I was able to say to Pierre Berton once that a good historian and a good writer did not always come in the same body. He laughed and agreed.
Which is why when I ran across a biography of Captain Cook by Alistair MacLean I snapped it up. MacLean, you will remember, was a Scots thriller writer of The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare fame (although my two MacLean favorites were, well, are South by Java Head and When Eight Bells Toll). Maybe MacLean’s historiography wouldn’t be the most perfectly researched — or maybe it would — but I figured anyone who could write a line like “I hoisted a cautious eye over the sill of the wheelhouse door” could be relied upon to write an entertaining account of the life of Captain James Cook.
I was not disappointed. From page 27:
It is a quite staggering reflection that when Cook left Canada for the last time in 1767, he was still a non-commissioned officer. It is also a staggering reflection on the Lords of the Admiralty of the time that, because of their innate snobbish conviction that officers and gentlemen are born and not made, Cook did not quite qualify for a commission. He had been in the despised Merchant Service, he had sailed before the mast in the Navy, he was poor and his origins were obscure. There could have been little doubt left in the Admiralty by that time that in Cook they had the greatest seaman, navigator and cartographer of the generation. But a commission? Hardly. Hardly, that is, until they realised that to send a naval vessel to circumnavigate the globe, in the greatest exploratory voyage ever undertaken, under the command of a non-commissioned officer wouldn’t be quite the thing to do. For one thing, it would redound most dreadfully upon the alleged competence of those who did hold commissions, and, for another, it would not look good in the history books. So, belatedly, they made him a lieutenant.
and beginning on page 50
It is customary, if not obligatory, I have observed, for the biographers of Captain Cook who have accompanied him as far as his first landfall of Tahiti to halt there awhile then sit back and rest for about twenty pages while they go on rhapsodising about the beauties and wonders of this sun-drenched tropical paradise…It is certainly de rigeur to dwell at sentimental length on the golden people who inhabited this other Eden, the handsome men, the gorgeous girls, their simple natural form of life…
Now, apart from noting in the passing that those self-same golden boys and girls were much given to infanticide, ritual murder, the waging of the most bloodily ferocious internecine tribal warfare in Polynesia and indulging in the practice of theft and pickpocketing on a scale, and with an expertise that would have made Fagin turn in his union card — apart from that, I say, there is little to be said against this approach…
Convinced? I thought so. MacLean‘s tart tongue is one of the best things about this biography, it is almost as if when reading this book you were sitting in the back of a classroom listening to the best history teacher you ever heard talk about his favorite subject in the world and moreover one that he knows backward and forward. I’ve read a few other biographies of Cook, notably Tony Horwitz’s Blue Latitudes, and I think MacLean knows his Cook stuff.
Better yet, he knows how to write. Highly recommended.
Just for fun, here’s the trailer for the Richard Burton-Clint Eastwood film of Where Eagles Dare. Watch that first step.