Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Farther Than Any Man: The Rise and Fall of Captain James Cook by Martin Dugard

Captain Cook was the epitome of sea captains. He was also an anomaly in a nation of rigid class structure. The England of eighteenth century was one in which only those of noble birth could ever hope of becoming captains in the Royal Navy. Despite the odds being heavily stacked against him and turning his back on what would have been a far more financially lucrative career as a commercial sea captain, Cook started over from scratch in the Royal Navy.

He rose through the ranks, and against all odds, in a politically volatile climate he betrayed the odds and was given command of the HMS Bark Endeavour-- his mission, to find the Antarctic continent and to map the transit of Venus across the path of the sun-- an astronimical event which happens only once every century which would allow sailors to navigate by the stars with far greater accuracy than they ever had before.

A bit of an adventure junkie himself, Martin Dugard, chose Captain Cook as his subject matter in his quest to determine what drives men of adventure to forsake the comforts of normalcy, the wife, the kids, the white picket fence, in favor of a life of exploration and adventure to lands never before seen by western eyes.

It's Dugard's adventurer's perspective which makes Farther Than Any Man an incredibly compelling read. History books often come across as dry and boring, forsaking the humanity of history for the events, the facts, the dates, the times, and places. Farther Than Any Man does not fall prey to the same fate. Much like Laurence Bergreen's account of Magellan's circumnavigation, Over the Edge of the World, Farther Than Any Man reads like a novel. A story of man's against the odds rise to power and subsequent fall from grace. It also reads as a study in the power of our ego to both build us up and subsequently tear us back down-- how that ego is at times a blessing and at other times a curse.

At a mere 304 pages the book reads at a brisk and enjoyable pace and does not get bogged down by copious footnotes or endnotes. Although it's best to keep in mind that this is a journalist's account and not a historian's account of Cook's voyages, while it reads as briskly as Bergreen's Over the Edge of the World it's not nearly as well researched and thus one of the common complaints of the book is that many of the smaller details in the book are incorrect. As a result, unlike Over the Edge of the World which is likely to become the definitive book on Magellan's circumnavigation, Farther Than Any Man will only ever be considered an enjoyable and fanciful introduction to Captain James Cook. While it makes an enjoyable companion piece when reading of Cook's life and travels it is by no means a definitive work.


Keshi said...

Good review...shall try to read it some time...

When I went to Melbourne last year, I visited Captain Cook's Cottage...it was truly an awesome experience to see his real cottage brought down here and assembled the way it was in England...there was true spirit inside.


toobusyliving said...

I'm gonna pick it up...I've been really interested in him since I did a "project" on him in grade 8!!!