Performing Cook: Early American explorers’ appropriation of James Cook’s voyages

1. Imagining Cook

Halfway around the world from where Capt. James Cook recorded some of his greatest achievements, and where he met his death, sits a relic of his voyages “round the world.” Deep in the Pocumtuc Valley, in rural Massachusetts, lies Historic Deerfield, a living history museum that commemorates early America with a sweeping array of material culture. Here, one can find a remarkable collection of powder horns, relics of the colonial wars. One of these tools is inscribed “John Parker His Horn 1775.” It is a peculiar testament to the ways in which early Americans perceived the wider world. Etched into the horn is an image of a canoe. It carries eight Native American warriors. One stands in the bow, holding a telescope, the others paddle a vessel that is festooned with decorative art, war clubs, and severed heads, symbols drawn from Native Americana. Yet, the symbols distill another set of themes, drawn from Cook’s voyages among Polynesian cultures! Intriguing, too – the engraving seems to have been based on an etching of a South Seas war canoe that had appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine for September 1773, documenting Cook’s second voyage in the Endeavour.[1]

Powderhorn inscribed “John Parker His Horn 1775,” with engraving of a South Seas war canoe apparently appropriated from an etching that had appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine for September 1773, documenting Cook’s second voyage in the Endeavour. Photo by author; courtesy of Historic Deerfield Acc.#HD2005.20.46.1. The William H. Guthman Collection of American Engraved Powderhorns.

Capt. James Cook represented many things to the Americans who followed his travels through reading, and, especially, to those who sailed in the tracks of his voyages. They hailed him as “the celebrated Captain Cook”, “the valuable navigator”, and “the great navigator.[2] They identified him as a paragon of a vernacular Enlightenment in which common people could add to the storehouse of human knowledge through their own observation and measurement.[3] They embraced him as a commoner, a man much like themselves, who, as Andrew Kippis observed, “had no claim to distinction on account of the lustre of his birth, or the dignity of his ancestors,” and yet who rose to the heights of international renown.[4]

If, as some historians maintain, “Cook was, during his own lifetime, not especially famous, despite his reputation as a ‘skillful Navigator at the Admiralty,’ American audiences did, in fact, follow his voyages, then and after.[5] In 1779, as “a Duty to Mankind,” Benjamin Franklin, then ambassador to France, famously sent a letter to American naval and privateer captains to allow Cook’s ships to pass unmolested on his return voyage. For his consideration, Glen Rodgers writes, “Franklin received not only the gold medal from the Royal Society, but from Lord Howe a copy of Captain Cook's Voyages, sent ‘by his Britannic Majesties orders as a testimony of his Royal approbation of the same liberal conduct’.”[6]After his death, Ruth Scobie observes:

Cook’s reputation was submitted quite consciously and deliberately to a “heroizing process”: something which took place in theatres, books, pictures and newspapers, and which promoted the dead Cook to the international role of secular saint, imperial patriarch, and Adam Smith’s “global agent.”[7]

Americans contributed to his “apotheosis.” Interrupted only during the War of Independence, one could find reprints of Cook’s voyages in bookshops, library companies, and athenaeums. In the nascent United States, one could find references to “the illustrious navigator” in naval gazetteers, encyclopedia, and chapbooks. Thomas Jefferson cited Cook’s voyages in his widely read Notes on the State of Virginia (1788). Cook references appeared in the new American geography books (for both adults and children), produced by Noah Webster and others. William Barker’s rendering of Cook’s map of the world, situating the Pacific Ocean at its center, with the Americas and Europe on its peripheries could be purchased in Philadelphia in 1796 for nine dollars, about one month’s wages for a sailor, but within means for a merchant or successful sea captain.[8]One could find the Captain’s visage on pitchers and bowls, textiles bearing the inscription, "The Death of Capt. Cook, who was massacred by the Natives of O-why-hu Feb. 14, 1779, and even imported wallpaper.[9]

2. Performing Cook

Within the corpus of books, journals, logs, and correspondence that made up a vernacular literature of voyaging “eastward of Good Hope,” many recounted the “adventures and sufferings” of Yankee mariners. Some of these “globe beaters,” however, reached out to do more than describe lurid tales of cannibals, typhoons, and shipwrecks.[10] Amasa Delano, Edmund Fanning, Joseph Ingraham, and others imagined themselves as latter-day Captain Cooks and formatted their treatises as navigational guides that tracked the winds, currents, shoals and reefs that made Pacific and Indian Ocean voyaging fraught enterprises. As men who had survived the dangers that nature posed—sometimes barely—they hoped their writing would save ships, cargoes, and lives.

Cook taught these early generations of Yankee globetrotters what to believe and how to behave in the wider world, laying the groundwork for their own post-independence “voyages of commerce and discovery.” They read what he wrote, travelled where he did, followed his directions and notes, and observed what he had witnessed. Cook served as inspiration, muse, and guide. Consequently, their narratives represent them as engaged in discovering new lands, constructing navigational guides, describing exotic flora and fauna, and encountering unfamiliar peoples, in effect performing Cook. We can trace Cook’s influence on Americans by interrogating a few examples.

3. Inspiration

One of these notable mariner-authors was Amasa Delano, whose own three voyages “round the world” carried him through much of the Pacific as a merchant, seal hunter, and explorer in the 1790s and early 1800s. Cook’s Voyages resonated with Delano’s own aspirations as a young man and served as a touchstone throughout his life. Consequently, the subtitle for his 1817 memoir, Narrative of a Voyage of Survey and Discovery, paid homage to Cook and others who sought to explore the world’s oceans. The Cook canon inspired Delano to do more than explore – the literature influenced him to write the book that he hoped would elevate him beyond his humble status.[11] Cook had reflected in the Preface to his account of the second voyage that "he had ‘not had the advantage of much school education’, having been mostly at sea since his youth.” In turn, Delano referenced his own limitations: “in consequence of my want of an early and academic education.”[12] This sort of self-fashioning, how a commoner could rise in status and reputation through discoveries that added to the useful knowledge accumulated by adding navigational knowledge, emerged as a trope among the overseas travelers of the American early republic, borrowing from Benjamin Franklin’s famous autobiography and appropriating Cook as a model of self-improvement.

As with Delano, Edmund Fanning found his inspiration for overseas exploration in Cook’s Voyages. Between 1793 and 1833, Fanning circumnavigated the globe as another seal hunter, trader, and explorer, touching at various Pacific and Indian Ocean ports of call. In 1833 and 1838, he published his own Voyages Round the World, modelled self-consciously in the tradition of Cook, Dampier, and others. Fanning’s 1833 Preface describes both his debt to these earlier explorers and his intent to emulate their achievements. He tells his readers that the “hope of being able to add some new discoveries to the knowledge already in the possession of man relating to those seas, and the no less flattering hope of realizing a fortune” were enough to commit him to the enterprise. As customary in American maritime writing of the time, Fanning performed Cook in another way, representing himself as another disadvantaged young man, “possessing but few opportunities, and those few confined mostly to the cities, in the improvement of which the inhabitants could obtain ought more than an ordinary education.” In their own way, Joseph Ingraham, Samuel Patterson, Richard Henry Cleveland, and virtually every Yankee writer emulated the trope of Cook’s humility.[13]

4. Legitimacy through Print

As much as anyone, Cook framed the sea voyage writing process for his American followers. As Philip Edwards observes, “Cook wrote in great detail about his voyages, to begin with for the eyes of the Admiralty, but then, […] with a view to his work being read by the public.”[14] The Cook canon could be read as travelogue, gazetteer, navigational guide, natural history, cultural geography, and handbook for the Indies trade. To this end, Yankee explorers followed Cook’s style closely for their own audiences. Their books and journals incorporated essential elements of the Voyages: referring to earlier travelogues, marking navigational sites, identifying flora and fauna, and describing unfamiliar cultures. Like Cook, Delano, for instance, “gave an enormous amount of time and labour – mostly at sea but also ashore – to writing up the story of his voyages, constantly revising and rewriting.”[15] He incorporated this spirit in his Narrative, writing of his motives:

The first that I know of was an ambition to excel others in achievements; the next was, to satisfy my own curiosity in a knowledge of the world; the third and last, was, obtain a competency sufficient to support myself and family, and to leave an unblemished character behind me.[16]

Yankee travelers like Edmund Fanning represented themselves as sophisticated “citizens of the world,” in Oliver Goldsmith’s popular phrase, and Cook had shown them that the role of amateur scientist, especially in discovering new forms of natural history, was one way to gain entry into genteel society.[17] Consequently, Fanning’s readers would vicariously experience a volcanic eruption in the Cape Verdes. They would imagine the lushness of Brava Island, where the “fragrance of these green valleys, […] actually seems to take hold upon the feelings in such a manner as to reanimate the whole system.” His readers would join him on a South Atlantic shore as he sat for hours at a time “to observe sea lions’ manner of approaching the shore, after a spell of feeding in the sea.” And they would feel the “gratification derived from beholding” a rookery of macaroni penguins, that “noble bird.”[18]

5. Navigation as vernacular knowledge

For Delano, Fanning, Ingraham, and others, the most important feature of Cook’s exploration were the practical points of navigating unfamiliar seas. Their writing anticipated Phillip Edwards’s estimation that “Cook did more than any other navigator to add to our knowledge of the Pacific and Southern oceans.”[19] Before a voyage, Yankee mariners immersed themselves in reading Cook’s Voyages and scanning his charts; in uncertain waters, Cook was often the first source they consulted, as Joseph Ingraham observed in April 1791, “This sight was unexpected, as we had seen and passed all […] the Marquesas. On this I examined Cpt. Cook’s chart of the world [and] his voyages.”[20] We see similar paeans to the “great navigator” throughout Delano’s 1817 Narrative, as well. Recalling his 1791 stint aboard the Bombay Marine exploration vessel Panther, Delano brought his readers along his search for a strait through the southern part of the island of New Guinea, according to the suggestion which had been made by Captain Cook.” Further along, the Panther proceeded “at the bottom of a bay, where Captain Cook supposed there was a strait.” Elsewhere, the expedition sought inlets “where captain Cook recommends it as best to anchor.”[21] Ingraham’s journal of the brig Hope for April 1791 mirrored Delano’s account for roughly the same period: “Port Madre de Dios [...] is fourteen miles eastward of what Captain Cook makes it”; “Captain Cook [...] discovered a small round island”; “Captain Cook in 1774 steered S.S.W.”[22]

Cook’s observations on sea and land were the benchmark for these Yankee mariners. When Joseph Ingraham found two unknown islands beyond the Marquesas in April 1791, he consulted Cook’s map of the world and his Voyages, laying claim to what he called Washington’s Islands. Similarly, in 1799, when the Ann & Hope encountered Fiji, the captain likely consulted “a copy of the 'abridgement of Cook’s voyages’.”[23]Cook’s imprint could be found in other references that filled a great cabin. In Nathaniel Bowditch’s 1802 New American Practical Navigator, he could refer to sites such as Cook’s River and Cook’s Bay and to sections entitled, “North West coast of America, from the observations of Captains Cook and La Perouse” and observations such as, “The latitude of the Cape of Good Hope, given by Capt. James Cook, and others, is 34°23 'S False Cape34° 12' S.”[24] In American ‘voyages round the world’, Cook’s navigation and discoveries were especially celebrated, enabling them to travel the world in search of new markets. Wherever they went, Cook had blazed the trail, making their journeys safer, even possible. They could find Cook’s name was everywhere on their maps and India directories, signifying soundings, sites of wrecks, “lost” islands, and, most frequently, places he had “discovered” and named.[25] Some sites were even possessive, as if Cook’s naming them made them his, such as “Cook's harbor”, “under the Island of La Christiana.”[26]Aboard the Columbia, John Boit, Robert Gray and others made frequent reference to sites “so named by Capt. Cook” and “so call’d by Capt. Cook.”[27] Fanning commemorated each place he touched at, informing his readers, for instance, “At daylight, bore up, passed the Bay of Islands, so called by Captain Cook, and at 10 A. M. were in the mouth of Woodward harbor, the wind being then light and unsteady, mostly ahead.”[28]

6. The Cannibal Pacific

The Cook legacy did more than introduce Americans to the Pacific; it profoundly influenced the ways in which Americans imagined the peoples of the Pacific. Of all the sites that Cook introduced to Western readers, one, in particular, resonated in American maritime writing, and this was the place “at Karakakooa bay where capt. Cook was killed,” as Samuel Patterson recalled of his own 1806-1807 sojourn in Hawai’i.[29]As Ruth Scobie frames the narrative, “the interlinked texts of a nascent commercial culture initiated the creation of a colonial character, identified by Epeli Hau’ofa as the looming ‘ghost of Captain Cook.’”[30] But, other ghosts loomed in Yankee travelers’ accounts, as well – the ghosts of his cannibal killers. The idea of the cannibal had been well established in American writing, going back to early discovery narratives.[31]The various Cook narratives raised the trope to new levels of consciousness and located it in a new region – the Pacific.

John Ledyard introduced the trope of Pacific cannibalism into American writing, recounting the infamous incident on 23 November 1773, when Cook witnessed a demonstration aboard the Resolution anchored off New Zealand. In Ledyard’s rendering of Cook’s death, the Hawai’ians were likewise clearly depicted as cannibals.[32]The ghosts of Cook and his killers loomed throughout later American travelogues. For Ebenezer Townsend, no admirer of the Cook legacy, “Karahekoa (Kealakekua) [...] will long be remembered as the death place of the valuable navigator, Capt. James Cook.”[33]John Boit’s log of the Columbia included the notable entry on 29 October 1792, “Made the Isle of Owhyhee, one of the Sandwich Isles, where the famous Circumnavigator, Capt. James Cook was killed by the Natives.”[34] Archibald Campbell generalized the story, asserting, “The unfortunate death of captain Cook, and the frequent murders committed by the natives on navigators, particularly in Wahoo, […] gave such ideas of the savage nature of the inhabitants, that for many years few ships would venture to touch at these islands.”[35]

The trope of the Pacific cannibal passed from Yankee travelers into general consciousness. Accounts describing New Guineans as cannibals and Hawai’ians as the “savage” butchers of Cook, appeared in newsprint such as the Salem Register and Albany Gazette, introducing a vocabulary that became concretized in American thought. Mention appeared in the pages of philosophies such as The Night Cap, in which the author observed, “Reflect on all those sacrifices of human victims; see the savages devouring the flesh of Captain Cook.” Merchants like the Perkins family of Boston expressed ambivalence about sending ships to Hawai’i. They yearned for the sandalwood that would fetch generous prices in Canton, but, growing up to lurid tales of Captain Cook’s grisly demise, they also urged their ship captains to spend as little time there as possible.[36] Those who did not read the texts learned through images and theater. Amasa Delano recalled that a Hawaiian boy he had brought to Boston had performed on the stage there, “in the tragedy of Capt. Cook,” a display that reinforced the image of savage and cannibal.[37]

After their War of Independence, American overseas traders roamed the seas in search of markets and legitimacy, for both their new nation and for themselves personally. To gain the latter, they published texts that were intended for several audiences, and that incorporated the elements of a travelogue, gazetteer, navigational guide, and handbook for the Indies trades. In this endeavor, the three voyages of Captain Cook resonated with their experiences and aspirations. Portraying themselves as guides across dangerous and exotic seas, they appropriated elements of the Cook legacy to compose narratives to represent themselves as American versions of “the illustrious navigator” and their country among the community of civilized nations. Their influential publications not only re-imagined Cook’s explorations, but also depicted them as performing Cook’s exploits.

Notes de pied de page

  1. ^ Colin Calloway, ed., After King Philip's War: Presence and Persistence in Indian New England, Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1997; Evan Haefeli and Kevin Sweeney, Captors and Captives: The 1704 French and Indian Raid on Deerfield, Amherst, MA, University of Massachusetts Press, 2003. The original plate of "a war-canoe of the savages in the South Seas" appeared in The Gentleman's Magazine, September 1773, p. 432. Caroline Frank, "New England and the World," Historic Deerfield, 17, Autumn 2018, p. 6.
  2. ^ E. Fanning, Round the World; op. cit., p. 358; Charles H. Barnard, A Narrative of the Sufferings and Adventures of Capt. Charles H. Barnard, in a Recent Voyage Round the World... , New York, 1836, p. 215-216; Jared Sparks, The Life of John Ledyard, Boston, 1847, p. 50; Ebenezer Townsend, Jr., "Extract from the Diary of Ebenezer Townsend, Jr.," ed. Thomas Trowbridge, Jr., Hawaiian Society Reprints, Reprint n°4, 1921, p. 23-25.
  3. ^ Caroline Winterer, American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2016; Keriann Yokota, Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became A Postcolonial Nation, New York, Oxford University Press, 2014; John Sledge, Review Essay: Philip Edwards (ed.) "Captain James Cook: The Journals," London, The Folio Society, The Northern Mariner, 29.1, Spring 2019, p. 47-48.
  4. ^ Andrew Kippis, Narrative of the Voyages Round the World, Boston, 1828, p. 16.
  5. ^ Ruth Scobie, "The Many Deaths of Captain Cook: A Study in Metropolitan Mass Culture, 1780-1810," PhD diss., University of York, April 2013, p. 11-12.
  6. ^ Glen M. Rodgers, "Benjamin Franklin and the Universality of Science," The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 85.1, Jan. 1961, p. 50-51; William Bell Clark, "A Franklin Postscript to Captain Cook's Voyages," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 98.6, Studies for the Library of the American Philosophical Society, Dec. 23, 1954, p. 400-405.
  7. ^ R. Scobie, op. cit., p. 18; Bernard Smith, "Cook's Posthumous Reputation" in Captain James Cook and his Times, ed. Robin Fisher and Hugh Johnston, London, Croome Helm, 1979, p. 161, 179. See also Gananath Obeyesekere, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1992; Harriet Guest, Small Change: Women, Learning, Patriotism, 1750-1810, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2000, p. 252-259; Anna Neill, "South Seas Trade and the Character of Captains," in The Global Eighteenth Century, ed. Felicity A. Nussbaum, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003, p. 296-308; Glyndwr Williams, "'As Befits Our Age, There are No More Heroes': Reassessing Captain Cook," in Captain Cook: Explorations and Reassessments, ed. Glyndwr Williams, Woodbridge, Suffolk, ENG: Boydell & Brewer, 2004, p. 230-245; Daniel O'Quinn, Staging Governance: Theatrical Imperialism in London, 1770-1800, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005, p. 74-114.
  8. ^ William Barker, "A Chart of the World, according to Mercator's Projection, shewing the latest Discoveries of Capt. Cook," Philadelphia: Mathew Carey, 1796, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University Library, 1978, Folio 150.
  9. ^ R. Scobie, op. cit., p. 157-158; N. A. Reath, "Printed Fabrics," Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Museum, 20.95, May 1925, p. 152; Mary E. Holt, "A Checklist of the Work of Francis Shallus, Philadelphia Engraver," Winterthur Portfolio, 4, 1968, p. 143-158; Alison Larkin, "Replicating Captain Cook's Waistcoat: Exploring the Skills of a Named Embroiderer during the Eighteenth Century," Costume, 51.1, 2017, p. 54-77.
  10. ^ As Amasa Delano fashioned himself on an 1803 cruise "to the South Sea." Delano, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres... Boston, E. G. House, 1817, p. 423.
  11. ^ There were financial incentives for writing. It was well known that John Hawkesworth had received £6,000 for his account of Cook's first voyage.
  12. ^ James Cook, The Journals of Captain James Cook, ed. Philip Edwards, New York, Penguin Books, 2003, p. xi; A. Delano, op. cit., p. 17.
  13. ^ E. Fanning, Round the World, op. cit., p. ix.
  14. ^ J. Cook, op. cit., p. i.
  15. ^ Ibid., p. x.
  16. ^ A. Delano, op. cit., p. 421-422.
  17. ^ On one mercurial voyage, Charles Barnard expressed the sentiment in particularly clear terms: "I began to feel myself now a citizen of the world tossed upon the billows of its heaviest trials, with only a distant hope of anchoring the vessel of my hopes in the haven where I would be." C. Barnard, op. cit., p. 211.
  18. ^ E. Fanning, Round the World, op. cit., p. 19, 88, 90-91, 127.
  19. ^ J. Cook, op. cit., p. i.
  20. ^ Joseph, Ingraham, Joseph Ingraham's Journal of the Brigantine Hope on a Voyage to the Northwest Coast of North America, 1790-92, ed. Mark D. Kaplanoff, Barre, MA, Imprint Society, 1971, p. 57.
  21. ^ A. Delano, op. cit., p. 91, 99.
  22. ^ J. Ingraham, op. cit., p. 57, 62, 64.
  23. ^ R. Gerard Ward, "The First Chart of Southwest Fiji, 1799," The Journal of Pacific History, 42.1, June 2007, p. 103.
  24. ^ Nathaniel Bowditch, The New American Practical Navigator, Newburyport, MA, 1802.
  25. ^ James Horsburgh, The India Directory, or Directions for Sailing to and from the East Indies..., 2 vols., 5th ed., London, 1841, p. 18, 109, 100, 111, 687.
  26. ^ E. Fanning, Round the World, op. cit., p. 128.
  27. ^ John Boit, F. W. Howay, T. C. Elliott and F. G. Young, "John Boit's Log of the Columbia-1790-1793," The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society, 22.4, Dec. 1921, p. 229, 244.
  28. ^ E. Fanning, Round the World, op. cit., p. 296.
  29. ^ Samuel Patterson, Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of Samuel Patterson, Experienced in the Pacific Ocean, and Many Other Parts of the World, with an Account of the Feegee and Sandwich Islands, Palmer, MA, 1817. p. 69.
  30. ^ R. Scobie, op. cit., p. 1.
  31. ^ Bronwen Douglas, "Voyages, Encounters, and Agency in Oceania: Captain Cook and Indigenous People," History Compass, 6, no. 3, p. 712-737; Kelly L. Watson, Insatiable Appetites: Imperial Encounters with Cannibals in the North Atlantic World, New York, New York University Press, 2016; Jared Staller, Converging on Cannibals: Terrors of Slaving in Atlantic Africa, 1509-1670, Athens, Ohio University Press, 2019.
  32. ^ J. Sledge, art. cit., p. 54; R. Scobie, op. cit., p. 198.
  33. ^ E. Townsend, op. cit., p. 23.
  34. ^ J. Boit, art. cit., p. 332.
  35. ^ Archibald Campbell, A Voyage Round the World, from 1806 to 1812, ed. James Smith, Charleston, SC, 1822, p. 152.
  36. ^ R. Scobie, op. cit., p. 354.
  37. ^ A. Delano, op. cit., p. 394.

Référence électronique

Dane A. MORRISON, « Performing Cook: Early American explorers’ appropriation of James Cook’s voyages », Astrolabe - ISSN 2102-538X [En ligne], Captain Cook after 250 years: Re-exploring The Voyages of James Cook (Avril 2020), mis en ligne le 24/04/2020, URL :