VOYAGES OF DISCOVERY

Captain Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific

By Lynne Withey

Morrow. 512 pp. $19.95

James Cook, along with Magellan and Columbus, is a great name in oceanic exploration and discovery, yet one whose accomplishments orthodox histories often seem to slight. Who was this seeker anyway, and what was he looking for? Lynne Withey's fine and absorbing book answers the questions. It fills a real need and does so with exemplary grace and authority.

One problem, perhaps, is that Cook's voyages coincided with, and so were somewhat overshadowed by, the mounting quarrel between the British crown and its American colonies. Indeed, Cook's fatal third voyage (1776-79) came at the height of those hostilities. Benjamin Franklin, whose true spiritual home was always among the savants of London and Paris, urged Congress not to let the Continental Navy molest Cook. Congress ignored this civilized recommendation, which fortunately didn't matter. Cook's routes lay well outside the sea lanes contested by John Paul Jones & Co. The colonies' French allies did exclude Cook's ships as targets, one measure of the monumental esteem he enjoyed.

When James Cook was growing up a scrambling poor boy, the son of a north Yorkshire farm manager, the Pacific was mostly mare incognitum. Explorers like Tasman had made and marked early landfalls, and the ever-questing Spaniards, operating from Peru, pursued fitful imperial goals. The Frenchman de Bougainville overlapped Cook with less notice. But mostly everyone was groping in a great dark. Then came Cook, and with his voyages light began to dawn.

There had been much speculation that a Terra Australis, a great, continent-sized southerly land mass, lay undiscovered in the Pacific. Some early island landfalls were erroneously imagined to mark its northern edges. But the immediate public occasion for Cook's first and most famous voyage, on the Endeavor (1768-71), was scientific. He was to take scientists to observe a transit of Venus from the vantage point of a South Pacific island. Admiralty orders known only to Cook instructed him to pursue other objectives, especially to check out the possible existence of the southerly continent.

Cook's accomplishments, in the 10 years during which he became the world's most famous explorer, were impressive. His three probes of the Pacific, carrying him as far north and south as sailing ships could go, laid to rest the myth of Terra Australis -- at least insofar as Antarctica was not what the theorists had in mind. Cook sailed at great risk off the Great Barrier Reef of eastern Australia (then known as New Holland), and far into foggy, ice-packed southerly latitudes. He circumnavigated New Zealand, proving that it was two islands (as the natives told him), and charted it with great accuracy. He found and opened Tahiti and others of the "Society Islands," as he called them for their friendliness. He traced the limits of the Polynesian migration and culture, and reopened the Hawaiian Islands to European and American consciousness. There, in 1779, he met an untimely death in the confusion of a beach brawl with the natives, and there he became a revered religious cult figure, a reincarnation of the god Lono, his bare bones carried about in native ceremonies for decades thereafter.

The special strength of Withey's treatment of Cook's story, apart from her exceptional narrative skill, is to fix the voyages in the scientific, strategic and literary setting of their time.

Cook's was an age of curiosity. By the 1720s, we are told, travel books were outsold only by theology in the bookstores of England. Cook's journals, officially sponsored, touched up or rewritten by ghostwriters, illustrated by good artists and enriched by zoological and botanical findings, stimulated the age as space travel has our own. The "discovery" of primitive people with strange scales of value and custom -- especially the comely, gifted and engaging Tahitians -- brought the first stirrings of anthropology and ethnology. And speculations about primitive innocence fired the soon-to-burgeon romantic imagination.

Withey makes large but unobtrusive use of modern anthropological speculations. The effect is a kind of stereoscopic history, seen from two perspectives. For in many ways, the explorers and the explored understood one another very differently.

Cook was one of those figures of the Age of Reason who widened a world, nourishing its still-unjaded appetite for exotic discovery and human improvement. But his age saw him in a rather different light. When word of his violent death reached London in January 1780, many eulogists viewed him above all as the supreme hygienist who had done more than anyone before him for the ordinary British tar -- the man who had conquered scurvy (with sauerkraut, among other preventatives).

As for the collision of cultures in the Pacific, it was a mixed affair. Europeans brought venereal diseases, nails, red feathers (valued above all else by many islanders), husbandry, grazing animals and guns; the latter sharpened old rivalries and made them deadlier.

From the islanders, the English got the tattoo and a new perspective on things. Viewed through the prism of "civilization," Pacific exploration by Cook and his gifted prote'ge's (including the famous Captains Bligh and Vancouver) provided diverse images, of both wantonness and innocence, for the European imagination. "Voyages of Discovery" tells this double-edged story eloquently and elegantly. It is a model of the narrative history historians should be giving us more often than they do these days.

The reviewer is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group.