next project is a movie about Eadweard Muybridge, and we hold most of his collection, so he’ll be back to do more research. I took a picture of him and the curator, and she was like, “”We won’t bother you about any more pictures,” but my colleague and I were standing there dying for a picture, so we very timidly asked and he was super nice about it (we both got in the same picture though, because we didn’t want to press our luck). He bought a tonne of stuff from my shop, including some Churchill postcards, which I thought was funny.

      3. Aw, you’ve made my day – he sounds pretty great. And I love the postcard detail. (I’m a big believer in sending postcards out, in general – even just across the city.) Also, thank goodness you got a photo with him. I’d have been ticked at the curator (no offence, I’m sure she doesn’t warrant it) if you hadn’t.

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