BEAGLEHOLE, J.C.




Author Tags: 1700-1800, Geography

Long regarded as one of the foremost authorities on the life and voyages of Captain James Cook, Beaglehole published numerous works [see James Cook entry] that included Cook The Writer (Sydney University Press, 1970), an examination of Cook's role in history as a writer.

Given that Cook has been credited with being the first European to set foot in modern British Columbia--even though he was very reticent to approach the Indian villages at Nootka when he arrived, and he anchored well away from Yuquot--his initially published descriptions of what he supposedly saw at Nootka Sound were long taken as truth. Beaglehole's version of Cook's actual unedited journal didn't appear for widespread scholarly use until 1967. The previous version of his posthumous journals had been cobbled together for the British admiralty by incorporating accounts of others. In fact, Cook's own writing tended to reveal little. Interested more in geography than anthropology, he was dispassionate in print, averse to embellishments, non-speculative and scientific. Scholars have since compared the original draft by Cook with the edited version that helped to make him one of the most famous mariners in history. The disparities are revealing.

Here is Cook's own matter-of-fact description of his arrival in Nootka Sound after arriving on March 29, 1778. "We no sooner drew near the inlet than we found the coast to be inhabited and the people came off to the Ships in Canoes without shewing the least mark of fear or distrust. We had at one time thirty two Canoes filled with people about us, a groupe of ten or a dozen remained along side the Resolution most part of the night. They seemed to be a mild inoffensive people, shewed great readiness to part with anything they had and took whatever was offered them in exchange."

Here is the official, more dramatic version that was published. "We no sooner drew near the inlet than found the coast to be inhabited, and at the place where we were first becalmed, three canoes came off to the ship. In one of these were two men, in another six, and in the third ten. Having come pretty near us, a person in one of them stood up, and made a long harangue, inviting us to land, as we guessed by his gestures. At the same time he kept strewing handfuls of feathers towards us; and some of his companions threw handfuls of a red dust or powder in the same manner. The person who played the orator, wore the skin of some animal, and held, in each hand, something which rattled as he kept shaking it. After tiring himself with his repeated exhortations, of which we did not understand a word, he was quiet; and then others took it, by turns, to say something... After the tumultuous noise had ceased, they lay at a little distance from the ship, and conversed with each other in a very easy manner, nor did they seem to shew the least surprize or distrust."

The second version was used as the basis for a famous documentary film attempt by photographer Edward Curtis to replicate what Cook and his men might have seen in Nootka Sound. A portion of this impressive documentary footage is played on an endless loop at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, alongside the contrived and uncredited text; thereby embedding fantasy as reality, and serving tourism as much as history.

[BCBW 2004] "English"