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dave obee Arctic Ambitions: Captain Cook and the Northwest Passage
Edited by James K. Barnett and David L. Nicandri
Anchorage Museum and Heritage House Publishing, 429 pp., $59.95

Reviewed by Dave Obee

Some of the best and the brightest Arctic and maritime researchers have come together to create this masterpiece, one of the best books of history to be published in British Columbia in the past year.

Arctic Ambitions: Captain Cook and the Northwest Passage examines in great detail the work of Capt. James Cook almost 250 years ago. We celebrated his bicentennial in 1978, and the research contained in this book will ensure that his reputation will be enhanced again the next time we have a good excuse.

Cook made three great voyages of discovery, and with his first two, he had already earned a strong reputation for his work in the southern Pacific Ocean by the time he turned his attention north.

On his third and final voyage, in 1776-1779, Cook looked for the western end of the legendary Northwest Passage, heading as far north along the North American coast as he could.

He didn't find the passage, but his search was hardly without rewards. He made contacts that set the stage for further exploration, and produced charts that helped make later voyages better informed. He helped create British relations with Russia, and prepared for the maritime fur trade to come.

As is well known, Cook did not make it back to England to reap the praise from his work along our coast. He was killed on a beach in Hawaii.

As a result, he was not able to compile reminiscences late in life, and that, in turn, meant that much of the Cook story was left untold at the time. We have had to rely on scholars to fill in the gaps as best they could.

This book includes a collection of essays from an international and interdisciplinary group of scholars, including two from Victoria: Barry Gough and Richard Inglis. Both are experienced, highly respected researchers and writers, and their presence in this book is an indication of its high calibre.

The essays include ones on Cook's early voyages, on the rising obsession in England about the theoretical Northwest Passage, and the work of other explorers in the North Pacific.

Inglis writes of the view of the indigenous people of Nootka Sound, based on the Cook expedition records. James K. Barnett looks at George Vancouver's work on our coast more than a decade after Cook. And that is just a sampling; Arctic Ambitions is a comprehensive book that will give us a deeper understanding of the region in which we live.

Arctic Ambitions also includes artifacts, charts, and records of the encounters between native peoples and explorers to explain the important of Cook's voyage, and place it in its proper context.

There are almost 200 maps, works of art and photographs which help illustrate the Cook story.

Cook's work had a huge impact on later expeditions, and seems even more relevant today as climate change prompts us to take a more serious look at the potential and the pitfalls to be found in the north.

The timing for this book, which was created to accompany an exhibit of the same name at the Anchorage Museum in Alaska, could not have been better.

The waters of the north are changing rapidly, and there is a need for a new round of exploration and discovery. Before we do that, it's only natural that we take a fresh look at what has already been done.

This book will make it possible for us to do that. The fact that it is a masterpiece, a beautiful book with solid, fresh content, is an added bonus.

This review was published in the Times Colonist on January 3, 2016


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