The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

VII. The Literature of Travel, 1700–1900

§ 4. Cook

Several voyages of exploration, despatched to the Pacific in the reign of George III, were described in readable and interesting narratives by their commanders, John Byron (1764–6), Wallis and Carteret (1766–8), James Cook (1768–71, 1772–5, 1776–9), and George Vancouver (1791–5). To the general reader, there is some sameness about the maritime part of these narratives, wherein hardships, dangers and sufferings, the chances of the sea and losses by disease are quietly treated as matters of course, so that the story of a voyage is, in great part, almost like a domestic diary. These narratives become more like travel-books when land is touched. Carteret wrote an entertaining account of his proceedings at Madeira, and Wallis gives a more fresh and lively account of the Society islands, discovered by him, than does his more famous successor Cook.

The pre-eminent interest of Cook’s first voyage, the greatest among English voyages of discovery, gives distinction to his narrative; and it seems almost impertinent to criticise as literature the book in which a great man plainly and modestly sets forth a great achievement. Yet, the account which has been most often published was compiled by Hawkesworth from the journals of Cook and of Joseph Banks, who accompanied the expedition as botanist; and most people will probably find this compilation more readable than Cook’s own narrative, and will also find Banks’s journal more interesting than Cook’s account. Cook’s narrative is the work of a navigator: Banks’s journal is the work of an alert scientific mind, eagerly on the watch to observe and to describe. Cook writes thus about the most exciting and hazardous incident of the voyage:

  • Our change of situation was now visible in every countenance, for it was most sensibly felt in every breast: we had been little less than three months entangled among shoals and rocks, that every moment threatened us with destruction; frequently passing our nights at anchor within hearing of the surge that broke over them; sometimes driving towards them even while our anchors were out, and knowing that if by any accident, to which an almost continuous tempest exposed us, they should not hold, we must in a few minutes inevitably perish. But now, after having sailed no less than 360 leagues, without once having a man out of the chains heaving the lead even for a minute, which perhaps never happened to any other vessel, we found ourselves in an open sea, with deep water; and enjoyed a flow of spirits which was equally owing to our late dangers and our present security: yet the very waves, which by their swell convinced us that we had no rocks or shoals to fear, convinced us also that we could not safely put the same confidence in our vessel as before she had struck.
  • Cook shows a more practised hand in the livelier and easier narrative of his second voyage Towards the South Pole and round the World; also, in the narrative of his third voyage To the Pacific Ocean and for exploring the Northern Hemisphere—a narrative cut short by the death of the great navigator at the hands of savages in the Sandwich islands.

    George Vancouver, who had sailed under Cook, Rodney and Gardner, was sent upon a voyage of discovery to the north Pacific ocean (1791–5). His narrative, which was almost completed when he died in 1798, was published by his brother. It contains valuable and often picturesque observations on the countries visited and particularly on the Spanish settlements in California. He describes with warm sympathy the paternal relations between the Spanish missionaries and their Indian neophytes.

    The literature of maritime discovery is continued in Arctic and Antarctic voyages accomplished and related by Franklin, Parry, John Ross, James Ross and McClintock. These narratives, carefully written and, for the most part, splendidly illustrated, have the attraction of resource, daring, endurance and brilliant achievement in strange and novel surroundings. The later records of Arctic and Antarctic exploration belong rather to the history of geography; but mention must be made of captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Journal (1913), a narrative in which the last entry was made by the dying hand of the writer as he sank under the buffets of storm and frost on his return journey from the south pole.

    The records of land travel in the eighteenth century contain, generally, a less interesting story and less readable matter than the maritime records. The object of the writers is, usually, to impart information and observations laboriously collected. Sterne’s Sentimental Journey is a notable exception, which stands apart. The prevailing dislike of mountains, of uncultivated lands and of Gothic buildings was unfavourable to the lighter and more sympathetic spirit of travel.

    Pennant’s books of travel in Great Britain were much read in his day. They are still valuable as antiquarian records and collections of observations; but they are rather in the nature of gazetteers, and the reader opens them for information, not for recreation. The characteristic travel-book of the eighteenth century is a ponderous quarto or folio, handsomely printed, often beautifully illustrated, and conveying much leisurely information concerning monuments, customs and costumes; but, as a rule, these productions have about them little of the personal spirit, little of the lighter literary touch which give vitality to travel-books. Richard Pococke, who was afterward bishop of Ossory and was thence translated to Meath, was an eager student and observer, possessing something of the traveller’s spirit; and his work, preserved in noble illustrated folios, is an interesting and valuable record. But his object was rather to give a description of Egypt and of western Asia than to entertain himself and his readers by recounting his experiences.