Captain Cook

Modern travellers can hardly conceive the perils of the sea in the age of sail. Merchant seamen excepted, today’s average seafarer rides a massive cruise ship warned by radar to skirt round storms and stabilised against the rolling of all but the most powerful swells. The terrors of the deep do not extend far beyond poor maintenance, food poisoning, bad company, and illicit drugs administered by persons of interest to the police. Global positioning devices make navigation a breeze. Fifteen-year-old girls single-handedly circumnavigate the globe, and Antarctica is a fun destination for seniors.

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This is a tale of a farm boy who grew up in ‘the world of the rural poor, [which] remained what it had been for generations; a day’s walk in radius, a tight, well-trodden loop between home, field, church, and, finally, a crowded family grave plot’. It is the story of James Cook’s dramatic escape from that loop, told by another equally restless soul, American journalist Tony Horwitz, who spent eighteenth months travelling the Pacific in the wake of Cook’s three great voyages of discovery.

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At the conclusion of the fascinating essay ‘Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and Cook’s Second Voyage’ in his recently published book Imagining the Pacific: In the Wake of the Cook Voyages, Bernard Smith writes:

The most carefully planned and the most scientifically and efficiently conducted expedition ever made up to its time in the realm of reality provided the poet with a world of wonder and a nucleus of recollections from whence emerged in its own good time the most romantic voyage ever undertaken in the realm of the imagination.

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The chapter explores the influence of William Wales on the young Coleridge when he was a student at Christ’s Hospital, London, Wales, the scientist-navigator who travelled with Cook on the Resolution, was appointed Master of Mathematics at Christ’s Hospital in 1775 and Smith, in this engaging essay, argues that the young Coleridge would have heard the stories of their momentous journey in search of the great South Land. For not only was Wales a teacher of mathematics but his job also included drumming up midshipmen recruits from the Lower School for the Royal Navy. He was ideally suited for this – a man of great stature and intellect who could deliver an exhilarating first-hand account of what it was like to be pushing to the very frontiers of knowledge through maritime exploration.

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