Cooking the Books with Added Attenborough

Last Friday evening saw me at the British Library for the members’ preview of the new Captain Cook exhibition, marking the 250th anniversary of the start of the first of his three great voyages.

(I used to be a Friend of the BL, but it recently decided to abolish that body and subsume it into its much more lucrative – aka more expensive – membership scheme. I’m sure there’s a joke to be made about the BL having no friends any more, but I can’t think what it might be…)

The theatre of dreams that is the British Library

As an event, the preview was a bit lame, although that wasn’t really the staff’s fault: the cavernous nature of the entrance hall means that the acoustic has always been a nightmare, so that even with microphones and speakers turned up to maximum, the curator’s speech and the rather jolly songs provided by the staff choir got hopelessly lost. But the exhibition itself more than made up for such glitches. The first surprise came with the now obligatory introductory video that the denizens of Curatorworld, that strange alien planet, have evidently decided shall appear at the beginning of every exhibition in every museum, everywhere. These are often hopelessly bland and dumbed down, but that certainly isn’t the case with the BL’s, chiefly because the principal talking head is David Attenborough. That’s right – fully fledged national treasure, nay, national icon, Sir David Attenborough. It doesn’t matter what he was actually saying, as his very presence onscreen was enough to convince attendees that this exhibition was serious. ‘David Attenborough’, said more than one person to another in hushed, reverential tones, and one or two looked as though they were finding it difficult not to genuflect.

Canoes near Tahiti, by Tupaia. The British Library via Wikimedia Commons

The BL has an obvious problem when staging an exhibition as ambitious as this one. By definition, it’s a library, so inevitably, its own exhibits are going to be overwhelmingly of a literary nature – books, letters, and journals. Fascinating as these may be, especially to a fully paid up history nerd like me, they’re not going to necessarily wow a more general audience, no matter how many videos with David Attenborough you provide on endless loops. Fortunately, the BL has some knockout treasures within its own collections, notably drawings produced by Tupaia, the Tahitian high priest who provided invaluable help to Cook during the first voyage. It’s also drawn from the resources of other major institutions, so, for example, there are portraits from the likes of the National Portrait Gallery, various Pacific artefacts from the V&A and elsewhere, and so forth. I’m not going to attempt a full-scale review of the exhibition: the Guardian has already got there ahead of me, and I won’t disagree with the four star verdict. Personally, though, I thought there was too little about Cook himself, his earlier life, and his naval career, and a similar neglect of the men who sailed with him (but then, I probably would, wouldn’t I?); inevitably and rightly, the focus is on the people and places he encountered, and the space available to the BL for the exhibition is quite restricted, so there were always going to be compromises.

Obviously, there are serious questions being asked these days about the history, legitimacy, and morality of ‘exploration and discovery’, as western historiography always used to term it, and if we needed further proof of the immediacy of these questions, the defacing of a statue of Cook in Australia in January should have provided it. The exhibition doesn’t shy away from any of these debates, with videos providing substantial and hugely insightful contributions from ‘first nations’ and other native authorities (as well as from – lower volume to a whisper – David Attenborough.) This is clearly a far bigger issue than I can hope to address in just one blog post, or, indeed, in an entire series of books, were I qualified to write them. As it is, I’ll simply mention one story I’m particularly fond of, which deliciously flips the whole western narrative of ‘exploration and discovery’ – namely, the Inuit ‘discovery’ of Orkney in 1682 or thereabouts, a tale told on Dr Mark Jardine’s always fascinating blog. Among other things, this raises the intriguing philosophical questions of who, exactly, ‘discovers’ what or whom during such encounters, or if anywhere is actually ever ‘discovered’ at all, as far as geography is concerned, in anything more than a very narrow and subjective sense. I went to Copenhagen for the first time last autumn; so from a purely personal point of view, that was when I first ‘discovered’ it. Note, too, the number of uses, or misuses, of the word ‘discover’ in pretty well every holiday article or brochure these days, as in the case of my own home county, whose tourism website is called, yes, Discover Carmarthenshire. If historical exploration and ‘discovery’ is conflated, even subconsciously, by many people with modern perceptions of holidays as harmless, fun jaunts, is it any wonder that those now inhabiting the old ‘exploring’ nations often seriously underestimate the real and abiding impacts of those activities, both at the time and in the present day?

In conclusion and in passing, it might be worth noting that in the eighteenth century, the Welsh, who had not a little experience of the consequences of strange and rapacious foreigners landing on their shores (albeit about 1200 years earlier), were often referred to as the ‘aboriginal Britons’, so there’s a certain irony in the fact that the surgeon of Cook’s Resolution on his second voyage, and who features in the BL exhibition, was the colourful Cymro Cymraeg (Welsh-speaking Welshman) David Samwell. I wrote about him in Britannia’s Dragon:

Aboard Captain Cook’s ship…in the Pacific, naval surgeon David Samwell of Nantglyn, Denbighshire, marked St David’s Day 1777 by penning a [Welsh language] poem in honour of the occasion… Samwell, an irrepressible womaniser whose bardic name was Dafydd Ddu, was a prominent member of London Welsh society; like many London Welshmen before and since, he much preferred the life of the capital and regarded the prospect of returning home to live in Wales with horror. Samwell was one of those who took part in the rituals on Primrose Hill on Midsummer day 1792, when Iolo Morgannwg founded the modern Eisteddfod. But Samwell did not entirely live up to the peaceful principles of the Gorsedd. According to one of his biographers, ‘by temperament Samwell was manic and often violent’; when he disagreed with a verdict at the Corwen Eisteddfod of 1789, he promptly challenged one of the adjudicators to a duel… On his voyages in the Pacific, Samwell seems to have regarded himself as following in a noble tradition of Welsh explorers of the past, although whether such a tradition really entailed having sex with as many local women as possible is a moot point. 

All in all, then, the British Library exhibition is definitely worth a visit if you’re able to get there. Incidentally, did I mention that it’s got contributions from David Attenborough?

%d bloggers like this: