Captain James Cook at the British Library

Cook’s Chart of New Zealand (c) British Library Board.jpg

This year marks 250 years since Captain James Cook’s ship Endeavour departed Plymouth on the first of the explorer’s voyages in search of new lands and trade routes.

London’s British Library is marking the anniversary with a fascinating exhibition entitled James Cook: The Voyages.

Cook's journal entry describing first crossing of Antarctic Circle, 17 January 1773 (c) British Library Board.jpg

Cook’s own maps and journals

The show brings together a wide range of artworks, many by those who accompanied Cook on his travels, in addition to original maps and journals.

Each of his three voyages features a backdrop in a slightly different shade of sea-hinting blue-green, interspersed with rooms dealing with periods spent in Enlightenment London; the latter redolent with the colours of candlelight.

Highlights include paintings and drawings by expedition artists Sydney Parkinson, John Webber and William Hodges depicting the people and cultures they encountered and the sense of difference and excitement these engendered.

‘Inhabitants of the Island of Terra del Fuego in their Hut’ by Alexander Buchan, 1769 (c) British Library Board.jpg

A legacy questioned

The exhibition also considers how Cook’s legacy has changed in the past 50 years, addressing the often disastrous consequences his expeditions ultimately had for indigenous populations, from the introduction of invasive European animal species, to the spread of venereal disease, to full-scale genocide.

Co-curator Laura Walker says: ‘Visitors will be able to follow the course of each voyage through eyewitness accounts, hand-drawn charts and stunning artwork created on board ship.

‘Recently commissioned films allow visitors to consider contemporary perspectives on the voyages and to examine their legacy, much of which remains highly contested today.’

James Cook: The Voyages is at the British Library until 28 August.

Three Paddles from New Zealand by Sydney Parkinson, 1769.jpg


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