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Geoffrey Blainey, Sea of Dangers: Captain Cook and his rivals.

Geoffrey Blainey, Sea of Dangers: Captain Cook and his rivals, Viking, Melbourne, 2008, xi + 420 pages; ISBN 978 0 67007 223 1.

Cook and his voyages continue to exert their fascination and Geoffrey Blainey's work adds usefully to a growing pile of recent works on these subjects. It is largely an elegantly told narrative history of Cook's Endeavour voyage, though given a new and interesting slant by weaving into it the account of the little-known contemporaneous South Seas voyage of the French navigator de Surville.

Bringing the English and French together is a telling way of drawing out the European motives for exploring the South Pacific and their responses to what they saw. There is some room, however, for focusing rather more on the different perspectives of the French and the British commenting, for example, on the way in which de Surville's voyage was largely prompted by commercial imperatives triggered by the collapse of the French East India Company in the wake of British victory in the Seven Years' War (1756-63).

De Surville apart, much of the ground that Blainey covers in his account of Cook's voyages is familiar but is enlivened by a strong sense of place--Blainey's own survey of the territory, which he acknowledges in his preface spurred him to write this work, comes through clearly. The work also conveys well the nautical realities with which Cook had to deal and which it is easy for land-based historians to overlook. One of the themes of the book is the importance of the discovery of sea-lanes and manageable routes across the briny wastes of the Pacific--thus much attention is appropriately devoted to the Torres Strait and the hazards (still very real today) of making one's way in its treacherous waters.

Cook emerges from the work as a remarkable mariner but not as omniscient as some traditional accounts would have us believe. Blainey attributes in part to overconfidence Cook's sailing in such dangerous waters by the misleading light of the moon, which led to the near-disastrous encounter with the Great Barrier Reef.

In some senses this work is a sequel, some 40 years on, to Blainey's great masterpiece The Tyranny of Distance, and has some of its same global reach and depiction of major historical forces. The voyages of Cook and de Surville are located in the context of societies looking for new parts of the globe to accumulate the sort of riches which had accrued to Europe from the discovery of the Americas.

The book concludes with some interesting reflections on the nature of the term 'discovery', arguing persuasively that true discovery is more than a matter of sighting a coast or land since it 'requires layer after layer of observation' (p. 378) and action based on such information. Thus the Cook voyage led to further British exploration and very definite action in the form of the founding of the penal settlement at Botany Bay (soon moved to Port Jackson, which Cook named but did not explore). Claims that the Chinese or the Portuguese 'discovered' Australia, even if they had more solid evidence than they do, in a sense are irrelevant since they did not lead to change.

This readable book is attractively produced with some telling maps and illustrations. It is unfortunate that, apart from the acknowledgement to two great New Zealand historians, Beaglehole and Dunmore, the editors of the journals respectively of Cook and de Surville, it is largely written in an historiographical vacuum and does not engage with (or even mention) such highly pertinent works as the recent major anthropologically informed biography of Cook by Anne Salmond (another New Zealander). The work is largely pitched at a general audience but would have gained further resonance with greater acknowledgement of the way in which others have attempted to understand Cook and what he wrought a quest that shows no sign of abating.

John Gascoigne

School of History and Philosophy

University of New South Wales
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Author:Gascoigne, John
Publication:Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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