Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins (1998)

Here is another analogy… (p.12)

Although this book is over 20 years old, the issues it addresses (the anti-scientific tendency of much traditional literature and the inappropriate use of poetic writing in bogus pseudo-science – versus the hard scientific fact and clear scientific thinking Dawkins promotes) are still very current, and since Dawkins is still writing books attacking non-scientific ways of looking at the world (such as his most recent tome, Outgrowing God, published just last year) I think it’s still worth reviewing this one as an analysis of his overall style and approach.

The aim

The full title is Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder and the book’s purpose is simple: For thousands of years humans have written poetry or concocted religious myths and symbols to explain the puzzling world around them. But (Dawkins says) the scientific worldview as we now have it explains more or less everything about the world around us from bacteria to supernovas and, if properly understood, is far more beautiful and inspiring than the poetry, myths and legends it supersedes.

My advice

However, in my opinion, if you want to be inspired, watch a David Attenborough documentary about the natural world or a Brian Cox one about the stars, because this book is a hilariously silly, shallow, ragbag of random quotes, fragments of science mixed up with countless personal anecdotes, snippets from newspapers or TV and, above all, a relentless stream Richard Dawkins’s pet peeves and trite opinions.

Do not read this book.

Dawkins shares his opinion of modern journalists (lamentably anti-science)

Dawkins opens the book with a sustained attack on a shopping list of contemporary authors who have written disparagingly about science, including Bernard Levin (who once wrote an article specifically about Dawkins God, Me and Mr Dawkins 11 October 1996 – hence the enmity), Simon Jenkins, A.A. Gill, Fay Weldon (author of a ‘hymn of hate’ against science in the Daily Telegraph) and so on and so on.

Dawkins quotes articles in the newspapers, or letters he has received, or questions he gets asked at the end of his lectures, or anecdotes about students of his, to demonstrate that anti-scientific prejudice and ignorance is everywhere – There are creationists under the bed and anti-evolutionists hiding in the closet. It isn’t safe to turn on the TV or open a newspaper without someone spouting unscientific rubbish or promoting astrology or showing the deepest scientific illiteracy. Fools! Knaves! Dawkins has no patience with error.

This is dramatically, profoundly, hugely wrong. (p.90)

Dawkins shares his opinion of British poets (lamentably anti-science)

And then – oh dear, oh dear – Dawkins takes it upon himself to be the judge of a raft of classic poets including Keats, Coleridge or Wordsworth, Blake or Yeats or Lawrence.

Dawkins has located quotes from all of these luminaries lamenting the ‘death of romance’ and the role science has played in ‘dis-enchanting the world’ so, as usual, Richard loses no time in telling us that they were all dead wrong in thinking science dis-enchants the world: if only they’d understood modern science, they’d have written poetry ten times as good!!

Dawkins then goes on to prove that he has absolutely no feel for poetic writing or for the luminous quality of poetry:

  1. by the way he quotes schoolboy tags and the most obvious ‘greatest hits’ moments from the most obvious Great Poets
  2. by the way he treats poems as rhythmic verse i.e you can do a prose summary, and then evaluate them on whether or not they show the ‘correct’ attitude to the scientific worldview
  3. and by the way he has rummaged through the diaries and letters and table talk of the Great Poets to find quotes of them stating anti-scientific or anti-rationalist opinions

Which he considers case closed. He cannot entertain the idea that poetry might not be written to put forward clearly defined and logical points of view, but might be an alternative way of perceiving and expressing the world and what it is to be human…

He refers to D.H. Lawrence who (allegedly) refused to believe that moonlight is reflected sunlight (that sounds too pat and too stupid to be true), but even if it were, you kind of know what Lawrence is talking about. We have evolved over tens of millions of years to find night-time eerie and the changing shape and movement of the moon uncanny. Is it possible that part of a poet’s role is to respect ancient beliefs, to excavate and re-express deep ancestral feelings, no matter how irrational?

Not in Dawkins’s view. No! They were all wrong wrong wrong about science and deserve to be sent to the back of the class. He speculates that:

Keats, like Yeats, might have been an even better poet if he had gone to science from some of his inspiration. (p.27)

If only the Great Poets were more like, well, like Richard Dawkins!

Dawkins’s bêtes noirs and pet peeves

He fills the book with his own Daily Mail prejudices and bêtes noirs.

Post-modernism is rubbish Once again we get his shallow critique of ‘post-modernism’ and ‘cultural relativism’ – ‘the meaningless wordplays of modish francophone savants‘ – which he dismisses in a sentence as existing merely ‘to impress the gullible’ (p.41).

Now maybe a lot of French post-war philosophy is pretentious twaddle, but, for example, Derrida’s attempt to rethink the entire tradition of writing as a way of encoding authority which constantly undermines itself because of the looseness and deeply unfinishable nature of writing, or Foucault’s histories of how power is wielded by supposedly ‘objective’ academic disciplines and public institutions, or Roland Barthes’ explorations of how texts have lives of their own, determined by structures or levels of activity which have hitherto been overlooked – these are all fascinating intellectual endeavours, certainly more worth spending time reading about than the Daily Mail philistinism of Dr D.

It’s a telling irony that soon after a passage attacking writers and journalists (Bernard Levin, Simon Jenkins et al) for their shallow, ignorant dismissal of science as being a worldview which they don’t like — Dawkins himself carries out just such a shallow, ignorant dismissal of post-modern philosophy, for being a worldview which he doesn’t like.

Could it be that there are multiple worldviews, countless worldviews, and that we get along best by enjoying their diversity? No! Wrong wrong wrong!

Children’s book awards are vulgar Dawkins gives an account of attending an awards ceremony for children’s science books where the audience was encouraged to make insect noises, which he found insufferably ‘vulgar’.

Computer games are vulgar In much the same way, in The Blind Watchmaker, he dismissed ‘vulgar’ arcade computer games (not as dignified and worthy as the computer game he had devised, of course).

The ‘Top 20’ shows how vulgar people are This kind of lofty condemnation of ‘popular’ interests and tastes comes, of course, from a long line of lofty and contemptuous Oxford intellectuals, and sits alongside his fastidious disapproval of the so-called ‘Top 40’ and how easy it is to promote ‘worthless pop singles, an attitude of fastidious elitism which made me laugh at the end of The Blind Watchmaker. Later on he finds the space, for obscure personal reasons, to go out of his way to tell us that the activity of bodybuilding is an ‘odd minority culture’. Possibly. But not as odd as writing a book supposedly about science and going out of your way to include a paragraph disapproving of body building.

The X-Files is anti-scientific Dawkins takes the time to explain why he dislikes the popularity of the TV show The X-Files – namely, because of the way it foregrounds the spooky, irrational explanations for the weird occurrences it depicts (p.28) – which is so frightfully anti-science.

Douglas Adams is masterly By contrast, he wants us to know that he approves of the ‘masterly’ science comedies of Douglas Adams (p.29).

Science fiction is serious literature! Science fiction by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov et al:

seems to me to be an important literary form in its own right, snobbishly underrated by some scholars of literature (p.27)

Oh yes, if Dawkins ran literature departments, things would be different! Out with Derrida and Barthes, in with Douglas Adams and Isaac Asimov!

Dr Dolittle is not racist Dawkins finds time to share his opinion that Hugh Lofting’s Dr Dolittle books do have a little racism in them, but then that was the universal worldview of the 1920s, so it is silly for ‘pompously correct librarians’ to ban them. And, anyway, Dolittle’s love of animals is superior to the speciesism which even the most politically correct of our own time are still prey to (p.53).

Ruskin didn’t understand science I was actively upset when Dawkins quotes a passage of Ruskin about how people prefer myths and stories to the cold empirical facts – and then goes on to ridicule Ruskin’s attitude not by countering his views but by retelling the hoary old anecdote about the great critic and social reformer’s disastrous wedding night.

It stood out to me as a moment of gross insensitivity and schoolboy bullying. Ruskin was a genius, who struggled to transform the way the philistine British thought about art and design and handed his cause on to the young William Morris. To drag up this hackneyed anecdote is in the worst possible vein of Daily Mail ad hominem philistinism.

Summary

a) Dawkins is a modern reincarnation of just the kind of literal-minded, unbending, unsympathetic and impenetrably dense philistine who forced so many of the Great Poets – Shelley and Byron and Browning, Lawrence and Auden – to flee claustrophobic, puritanical, judgemental England for hotter, more laid-back climes.

b) There seems to be no subject too trivial or too minor for Dawkins not to be able to use it as the pretext to share with the reader his trite and obvious opinions and prejudices, or to prompt another anecdote from his endless store of ‘fascinating’ encounters.

Imagine if David Attenborough interrupted his voiceover about humming birds or polar bears to share an anecdote about a distinguished professor he had a squabble with over dinner at his Oxford college, or took a minute to explain to his viewers why Star Trek is better than Dr Who, or why Douglas Adams’ novels are criminally under-rated.

You’d think he’d gone mad. But that’s what most of this book is like.

Snobbism

Although Dawkins goes out of his way to sound reasonable he can’t help quite frequently sounding like a snob, fastidiously distancing himself from the ghastly taste of the mob. Richard – alongside the Daily Mail – laments how standards have slipped and once-mighty institutions have pandered to popular taste. O Tempora! O mores!

In his chapter rubbishing horoscopes and astrology, Dawkins quotes surveys in which most people say they read horoscopes just for entertainment:

Their taste in what constitutes entertaining fiction is evidently different from mine!

Indeed. Dawkins has told us several times that he cycles through the streets of leafy Oxford. I wonder if he’s ever thought about people like me who have to fight their way onto over-crowded tube trains, or flop exhausted at the end of the day onto a muggy bus, brain dead and pick up a copy of the Metro or Standard to leaf through, treating the horoscopes as much the same as all the other brainless twaddle in it which helps pass the time if you are very, very tired. Different strokes for different folks. Live and let live, maybe…

I chortled when he referred to the Radio Times as ‘that once-respected organ of the BBC’ (p.124). Could anyone sound more pompous?

After taking part in a BBC programme promoting a faith healer who claimed to be the reincarnation of a 2,000-year-old dead doctor, Dawkins clashed with the commissioning editor of this programme. He was horrified that the BBC should:

lend the weight of its long built-up reputation by appearing to accept the fantasy at face value (pp.125-6)

It’s so often the BBC which draws the ire of the Mrs Angry’s from Tunbridge Wells… and so it is for Dawkins. I smiled when he described David Frost as:

a veteran British television personality whom some government saw fit to knight… (p.126)

‘Whom’. I know it’s technically correct but I don’t like using ‘whom’ precisely because Dawkins is typical of the kind of people who still use it, the kind of people who perpetually think the BBC is going to the dogs.

The long chapter demolishing astrologers and fake magicians is an orgy of supercilious superiority to the immoral tricksters who make money be exploiting a gullible public, aided and abetted by intelligent people in places like the BBC who really should know better!

Dawkins’s personal stories and gossip

I’ll begin with a personal anecdote. (p.138)

The book is jam packed with chatty stories and anecdotes from people he’s met, and letters he’s received, and newspapers articles he’s read, and debates he’s taken part in, and lectures he’s given, and children he’s chatted to, and anecdotes about his wife, and his mother-in-law, and his parents, and uncle and aunt.

  • I am told on good authority that defence lawyers in the United States sometimes object to jury candidates on the grounds that they have had a scientific education (p.83)
  • A colleague tells me of a time when he was up for selection on a jury… (p.84)
  • I had a schoolfriend who claimed that he could recognise any member of the 80-strong residence in which we lived purely by listening to their footsteps. (p.88)
  • I had another friend from Switzerland who claimed that when she walked into a room she could tell, by smell, which members of her circle of acquaintances had just left the room. (p.88)
  • I once received a lawyer’s bill, the last item of which was ‘Time spent making out this bill’ (p.106)
  • My wife Lalla Ward recalls an occasion when an American starlet approached the director of the film they were both working on with a ‘Gee, Mr Preminger, what sign are you?’ and received the immortal rebuff, in a thick Austrian accent, ‘I am a Do Not Disturrrb sign.’ (p.118)
  • I once met a woman who was employed full time to invent these stories [Elvis sighted on Mars-type stories] for an American publication… (p.124)
  • I recall an entertaining dinner with a philosopher who told me the following story: One day in church he noticed that a priest, in a kneeling position, was hovering nine inches above the church floor. (p.133)
  • I remember once trying to amuse a six-year-old child at Christmas time by reckoning with her how long it would take Father Christmas to go down all the chimneys in the world. (p.141)
  • I used a similar illustration in one of my Royal Institution Christmas lectures in 1991. (p.145)
  • My wife once bought for her mother a beautiful antique watch with a pink face. (p.154)
  • During this particular minute, my thoughts have strayed to a schoolfellow called Haviland (I don’t remember his Christian name, not what he looked like) whom I haven’t seen or thought of for 45 years. (p.159)
  • Daniel Dennett has told me of a conversation with a philosopher colleague who had read Wonderful Life as arguing that the Cambrian phyla did not have a common ancestor – that they had sprung up as independent origins of life! (p.207)

He spends a page and a half describing the time his parents persuaded little Richard and his sister to put on blindfolds and led them out to the garden where they sat them in a wooden frame which they persuaded the children was an airplane, trundled it along the ‘runway’ and then lifted it into the air and zoomed it around the garden, sometimes brushing against low-hanging branches of trees.

This anecdote is the basis of a couple of pages of complete speculation about why credulity, the ability to believe anything they’re told, might be an evolutionary advantage in human children – but how adults should grow out of it and apply serious scientific standards of scepticism and an informed understanding of statistics to every aspect of their lives.

But why? Why can’t people believe what they want to? In reality they already do, and always have, and always will. Charming, page-long anecdotes about Richard’s upper-middle-class childhood aren’t going to change anyone’s minds, they just warm the hearts of the upper-middle-class book reviewers who, as a result, shower his books with praise (enthusiastic blurbs on the back of this book come from A.S. Byatt [private school and Oxford] and Matt Ridley [the fifth Viscount Ridley, Eton and Oxford]).

On and on it goes in an endless burbling stream of jolly gossip which is entertaining because it’s so inconsequential and vain, a self-satisfied family album of preening opinions.

Sometimes there are bits of science…

Why rainbows appear like they do, sound waves, how we can read the chemical composition of different stars, DNA fingerprinting – there are interesting fragments of actual science, reasonably clearly explained, buried amid all the gossip and personal prejudices.

There’s another explanation of the structure of the eye (repeated from River Out of Eden), a page about qasars, and 4 or 5 pages about ‘Skinner boxes, and the behaviouralist B.F. Skinner’s experiments rewarding animals (pigeons and rats) which led him to notice that animals, too, appear to develop superstitious rituals i.e. if they happened to be doing something (pecking a particular part of the box, or huddling on one particular corner) when some food pops through the chute into the box, then they will repeat the same behaviour again and again in the hope that lightning strikes twice. Like humans who carry out lucky tics and rituals.

There’s a lengthy passage (pp.193-209) attacking Stephen Jay Gould. It’s typical of Dawkins in that he says he respects the great American populariser of evolution, but then goes on to systematically demolish every aspect of Gould’s book Wonderful Life. Gould uses the fossil discoveries in the Burgess Shale to assert that the Cambrian period when they were laid down saw a spectacular and unprecedented explosion of evolutionary growth and diversity, hundreds of wacky designs for life forms, many of which flourished and disappeared. Dawkins powerfully disagrees that evolution works in such bursts and spurts, and lines up a barrage of critics and authorities to demolish Gould’s position, concluding with a quote from Peter Medawar claiming it was a shame that Gould had (before his death in 2002) become the pre-eminent popular exponent of evolutionary theory in the United States because his ideas are ‘confused’ and totally unrepresentative of the mainstream of evolutionary thought (‘in fact the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with…’, p.207).

OK so there’s some science in this passage, as Dawkins explains why he disagrees with Gould but, as you can tell, the explication of the facts of what was found in the Burgess Shale take a poor second place to Dawkins’s argufying about it. The point of these fifteen pages or so is not to explain the thing to you, it’s to convince you that Gould was wrong wrong wrong!

The passage I liked best explained how evolution, among other things, has selected for the correct shapes of key proteins – some crucial proteins have multiple shapes and versions: the correct shapes are the ones which allow them to carry out their life-enabling activities, but it explains why things go disastrously wrong if the body, for whatever reason, starts to produce wrong-shaped alternatives: which is what happens in mad cow disease, when an alternative shape of the prion protein occurs and then triggers a cascade of mishapen prions throughout the body, which leads to holes forming in the brain, and madness.

Moments like this are obviously interesting, but they are oases of sense in a book most of whose text is made up of anecdotes, stories, far-fetched analogies, pitifully simplistic opinions about Great Literature, and a wholesale misunderstanding of human nature.

Conclusion

As to Dawkins’s central point that all kinds of people think unscientifically, don’t understand statistics or probabilities or how DNA fingerprinting works or how the rainbow is made, and instead believe gibberish about horoscopes and astrology and magic tricks… well, so what?

People have always been fools, always will be, as John Gray points out (see my review of his most recent book, The Soul of the Marionette). On the whole, people don’t burn witches or lynch strangers or march gaily off to war like they used to, so that’s progress of a sort.

But expecting everyone to suddenly abandon junk TV, sensationalist tabloid journalism, horoscopes and the countless promises of overnight diets and anti-ageing creams, and suddenly, miraculously, become hyper-intelligent, private-school educated, Oxford academic experts in DNA and astronomy is… well… a fatuous fantasy.

Dawkins and Junior

When my son (22 and studying Biology at university) discovered that I was reading Dawkins’s books, he was genuinely outraged. He crossly told me that all Dawkins’s contributions to biology have been discredited, and that his only achievement has been to create in many people’s minds a vision of science and scientists as narrow-minded, intolerant, anti-religious and bigoted – a view which my son has personally found himself having to extricate himself from in student conversations, and which has been extremely socially unhelpful.

P.S.

One last Dawkins anecdote to finish with:

In a previous book I gave away the number of the combination lock on my bicycle. I felt safe in doing so because obviously my books would never be read by the kind of person who would steal a bicycle. Unfortunately somebody did steal it, and now I have a new lock with a new number. (p.147)

This vignette perfectly captures Dawkins’s spirit of winning naivety and complete ignorance of human nature. Maybe you can see why, in my review of The Blind Watchmaker, I dubbed Dawkins the Mr Bean of Biology.

Credit

Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins was published by Penguin in 1998. All references are to the 1999 Penguin paperback edition.


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Christmas slugs @ Tate Britain

Monster Chetwynd is the pseudonym of  Alalia Chetwynd, born in 1973, a British artist known for reworkings of iconic moments from cultural history in improvised performances. In 2012, she was nominated for the Turner Prize. In the past she has gone under the names of Spartacus Chetwynd and Marvin Gaye Chetwynd. (This immediately reminded me of the punk band Spizz Energi who, in their heyday, changed their name every year, rotating through Athletico Spizz 80, Spizzoil and The Spizzles.)

Tate invited her to create a special Christmas installation and she has come up with the idea of two enormous soft sculptures of slugs, which currently decorate the main steps and entrance to Tate Britain.

Monster Chetwynd’s installation at Tate Britain. Photograph by the author

Monster Chetwynd’s installation at Tate Britain. Photograph by the author

To be precise, they are huge mock-ups of ‘leopard slugs’, their fabric bodies dotted with spots and lined with blue and white LED lights. Monster has explained to the Tate press people, the Guardian, the Telegraph and everyone else who’s interviewed her, that she got the idea after watching leopard slugs mate on Life in the Undergrowth, a television documentary series by David Attenborough.

Monster Chetwynd’s installation at Tate Britain. Photograph by the author

Monster Chetwynd’s installation at Tate Britain. Photograph by the author

In the wild leopard slugs slowly rotate together, dangling from the branch of a tree by a glittering rope of mucus. The idea is that this night-time mating ritual can be reimagined to show that the darkness of winter can also be a time of renewal and rebirth. And that giant slugs can show us how.

Indeed, after dark, not only the slugs themselves light up, but the entire facade of Tate Britain is illuminated as if covered by a great web of limacine slime.

The facade of Tate Britain flanked by giant slugs and illuminated by limacine slime

The facade of Tate Britain flanked by giant slugs and illuminated by slime-like lianas of fairy lights

Merry Christmas!


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James Cook – The Voyages @ the British Library

2018 marks 250 years since Captain James Cook set off from Plymouth on the first of his three epoch-making voyages of exploration to the Pacific. In 1768 most of the coastlines and islands scattered across this vast body of water – nearly 64 million square miles of ocean – were unknown to Europeans. When Cook’s third voyage returned to Britain in 1780, most of the blank spaces had been filled in as a result of his labours.

This exhibition is an excellently curated and imaginatively staged account of Cook’s big three voyages. It:

  1. sets them in the wider framework of European knowledge of the time
  2. shows how each one was received and assimilated by both the elite scientific community and the broader general public
  3. most significantly of all, goes to great lengths to present the other side of the story, the by and large disastrous consequences for the ‘native’ or ‘first peoples’ of Australia, New Zealand and across the Pacific islands not so much of Cook’s visits themselves, but of the consequences – the way these peoples found themselves quickly caught up in the worldwide web of European trade, exploited, marginalised, often decimated by disease and of how their descendants, even today, are fighting to make their voices heard and to re-establish the importance of their culture and their version of history.

Image result for james cook voyages

Voyage One 1768-71

Cook had gained a reputation as a hard working navigator and map-maker during the Seven Years War (1756-63) in Canada, when he had charted the St Laurence Waterway and then, when peace came, made the first detailed charts of the island of Newfoundland off the Canadian coast.

So when the Royal Society approached the Royal Navy for a captain to lead an expedition to the Pacific, to carry scientific equipment and astronomers there in order to observe the transit of Venus across the sun which was due to take place in June 1769, the Admiralty saw an excellent opportunity to combine science with exploration and Cook’s name came into the frame.

The Navy provided the ship, HMS Endeavour which Cook sailed on, and he was under Admiralty orders that, once the transit was observed, he should sail on to try and find the fabled southern land which geographers and explorers of the time were convinced ran along the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Cook took along with him Joseph Banks, a charming, privately wealthy botanist, with an extensive retinue of six artists and assistants, plus his servants and pet greyhounds. The huge collections of plants, birds, fish and other life forms which Banks made on the three year journey would later be sent to the new Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and to the Royal Society, for categorisation and study.

The first voyage crossed the Atlantic and touched at Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of South America, before sailing into the Pacific and on to Tahiti. Here the astronomers got to know the native people, built a fort, and observed the transit of Venus – then the Endeavour sailed on to New Zealand. By sailing right round and charting the two islands in detail, Cook proved that New Zealand was not part of the fabled Great Southern continent.

Cook’s Chart of New Zealand © British Library Board

Cook’s Chart of New Zealand © British Library Board

In April 1770 Cook anchored on a spot which he named Botany Bay, on a long stretch of the eastern coastline of Australia. The north coast had been mapped by the Dutch but this eastern coast Cook claimed for Britain and named New South Wales. Detecting no human habitation he declared it terra nullius i.e. uninhabited – the start of 250 years of ignoring and marginalising Australia’s aboriginal people.

Cook’s ship was holed on the Great Barrier Reef, and after a very dicey few hours getting the ship afloat again, they found a sheltered cove in which to make extensive repairs. After completing the survey of east Australia, they sailed north-west to reach Batavia, capital of the Dutch East Indies, where a number of Cook’s crew were struck down by malaria and dysentery, and so across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope and home.

Banks sent the vast cornucopia of specimens, sketches and descriptions made by him and his retinue to the Royal Society and became what David Attenborough describes as ‘the Great Panjandrum’ of the late-18th century scientific world.

Voyage Two 1772-5

This time Cook was sent with explicit orders from the Admiralty to search for the Great Southern Continent. After a dispute about accommodation Banks didn’t, alas, go on this second trip.

In searching for the Southern Continent, and ultimately proving its non-existence, the expedition would cross the Antarctic Circle three times and, during the winter months, would make two long circuits of the south Pacific, charting a number of islands and island groups not before accurately plotted on European maps.

The voyages among towering icebergs in the southern seas gripped my imagination most, but Cook also made longish stays at Tahiti and Easter Island.

The Resolution and the Discovery in Prince William Sound, Alaska by John Webber © British Library

The Resolution and the Discovery in Prince William Sound, Alaska by John Webber © British Library

Voyage Three 1776-80

Cook was put in charge of the Resolution to be accompanied by the Discovery, captained by Charles Clerke. This time his mission from the Admiralty was to sail via Tahiti to the Pacific North-West coast of America in search of that other great chimera, the fabled ‘North-West Passage’ which sailors, for two centuries – had been hoping would allow ships to sail from the vast Hudson Bay in north Canada, clear through into the Pacific and so on to the Indies.

As no such passage exists, Cook never found it. Instead this voyage was as epic as the others, taking in stops at Queen Charlotte Sound in New Zealand, Tasmania, Tonga and Tahiti, places they had previously visited.

In January 1778, the expedition called at the Hawaiian islands, which were then unknown in Europe. After taking on supplies here, Cook sailed for the North Pacific coast of Canada. They arrived at the coast of modern Oregon and sailed north around the coast of Alaska looking in vain for some river or channel or outlet which would give access to the fabled short cut around North America.

They landed in the Aleutian Islands to take on water and then proceeded on through the Bering Strait in August 1778, still hoping to find access to a channel. Instead they ran up against a barrier of sheet ice and, following this east, discovered that it extended in an unbroken line from the west coast of North America all the way to the east coast of Asia. In August the expedition reached Russian soil. In other words – there was no way through.

Three Paddles from New Zealand by Sydney Parkinson, 1769 © British Library Board

Three Paddles from New Zealand by Sydney Parkinson, 1769 © British Library Board

The quest was over and Cook now needed to make winter quarters. Rather than stay up in Arctic waters, he decided to return to Hawai‘i. On 26 November 1778 the ships sighted Maui and on 16 January 1779 the ships arrived off Kealakekua Bay on the west coast of Hawai’i. They anchored and resumed friendly relations with the native people, led by King Kalani‘opu‘u, repairing the ship, taking on provisions and resting.

Finally, the ships sailed out of Kealakekua Bay on 4 February to resume their mission. But soon after their departure a storm blew up and the Resolution’s foremast was damaged, forcing them to return. King Kalani‘opu‘u had supervised elaborate farewell ceremonies for Cook and his men and now, according to diarist James Burney, ‘was very inquisitive, as were several of the Owhyhe Chiefs, to know the reason of our return and appeared much dissatisfied with it’.

Overnight on 14 February 1779, the large boat from the Discovery disappeared. As he had done in other places, Cook went on shore with the marines to take a senior figure hostage in order to demand its return. Charles Clerke later recorded that, on finding Kalani‘opu‘u having just woken up, Cook believed him to be ‘quite innocent of what happen’d and proposed to the old Gentleman to go onboard with him, which he readily agree’d to’. As the party returned to the beach, where two or three thousand people had assembled, tensions increased. News may have reached the crowd of the death of a man shot by British sailors who were blockading the harbour. Violence broke out and Cook was killed on the beach alongside four of the marines. Sixteen Hawaiians are believed to have been killed.

Both sides quickly regretted the misunderstanding and violence, but it was too late and – as commentators ever since have pointed out – it was indeed a symbol, a sign, a prophecy, of more misunderstanding and violence to come…

The exhibition

To my mind the British Library sometimes struggles to compete with the other major galleries or the British Museum for the simple reason that whereas the galleries have great works of art and the Museum has fabulous artefacts, for the most part the Library, by definition, is restricted to books and other printed matter, extending to pamphlets, prints, maps and so on, but none of them necessarily that visually impressive.

But the curators have gone to great lengths to overcome this potential drawback and to bring together the widest possible range of sources.

Books Thus, as you’d expect, there are a number of original journals and diaries, of Cook himself, as well as of important colleagues such as Banks and several of the other naturalists, surgeons and scientists who accompanied him.

Maps If you like maps, you’ll love this show. There are European maps from before Cooks’ voyages, maps generated by predecessors like Tasman, and his French contemporary de Bougainville, and then the maps which Cook himself generated.

Cook’s charts It was fascinating to see the very actual maps that Cook himself drew and created. At the end of the day, this was what all this extraordinary effort was about – the charts which were brought back to be used by the Royal Navy and by commercial sailings. These were the core of the project and it is great to have the opportunity to study in real detail the results of Cook’s handiwork, to read the wall labels and have explained to you why there were gaps here or there (for example, a stretch of the Australian coast wasn’t charted in detail because Cook couldn’t penetrate through the Great Barrier Reef to observe it closely), and even his errors. He mistook a peninsula on the South Island of New Zealand for an island, and an island off the North Island for a peninsula. Nobody’s perfect.

Objects But to supplement these obvious selections, the curators have also brought in some interesting objects such as one of the telescopes which was used to observe the transit of Venus and an example of the new timepieces which helped navigators work out longitude and thus establish their position.

Copies of Harrison's chronometer made by John Arnold © Royal Society

Copies of Harrison’s chronometer made by John Arnold © Royal Society

Oil paintings There’s also a handful of big contemporary oil paintings – of Cook himself and Joseph Banks and of the famous Tahiti Islander, Mai, who Cook brought back to Britain and who made a great splash in London society, being painted by William Parry and Joshua Reynolds among others, as well as having books and poems dedicated to him.

Botanical and scenic sketches Banks was a man obsessed with gathering absolutely every specimen of flora and fauna he could get his hands on throughout the entire three-year voyage. Spurred on by his work ethic, the naturalists and artists he had brought with him generated a wealth of sketches and drawings (including the earliest European depiction of a kangaroo!).

The exhibition sets the sketches alongside the finished oil paintings which were later worked up from them, either by the original artist or by a commercial artist back in London. Often the original sketches were ‘improved’ or ‘finished’ for inclusion in one of the many books which were published about the voyages to capitalise on their popularity, and the exhibition quietly points out how the rough and accurate sketches became noticeably westernised i.e. the landscapes became more soft and ‘sublime’ as per contemporary taste, and the sketches of the native people’s sometimes very rough shelters were transformed into noble dwellings, sometimes complete with ancient Greek columns, again to fit in with prevailing Western tastes for the idea of ‘the Noble Savage’.

One of the highlights is the striking drawings of natives and plants by Sydney Parkinson (who made nearly a thousand drawings of the plants and animals collected by Banks and Daniel Solander on the first voyage). There are evocative drawings of native people decorated by elaborate tattoos by William Hodges, beautiful flowers painted by Georg Foster who went on the second voyage, and so on.

Native objects In stark contrast to all these visual images created from within the western artistic tradition, the exhibition also includes a number of original artefacts by the natives, or aboriginals, or first peoples of the many places Cook visited.

These include, for example, a wooden cuirass or piece of armour from Prince William Sound, a bow and arrow, and a flute and drum, and a beautiful Nootka rattle carved in the shape of two birds.

Rattle from Nootka Sound, c. 1778 © Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Rattle from Nootka Sound, c. 1778 © Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

To quote the press release, exhibition highlights include:

  • Paintings depicting Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia by the Polynesian high priest and navigator Tupaia, which are on display as a group for the first time
  • The first chart of New Zealand by James Cook
  • The first artworks depicting the Antarctic by William Hodges on loan from the State Library of New South Wales, reunited with James Cook’s handwritten journal entry describing the first crossing of the Antarctic Circle, for the first time in 100 years
  • Specimens from the first voyage, including the mouth parts of a squid, on loan from the Royal College of Surgeons
  • Expedition artist John Webber’s watercolour landscapes, including the first European illustrations of Hawai’i
  • Jewellery and musical instruments, including a necklace from Tierra del Fuego, ceremonial rattle from Nootka Sound (Vancouver Island) and bamboo flute from Tahiti, on loan from Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge
  • Natural history drawings, including the first European depiction of a kangaroo by Sydney Parkinson on loan from the Natural History Museum

Quite an assembly, going far beyond books and maps – and from a strikingly wide variety of sources.

Staging In terms of staging and presentation, the curators have gone to a lot of trouble to create a marine atmosphere, by painting the walls with sea-inspired colours. The exhibition is in the form of a kind of maze of differently shaped rooms, some painted light blue to display the voyage material, and deliberately contrasted with ‘brown’ rooms, lit by replica 18th century oil lamps to represent the time spent back in London. In these rooms are displayed the paintings, prints and publications of all sorts which the voyages inspired.

It’s interesting to note the number of literary works, with quite a few epic poems, dramas and satires based on the sea voyages or on the character of the new peoples Cook had ‘discovered’, particularly the peoples of Tahiti and Hawai’i.

It’s also notable that a number of these works were openly critical of Cook, of the occasional violence with natives which – despite Cook’s best efforts – broke out, and accurately predict the likely dire consequences for people suddenly thrown into the ‘modern’ world economy with absolutely no preparation or help.

Videos And there are no fewer than eight shortish (three minutes) videos, specially commissioned for the exhibition and dotted throughout the show, which feature not only maps and charts and the art work listed above, but modern day shots of many of the key (and generally quite stunning) locations, plus a range of interviewees explaining what actually happened on each voyage, and their importance.

Among the European interviewees are David Attenborough who enthusiastically describes Cook as probably the greatest maritime explorer of all time, and Australian anthropologist Nicholas Thomas, whose book about Cook is on sale in the well-stocked exhibition shop.

The controversy

And this brings us to what is maybe the dominant thread running through this exhibition. As Thomas says in one of the films, the past 30-40 years have seen a revolution in attitudes towards Cook and white colonial rule generally.

As recently as the 1970s there is footage of the Queen and Princess Anne sitting on a beach in Australia watching a re-enactment of Cook’s landing with his crew, and making his notorious claim that, the land being ’empty’, he claimed it for the British Crown.

Well, attitudes among educated people throughout the Western world have been completely changed since then and now there is widespread acknowledgement of the possible illegality of those claims, and the definitely devastating impact of white colonial contact with native peoples.

From Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, across the scores of small islands of Polynesia and up into the Arctic Circle among the Inuit Indians, the impact of white explorers on native ‘first’ peoples was almost always catastrophic.

‘Inhabitants of the Island of Terra del Fuego in their Hut’ by Alexander Buchan, 1769 © British Library Board

‘Inhabitants of the Island of Terra del Fuego in their Hut’ by Alexander Buchan, 1769 © British Library Board

As the films make clear, it is only in recent decades that the presence of the native peoples has been fully acknowledged, and the voices and experiences of the first peoples of Cook’s time, and of their contemporary descendants, fully heard.

Thus the eight short videos had contributions from a number of qualified white people – from David Attenborough, Nigel Thomas, Australian historian Dame Anne Salmond, from a male author and a woman biologist. But there were at least as many if not more ‘native’ voices heard – descendants of the Australian Aborigines and a number of the Pacific islanders / Polynesians where Cook stopped. I’d like to name them all, but the captions giving their names and titles only appeared very briefly, and there was – well – a lot to see and take in.

What came over in the words of all the native peoples – aborigine, Maori, Tahitian, Hawaiian – was the hurt.

After all these years – after 250 years – their descendants are still very upset about the way that:

  • their lands were taken from them
  • their heritage, their culture, their languages and customs and religions, were ignored, submerged, obliterated
  • their populations were decimated by the many terrible diseases the white men brought (smallpox, syphilis)

Entire peoples found themselves consigned to being second class citizens or not even that – invisible, non-people, with no political or legal rights, no voice, no say.

It is impossible to deny that this was the impact of Cook’s voyages. Without doubt the voyages were themselves heroic endeavours and respect to the men who carried them out. And there is plenty of evidence that Cook himself was a just and fair man, who made efforts to have natives treated fairly, who personally respected the rites and cultures which he encountered, and who rigorously punished any members of the crew found mistreating or exploiting natives.

But even Cook himself was uneasily aware that the technologically backward peoples he was discovering would struggle to survive in the face of Western technology, ships, guns, and trade.

Tupaia Nothing can really make amends for the wrongs which were done to native peoples across the Pacific in the aftermath of Cook’s explorations. The dignity with which the curators treat their often tragic histories is a start. Hearing from their descendants in the eight videos also ensures that the voices of the first peoples will always now be part of the Cook story.

But the exhibition also sheds new light on some specific and named natives. I’ve mentioned Omai – real name Mai – who was befriended and persuaded to travel all the way back to Britain.

Omai by William Hodges © Royal Museums Greenwich

Omai by William Hodges © Royal Museums Greenwich

We also hear about named kings and high priests who Cook and his officers treated fully as equals, giving them gifts, attending their religious ceremonies.

But the exhibition also brings out how vital many natives were to Cook’s success. It was, after all, only with the help and co-operation of the various local peoples that Cook was able to anchor, land, make repairs to the ship, to access vital fresh water and, above all, food.

And communicate. Another Tahitian, Hitihiti, travelled with Cook on to a number of Pacific islands, notably Easter Island, where he was invaluable as acting as an interpreter to first peoples.

Another very notable figure is the Polynesian high priest and navigator Tupaia. He accompanied Cook to New Zealand and Australia and is referenced by many of the aboriginal interviewees in the films as a kind of role model for the power he had and the respect he commanded from the white man.

And now it appears, from evidence in a recently discovered letter of Joseph Banks, that many of the sketches included in the archive of the first voyage were drawn by Tupaia himself, not by British artists. They are shown here for the first time with their proper credit and this knowledge gives them a whole new mystique and poignancy.

Banks and a Maori by Tupaia © British Library Board

Banks and a Maori by Tupaia © British Library Board

Summary

The voyages of James Cook were a great human achievement, displaying stunning bravery, discipline, determination, scientific and artistic expertise. The long-lasting impact on native peoples all over the vast Pacific region was almost always disastrous.

The exhibition makes a very good effort to capture the complexity of the resulting situation – amazement at a great achievement from the Age of Discovery. Difficult, moving and upsetting testimonials to the sorry centuries which followed.

The video


Related links

  • James Cook – The Voyages continues at the British Library until 28 August
  • The British Library microsite contains links off to quite a few good articles about each of the voyages, the natural history, indigenous peoples, the north-west passage, imperial legacy and much more
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