Sunday, August 10, 2008

James Cook, and his voyage(s) of discovery.


Sometimes, often even, the episodes of history read better than any book of fiction. One such figure, and his adventures, life and achievements illustrate that just so well.

The figure is James Cook.

A man of humble origins, he advanced in that most class-conscious of societies - 18th century England, by merit.

His story crosses in to another fascinating story - that of the development of the Marine Chronometer (one day I'll get me a Hamilton 21!);
"...On his second voyage Cook used the K1 chronometer made by Larcum Kendall, which was the shape of a large pocket watch, 13 cm (5 inches) in diameter. It was a copy of the H4 clock made by John Harrison, which proved to be the first to keep accurate time at sea ..."
(from the Wikipedia article on James Cook).
This piece might just as well have been written with an image of James Cook in mind;

"From their tiny kingdom lying off the northern shores of Europe the Anglo-Saxon people went out over the world taking their laws, their method of government, and their language with them. They built their colonies in North America, setting out their farms in the wide plains and green valleys of the New World. They peopled Australia and New Zealand. They went into Africa and Asia - governing many different people to whom they taught their language and their law. They planted parliaments in many lands, believing that representational government, and government by consultation and consent were unarguably and self-evidently the best. Some of those parliaments have thrived and some have changed into institutions far different from that at Westminster.

For three hundred years or more they dominated the oceans of the globe and for a brief hundred and fifty years they dominated the world itself. As Rome had dreamed of a world of free citizens, with people of many lands sharing a common law and a common loyalty, so did they dream, and briefly believed the vision was reality. The fashion now is to deride the dream and mock the dreamers of it. Yet the conception was not idle, nor completely unfulfilled. Through it, millions of folk around the world who are not kin to the Anglo-Saxon people have democracy as their ideal and the rule of law as their acknowledged aim.

The Anglo-Saxon people in their own kingdom, their blood and traditions enriched by their neighbours - the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish - have given much to the world, perhaps more than the world now cares to acknowledge. The same folk, enriched by the adventurous and the poor, by the exiled defenders of lost causes, by the dispossesed and the persecuted, who thronged to them from all the countries of Europe, have built a younger and vigorous land in the new world.

Greece had great gifts to offer, but left to the Romans the task of disseminating those gifts throughout the civilised world. The Anglo-Saxon folk have been their own messengers. Rome built the long roads along which Hellenistic thought travelled to Asia Minor, North Africa, Spain and the Yorkshire moors. The Anglo-Saxons built their own ships and their own roads by which were transmitted their ideas of government by consent, of freedom to worship God in any way a man pleases, and of a body of law which binds all men - including Kings and lawmakers. For they have possessed through succeeding ages not only these basic ideas on how society should be organised, but also a great restlessness - the knowledge that the sea is a highway and not a barrier, and the belief that a man may make a home wherever a ship can carry him. A man can exercise his skills anywhere - can rear sheep or raise cattle even though midsummers day blazes in December, can fell a tropic thorn tree as well as a northern oak, and can drive a plough in a vast field many thousand miles westward of his former and smaller farm.


Where did the Anglo-Saxon people obtain these qualities? Their impatience with authority, their obstinacy in defeat, their insistence upon old and inalienable rights, their urge to build new homesteads and new countries overseas - are all these things inherited, and reinforced by a process of natural selection? What were the different ethnic components that made up the whole people, and what were the main events that bought together the many different folk who went to their making..."

From: 'The Origins of the English People' Author: Beram Saklatvala [publisher, The History Book Club].

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