Bones of Empire: Cook and Franklin Reaching to Alaska for a Northwest Passage (I)

by I. S. Madaren

The search for the Northwest Passage captivated European imagination for centuries. While the dream preceded the voyages of Captain Cook, in the late eighteenth century the Admiralty decided it should verify whether the passage, a supposed warm-weather waterway between the Pacific Ocean and Hudson Bay, existed. In 1745, the British Parliament approved a reward for finding the channel, and, thirty years later, it increased the amount to the then prodigious sum of twenty thousand pounds.

The Admiralty was also prompted by receipt of a new Russian map that suggested that a navigable passageway existed, coursing its way through a great northern archipelago among the islands of "Alaschka."

From all appearances at the time, the illusory passage formed part of an amalgam of the complex tapestry of islands and waterways of Southern Alaska, the last temperate region of the world to be fully explored and mapped by Europeans. So, at a legendary dinner party on January 9, 1776, the comptroller, first secretary, and first lord of the Admiralty convinced James Cook to lead a third voyage to the Pacific to locate the imagined passageway, even though he had already completed two grueling voyages earlier in the decade.

Despite Cook's advanced age—forty-seven—and number of successive years at sea, the Admiralty enthusiastically endorsed the voyage, outfitting his ships at the same time they prepared warships to repel the American insurrection. But, less than three years after setting sail, on the morning of Sunday, February 14., 1779, Cook lay dead on a beach in Hawai'i, an island nation the Admiralty and Europe did not even know existed. in the end, Kealakelcua Bay would prove to be much more real than a northwest passage.'

Cook spent the tumultuous summer of 1778 charting the coast of northwestern North America, the first European voyager to map the intricate coastline of Alaska. During the expedition that summer, Cook carefully explored today's Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet, in an effort to find the illusory passage, but both were dead ends. Leaving Southern Alaska, he sailed southwest before he found a way through the Aleutian Islands to Bering Strait.

He then turned north again, reaching what is today the Arctic coast of Alaska. The expedition reached as far as Icy Cape before it turned back due to massive walls of ice. Cook found that Alaska was a vast continental expansion, not the maze of islands promised by the Russian maps. Like them, the imagined passageway seemed also a chimera. Planning a second trip north the following summer, Cook repaired to Hawn to restore the health of his expedition during the winter.

After weeks of pleasant, almost frenetic relations with the Hawaiians at Kealakekua Bay, he had gone ashore that Sunday morning to carry out a policy not new to him: the taking hostage of one or more principal persons, in this case King Kalaniopu'u-a-Kaiamamao (Terreeoboo) and his sons, until the people returned what they had stolen, a cutter that belonged to HMS Discovery.' He would not let twenty-eight-year-old Lieutenant James King reason with him.3 He was outraged, and that notorious character trait, more than ever in evidence in his late forties, cost him his life in what seems to have been no more than a quarter-hour affray of bad management, misunderstanding, and mayhem. Prejudice reigned no sober second thought demanded a hearing fifteen minutes was spent on the wrong side of the line between threatening force and using it.

As historians have rehearsed Cook's death and interpreted the debacle, many have concluded that Cook had himself to blame for death, the deaths of four marines, and those of seventeen to thirty Hawaiians that Sunday morning. One author concluded in 1978 that it was a "fatal confidence it the efficiency of a few musket-shots against any amount of Hawaiians" that doomed Cook. A quarter century later, Nicholas Thomas concurred: "Cook, [Lieutenant Molesworth] Phillips, and just about every other participant in the voyage believed that Islanders would invariably retreat before gunfire. "In reflecting on the whole miserable affair," Glyn Williams wrote in 2008, Cook's fellow captain, Charles Clerke, who also would not survive the voyage, "had no doubt that the crucial mistake was Cook's decision to open fire, confident that this would disperse the crowd. . . . Cook's firm belief in the effectiveness of this 'last resource,' on this occasion at least, was ill-founded."' They all take their lead from James King, who concluded in the official narrative of the voyage that, "contrary to the expectations of ever) one, this sort of weapon [muskets] had produced no signs of terror in them [the Hawaiians]." Vanes & Collingridge, who adapted her own book on the affray into a four-part television series, put it mort starkly: "What actually killed James Cook . . . was the belief that he could control every situation; that’s the tragedy of his death, his needless, pointless, stupid death.".'

Altogether, this is a rather different view from the one that Canon John Douglas, the editor of the, official account, wrote at the time based on King' account:
Our unfortunate Commander, the last time he was seen distinctly, was standing at the water's edge, and calling out to the boats to cease firing, and to pull in. if it be true, as some of those who were present have imagined, that the marines and boat-men had fired without his orders, and that he was desirous of preventing any further bloodshed, it is not improbable, that hishumanity, on this occasion, proved fatal, to him. For it was remarked, that whilst he faced the natives, none of them had offered him any violence, but that having turned about, to give his orders to the boats, he was stabbed in the back, and fell with his face into the water.

The death of Captain Cook, 1781 1783. John Webber. There were many pictorial accounts of Cook's death prepared in the years after the event, but only John Webber was in Hawai'i at the time. He was not an eyewitness, but his later drawing closely follows the firsthand accounts. Cook is about to be stabbed in the back while Lieutenant Molesworth Phillips, who has fallen to the ground, fires at an assailant. Cook is holding his hand up to the marines, presumably to tell them to stop firing, but it is too late. State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library, digital order number a24183-74.


Cook lay dead, yes, but not for long. He was, the British soon learned, "cut to pieces, and carried up the country, just like the missing cutter, but in the case of the captain, presumably so that his killers could spiritually share the power he appeared to wield while alive, a power that had prompted them perhaps to treat him like their god, Lono, and from whom Cook had tolerated not just deference but possibly reverence while positioned on a nearby temple, or morai. Second-in-command Charles Clerke made several requests, if not demands, for the return of Cook's body. While he waited during the next week, more Hawaiians were killed; in fact, "in four days, men off Cook's ships killed more Islanders (at least thirty) than they had over the preceding ten years (about fifteen).


In due course, Clerke got his commander back, but in pieces. Under the cover of night, two priests brought a bundle to the ships with "a piece of human flesh 'from the hind parts, "about nine or ten pounds weight," but a full week would pass after he had been stabbed before enough of Cook was returned to satisfy Clerke. Then, on the afternoon of February 21, 1779, Cook's few remains were placed in a coffin and lowered into the ocean, or, as James King wrote, rather summarily, "thrown into the Sea. No drawing, painting, or engraving depicts the event; no scholarly monograph is titled The Burial of Captain Cook.

At least not all the bones went missing permanently; words, on the other hand, did. Reverend John Douglas, who was appointed to edit the official narratives of Cook's second and third voyages to the Pacific, had access to journals that have long since disappeared. Glyn Williams has judged the disappearance "mysterious." As well, given the regular process Cook had adopted on his second and third voyages to the Pacific of revising the log book entries in his own hand, the fact that his journal comes to an end before the ships moored in Kealakekua Bay sends up another red flag.

We will never know whether the disappearance of words resulted from plotting by friends or simple neglect. But it took nearly a full year after the captain was consigned to the deep for word of his death, traveling across Russia, to reach London. Another nine months would elapse before the ships turned up in the Thames on October 7, 1781, fifty-one months after the expedition began. And it would be another nearly forty-four months before the official narrative of the voyage appeared in three volumes and an atlas of maps and engravings in June 1784. At the lofty price of nearly £5, ail two thousand copies sold in just three days, and several additional printings also promptly sold.

The absence of words is one crucial matter. Another has to do with the words that were not absent. There are altogether far too many of them,a sea of them, written by too many of those aboard, including unofficial books by seamen and officers alike that preceded Douglas's edition, thwarting any understanding of the confusing altercation ashore.

And that state of affairs has prompted a voluminous debate ever since. But beyond those words, more than five full years beyond them, there are the official, authoritative, published-by-command-of His-Majesty words. Canon Douglas composed them even as, perhaps, he destroyed, hid, ignored, or never knew existed other sources or versions of sources that were not at hand while he composed a narrative that would retrieve the honor of Cook. After all, Cook's plans had failed. There was no northern archipelago to discover and his decision to rely on firepower proved disastrous.

How exactly would Douglas have wanted his role to be acknowledged? At one point, he denounced being exposed as the ghost writer, but he also lamented the lack of recognition that his labors garnered. Perhaps he complained only after seeing the heights that Cook's fame scaled in Europe. He griped, The Public never knew, how much they owe to me in this work. The Capt's M.S.S. was [sic] indeed attended to accurately, but I took more Liberties than I had done with his Acct of the second Voyage; and while I faithfully represented the facts, I was less scrupulous in cloathing them with better Stile than fell to the usual Share of the Capt.

Some of Douglas's editorial amplifications are crucial; some are not. A frequently cited detail was the addition of human bones to the list of trade items found at Nootka Sound, Vancouver Island, and a subsequent imputation by the official narrative of cannibalism by the Mowachaht/Muchalaht people, a charge that one does not find in Cook's manuscript account: "We had but too much reason to suspect, from this circumstance, that the horrid practice of feeding on their enemies is as prevalent here, as we found it to be at New Zealand and other South Sea islands.". For nearly two hundred years, until J. C.Beaglehole published the third voyage's journals in 1967, that imputation stuck; successive travelers to the Northwest Coast feared cannibalism at Nootka Sound because of the license Douglas took.

Douglas certainly accomplished a monumental task by digesting all the sources to prepare a narrative that did not contradict itself. Even so, "cloathing" the explorer's words "with better Stile" surely evokes a fleshing-out, if not the covering, of bare bones with a verbal garment. And this raises the other prospect that concerns the present discussion: the bones of empire comprised skeletal bones but, like some of the captain's bones and all the marines', some of the words vanished immediately and others latterly. And the written word made public, along with maps, was crucial, for Britain, unlike Spain, already had a firm tradition of using the publication of books and maps to advance formal claims to geographical discoveries by its explorers.

Two crucial concerns arise from the lack of Cook's own words during the last thirty-nine days of his life in the case of his journal, twenty-nine in the case of his log, and the meddling by a ghost writer with those that were officially published. In the case of explorers who survived their voyage of discovery, so many had the books published under their names (titled The Voyage or A Journey or An Expedition or Travels or Wanderings), where the deeds were fleshed out in words of a better style, often by people who did no traveling themselves. These became the explorations. In the case of Cook and Clerke, the explorers do not come home except in the form of a book. in the end, the ships became supernumeraries, and the journals kept on board had to be steered into books.

Such is the case here, with Douglas's edition being titled A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean. Douglas writes Cook home. In doing so, he clothes the navigator in a style that will be found "unexceptionable [sic] to the nicest readers," as Cook demanded of Douglas for the narrative of his second Pacific voyage before sailing off on his third, given that the writing up by John Hawkesworth of the narrative of his first voyage to the Pacific had made the navigator's life miserable.

The editor puts flesh on the bones; the flesh is made word. It is not just that there is this posthumous book; it is that there is nothing but the book. Without a grave, the book is the indispensably necessary crucible of "the first navigator in Europe," as the House of Lords named Cook. The editor must play this vital role if the people on site cannot, and King admitted when the first bundle of remains was opened on the deck of the Resolution on the Monday night that he could not: "Our horror will be better conceiv'd, than can possibly be describ'd," his journal reads. Douglas's job reverses that. The ever-faithful Penelope to Cook's Ulysses/ Odysseus, Douglas is better able to describe than to conceive. Throughout, the editor cajoles Cook into authoritative authorship in a way reminiscent of how, on January 9, 1776, Cook's dinner companions cajoled him to best an already distinguished and celebrated career.
And, as we have seen in the passage that blames Cock's humanity for his death, Douglas clothes him in litotes (the affirmation of something by the negation of its opposite) to render the ascription of blame the more decorous: "it is not improbable, that his humanity, on this occasion, proved fatal, to him." With his humanity to blame, everyone in a well-dothed Enlightenment-epoch narrative is let off the hook. Nowhere does the official account indict Cook or anyone else. By contrast, the surviving records lead one historian to conclude that, when the men on whom Cook relied for support from their muskets "had had a chance to save him, they had failed miserably to match their actions to everybody's subsequent sentiments" once Cook was dead.
In one sense, this must be the case, given that Europe subsequently showed its determination to deify Cook. It could not do so if Douglas, himself a man of the cloth, had not yet resurrected Cook in noble words. Ascension cum apotheosis only succeeds resurrection; it cannot precede it. Douglas shuffles off Cook's mortal coil by resurrecting him, refashioning him new-made as eligible material out of which to make a hero, without, as Douglas noted, the public ever knowing how extensive the transformation had been.
As is well known, that deification happened very quickly in Europe, and it reached its apex in 1794 with the engraved print by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, titled The Apotheosis of Captain Cook, made from a painting by John Webber, the by then deceased artist aboard Cook's third Pacific voyage. Cook’s apotheosis, whether as a prince of peace or a supreme navigator, fired people's imagination. In a perverse way, the same holds for Loutherbourg's engraving. It shows Cook going "farther than any man has been before," but on how many, one must wonder, did the irony dawn that Europe was doing to a posthumous Cook only what Hawai'i had done to the living one—turn him into a god or something terribly akin to one? The irony that seems under- represented in Cook scholarship is that the British Empire evinced as great a desire to deify an expired Cook as King Kalani`Opu'u-a-Kaiamamao, himself deceased before Douglas's narrative appeared, and his subjects had done to an unexpired Cook, although one who had, it must be observed, selfishly allowed himself to be worshipped.
Although the British public would not read as much for another four years after the appearance of Loutherbourg's engraving, it was in May of the same year, 1794, that George Vancouver, whose role when a twenty-one-year-old midshipman on the day of Cook's assassination was not inconsiderable, eliminated the only possibility—Cook Inlet—that cook had left open for a northwest passage from the continent's west coast:
Thus terminated this very extensive opening on the coast of North West America, to which, had the great and first discoverer of it, whose name it bears, dedicated one day more to its further examination,he would have spared the theoretical navigators, who have followed him in their closets, the talk of ingeniously ascribing to this arm of the ocean a channel, through which a north-west passage existing according to their doctrines, might ultimately be discovered.

It sounds a faint note of one-upmanship, and not just with the allusion to Alexander Dalrymple and his acolytes, but also with his predecessor, "the great and first discoverer," and his decision not to spend but "one day more" in order to put an end once and for all to speculation that a passage led through rather than across the top of the continent.

But that meant, as Vancouver himself knew, that Britannia would have to rule waves in a frozen state, a prospect no less daunting than the Great Barrier Reef, because the eighteenth century closed with the clear understanding that the Northwest Passage, if it existed at all, was to be found in the frozen Arctic Ocean above Alaska and Canada. "Here Be Dragons," the last resort for cartographers in need of a label to paste on one or another terra incognita, is not quite what the walruses that greeted Cook on Alaska's north coast in August 1778 seem to be saying in John Webber's illustration. But it takes only a slight flight of fancy to see that, guarding, as the walruses appeared to do, the western portal to the long sought passageway, a Cerberus-like quality came to be assigned to these "sea horses," even though the crews slew nine of them. Of course, Enlightenment thinking would not indulge such fanciful symbolism for long, but the failure of the third voyage to get past the walruses and Icy Cape again in July 1779 did indeed impose a locked door of sorts at the Alaska end of the passage.

While Cook and Vancouver proved the difficulty of finding a passage sailing past the unfolding Alaska continental landmass, there was little activity at the eastern end of the passage. Whalers in the North Atlantic were faring well, but they could accomplish their work in the confines of Baffin Bay. They had no need to go exploring. Besides, the person who would assume the mantle of John Douglas for books about efforts to find the door to the passage from the eastern end held whalers in very low regard; they plied a trade and so lived a lowly existence in contrast to officers of the Royal Navy, who were committed "to accomplish almost the only interesting discovery that remains to be made in geography."

For the same reason, an equally low rung in purgatory was assigned to feckless fur traders. In 1771, Samuel Hearne took unreliable terrestrial and lunar measurements as he walked from the western shore of Hudson Bay to the Arctic Ocean at the mouth of the Coppermine River, and in 1789, Alexander Mackenzie could not decide if he had reached the ocean when he came to the mouth of the river that bears his name. Men of science would never conduct themselves so indecisively.

The critic of whalers and furriers was John Barrow, second secretary of the Admiralty, after whom Captain William Frederick Beechey named the most northerly place in Alaska in 1826 while missing a rendezvous by less than i5o miles with Captain John Franklin, then on his second Arctic land expedition. Barrow was the Penelope during the Royal Navy's assault on the passage between 1818 and 1858. He famously opined that no other nation than Britain should be left to discover a passage across the top of the world. After all, this was a search in which "her [Britain's] old navigators were the first to open the way."

But let us not sail ahead quite so precipitously. Much occurred during the seventy years between the death of James Cook sailing from the Pacific and the death of John Franklin sailing from the Atlantic, the result being two sets of bones thrown into the sea, the one tepid, the other gelid. To sail from the earlier to the later is to navigate from, on the one hand, a study of how so many explorers' words had to be wrestled into a single narrative to, on the other, an exercise in making narratives out of searches for absent words and absent bones.

Although the pursuit of a northwest passage around Alaska had not advanced even one degree of longitude during the intervening decades between the end of Cook's career and the beginning Franklin's, those years had witnessed the rise of Britain as the world's dominant industrial society, largely because it had come to rule the planet's oceans and seas. With the defeat of Napoleon and the end of the War of 1812 with the United States, the United Kingdom "not only possessed the largest empire the world had ever seen but its command of the oceans enabled it to project real power far beyond the borders of its formal empire." Its navy was the greatest floating fighting force that humankind had yet known. Of course, it had been building during the age of Cook, but Britain had suffered a setback by the loss of thirteen of its North American colonies while Cook was being cut to pieces, and it had yet to gird itself to face Napoleon for the better part of two decades.


To be followed