Going south, as chronicled by Cook’s helper
Suzanne Rickard’s Sailing with Cook is focused on James Burney’s service with Captain James Cook from 1772 to 1774. The 22-year-old second lieutenant was required to keep a log for the admiralty on the events of the voyage. This he did in accordance with his training and directions. Being an enterprising young man, he also kept a private journal for the ‘‘amusement’’ of his family and friends. It is on this enlightening private account that Rickard’s book is based.
The text is arranged in 13 chronological chapters, each lavishly embellished with illustrations of the period: portraits and paintings, especially of seascapes and wildlife, some of which are by William Hodges, the official artist and landscape painter on the voyage. Other rewarding editorial flourishes include facsimile pages extracted from Burney’s journal and informative text boxes on people and on matters from celestial navigation to war canoes.
Burney was born in 1750 into a large, lively and distinguished family. He was the first son of a celebrated musician, Charles Burney. His sister was the noted writer Fanny Burney. Rickard provides a colourful account of the family’s ups and downs: births, deaths, sicknesses and changes in fortune. It’s a sensitive portrait of a cultured and influential family of the times.
Burney’s naval career started as a captain’s servant at age 10. From this tender age he was indoctrinated into the culture, principles and practices of the Royal Navy. Rickard provides an enlightening discussion on naval ranks and promotion procedures and summarises Burney’s early service from 1760, first in sea warfare against the French, then on duties around the Mediterranean and European ports. He rose from captain’s servant to midshipman by 1766. This account of one man’s early naval career offers a tantalising glimpse of historic events.
Burney’s service with Cook began in 1772 when he was selected to join the Resolution on Cook’s second voyage of discovery. As part of his duties he was required to keep the aforementioned log.
Cook’s scrupulous preparations for the voyage are described, particularly the methods that enabled him to keep his crew healthy and strong on long, arduous voyages, such as his then enlightened insistence on providing fresh fruit and vegetables to ward off the dreaded scurvy.
The voyage took three years, under the command of Cook on the Resolution and Captain Tobias Furneaux on the Adventure, and was intended to settle the “speculation surrounding the existence of the Great Southern Continent, or Great South Land’’. The journey took them up to the Antarctic Circle, on to Van Diemen’s Land, New Zealand’s South Island and to the tropical waters of the islands and atolls of Polynesia. A map emphasises the skills of the navigators and the distances travelled.
Burney vividly describes his experiences from the icy Antarctic Sea and its fantastic icebergs, some of which dwarfed the ships, to the shores of New Zealand and especially the beautiful islands of the Pacific. He took a great interest in the Pacific islands and their people, writing vivid descriptions of their social customs, food, costume, religion, language and music. He made many friends among the islanders, notably Omai, a young Ra’iatean man who came back to England with him and remained there for three years, creating quite a sensation.
Burney’s curious, sensitive approach to the strange world in which he found himself and its people makes this book so enjoyable. It is remarkable he was able to record so much, as he was fully employed in his naval duties. His journal came to an abrupt end in December 1773 when 10 crew from the Adventure were killed by Maori warriors. Burney led a search party to find the men, who had not returned from a grass gathering expedition. They found the remains of their shipmates, who had been massacred and eaten. Burney did not resume his journal after this tragedy.
Rickard’s final chapter covers Burney’s last journey with Cook on his third voyage of discovery in 1776, during which he witnessed and