Review of Captain Cook’s Epic Voyage: The strange quest for a missing continent – Geoffrey Blainey

Posted: May 5, 2020 in history, Review
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The story of the astonishing voyage of Captain James Cook and the Endeavour, to mark the 250th anniversary of that voyage, and Cook’s claim to sovereignty.

In 1768 Captain James Cook and his crew set sail on a small British naval vessel, the boldly named Endeavour, bound for the Pacific Ocean. He was ordered to establish an observatory at Tahiti in order to record the 1769 transit of Venus, and – with the skills of naturalist Joseph Banks and his team – to collect natural history in this far part of the world. But Cook’s brief also included a secret mission from the British Admiralty: to discover Terra Australis Incognita, an unknown southern land that might prove to be larger and richer than Australia.

Cook was not alone in this quest, and the Endeavour shared the Coral Sea and coastal New Zealand with an armed French merchant ship commanded by Jean de Surville. Eventually in 1770 Cook’s ship crossed the Tasman Sea and reached the southern coast of New South Wales. Sailing north, he charted Australia’s eastern coastline and claimed it for Great Britain. It was the most significant of Cook’s voyages, transforming the world map and the way Europeans viewed the South Pacific Ocean and its lands and peoples.

Captain Cook’s Epic Voyage: The strange quest for a missing continent

Geoffrey Blainey

Viking

Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Stephen Litten

This is a revised edition of Sea of Dangers, (2009) which dealt with Cook and several French navigators and their peregrinations in the South Pacific. Cook’s initial task was to observe the transit of Venus, before opening his sealed orders. Which commanded him to search for and chart the theoretical as yet unfound continent considered to be in the South Pacific. Obviously, that had to be kept secret from Britain’s rivals. Circulating through the South Pacific at the same time was Jean de Surville, charged with leading a trading expedition to develop contacts with this continent.

James Cook is generally regarded as a hero for his navigation of New Zealand and the east coast of Australia. He also came close to sinking HMS Endeavour several times. Blainey investigates these incidents, the worst of which probably necessitated the repairs conducted in Batavia; a stopover that killed more of the crew than anything else. Blainey also contrasts the strategies assigned to Cook and de Surville and the affects this had on the health of their crew.

While I found this book to be interesting, I also found sevearal sections to be quite sketchy. The introduction of de Surville seemed to be over-edited and not focussed. Blainey, as an Australian, focusses on the Australian leg of the voyage whereas a New Zealand author would have spent the bulk on New Zealand. What the book lacked were enough comparative maps: Blainey makes much of Cook and de Surville almost meeting or discovering alternative locations yet provides no charts depicting where they were in a suitable scale. I would also have liked any chart showing the putative Terra Australis Incognita.

This isn’t a bad book but it’s not a great book. If you are unfamiliar with the subject, it’s certainly a particularly good start and worth the read. I thank Viking/Penguin Random House for the review copy.

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