Review: Captain Cook by Vanessa Collingridge

One of my mini-resolutions for 2013 is to take my blog back to its origins as a bookish, brain foodie space for quasi-high-brow banter.  I really can’t figure out how to punctuate ‘quasi-high-brow’, which is indicative of the fact that my brain isn’t as razor sharp as it used to be 😉  You’ll be seeing a few more book reviews and less product placement from me in the coming months;  as well as the other stuff that I can’t help but vomit onto the page when I’m under pressure.  

Some time ago I was asked to write some book reviews for a journal which unfortunately never saw the light of day, so I thought I might share some of these not-quite-wasted words here instead.  Happy reading 🙂 

Not-quite-wasted-book-reviews …  

Captain Cook: Obsession and betrayal in the new world by Vanessa Collingridge

Captain Cook The premise for this book is tantalising: Collingridge sets out to write a biography, but is waylaid by the discovery that a distant relative, many years earlier, made some shocking discoveries about their shared hero, Captain James Cook.  This sets up a very personal journey for Collingridge, whereby the deeper she burrows into the annals of Cook’s life, the more she is forced to consider the journey of this long gone other Collingridge.

The author, an Oxford graduate now working in radio and television, puts both her academic and media credentials on display in a writing style that swings between solid historical analysis and melodrama. Collingridge methodically marks out her lines of enquiry, filling the book with dates, maps, illustrations and a substantial bibliography, but she is equally prone to racy imaginings about aspects of the lives and personalities of these men.  Chapters alternate between the stories of Cook and George Collingridge, thus drawing parallels and marking differences, working up to the climactic point at which George Collingridge triggers a major controversy by suggesting that Cook was not, in fact, the first to discover Australia. Collingridge fleshes out her stories with anecdotes and travelogues as she takes the reader around the world tracing the two men’s journeys.

This is a most accessible, intimate portrait of Cook, and will work well to supplement the dry writings of school history books that do tend to make it seem like Cook appeared, fully-formed, for the purpose of mapping Australia’s east coast.  The author’s enthusiasm for the subject is infectious (she calls herself a ‘Cookophile’), indeed she gives the impression of a wide-eyed school girl as she sifts through the layers of these stories. Most of those layers, however, were constructed by a thousand researchers before her, so there is no escaping contradictory opinion about such significant historical characters and events. Collingridge has attracted criticism from other Cook scholars: some have drawn attention to factual errors in her research, and for others any writing about Cook is fraught since the notion of ‘discovering’ countries we now acknowledge to have been populated for thousands of years is so problematic. Rewriting history is a “dangerous game”, as she says of George Collingridge’s experiences.

At the end of her book Collingridge discusses the ways in which history can be manipulated in the retelling. In particular, she offers opinions on why the legend of Cook as a discoverer of lands was politically vital to the British Empire and the developing colonies. At the same time though, Captain Cook is touted as the definitive Cook book, missing the point that this, too, is just one of an extensive, conflicting series of perspectives on Cook’s life. It is, however, a colourful, easy read – part history, part genealogy and part mystery/thriller – which many non-experts will welcome as an addition to the Cook catalogue.

Collingridge, Vanessa (2002) Captain Cook: Obsession and betrayal in the new world. London: Ebury Press.



6 comments for “Review: Captain Cook by Vanessa Collingridge

  1. Agneta
    June 13, 2013 at 2:44 pm

    Having moved to New Zealand from the UK many moons ago I can appreciate Captain Cook’s achievement. It was more than going to the Moon almost. They were totally self-reliant in a way one cannot imagine anymore today, and yet, he sailed around the world three times and brought his men and ships back safely. The whole coast around here is littered with shipwrecks as it is treacherous territory. -On a visit to London I especially went to see some of his, and other’s ships logs in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. It was fascinating how neatly, simply and yet very descriptive everything was recorded. On paper 😉
    Agree with the review. Vanessa Collingridge has an infectious enthusiasm, has she not, even if not everything is super accurate. I found the switching between the two stories slightly annoying. It would have been better to have the two separately in the one volume.

  2. This Charming Mum
    January 7, 2013 at 4:58 am

    Agreed Brenda, they bred them tough and intrepid back then. Yes, feeling bookish right now – also lacking original thought! May all change once school goes back 😉

  3. January 6, 2013 at 7:41 pm

    Regardless of which white dude reached Botany Bay first, Cook was a remarkable person.
    I’m glad that you’re taking your blog back to it’s “roots”.

  4. January 6, 2013 at 11:50 am

    Oooh, part history, part genealogy! Sounds like my kind of book! Will have to look into it. Thanks for sharing!

  5. January 5, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    It sounds almost like a memoir of writing a biography 🙂

    I think I’ll be very book heavy this year – the reading stuff makes me happy

    • This Charming Mum
      January 5, 2013 at 1:45 pm

      That’s great Melina. It’s important to do what makes you happy!

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