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Reviewed by:
  • The Captain Cook Encyclopaedia
  • Brian Richardson
The Captain Cook Encyclopaedia, written and edited by John Robson. London: Chatham Publishing, 2004. ISBN 1-86176-225-9; 288 pages, figures, maps, appendixes, bibliography, index. US$49.95.

The Captain Cook Encyclopaedia, edited and largely written by John Robson, is an attractive, well-illustrated guide to the life and voyages ofCaptain James Cook. The book isalso connected to a Web site that offers some additional, but currently limited, information and links: <> (note the English spelling). It is written for a general readership and would be accessible to readers who have little knowledge of Cook's voyages.

Up until the publication of this encyclopedia, the best reference source on Cook was the index in J C Beaglehole's monumental Life of Captain Cook (1974). The biography still has a greater number of entries and sometimes a more comprehensive discussion, but the encyclopedia is better organized as a reference work and has some more up-to-date entries, such as a half-page discussion of "Endeavour replica," a half-page discussion of the "Captain Cook Society (CCS)," and other entries that talk about portraits, stained glass, and stamps. While Beaglehole focuses on Cook's biography, the encyclopedia also considers Cook as a historical and cultural icon, which is often more interesting than the details of the voyages themselves.

The appendixes to the encyclopedia are also very useful. In addition to lists of books and logs, there is an appendix that lists relevant libraries, archives, and museums, giving their addresses and Web sites; a list of the crew, with some biographical information; and a gazetteer of places named after Cook and his crew (although this does not include things such as streets).

The trivia embedded in the encyclopedia makes Cook, his voyages, and his subsequent mythological presence fascinating.

Evaluating an encyclopedia, however, is different from evaluating a regular book. Most books make arguments or narrate events, but an encyclopedia is supposed to offer a sense of an entire subject. With an encyclopedia, it is not the coherence of the narrative or the argument that matters. [End Page 197] What are important, instead, are the comprehensiveness, the arrangement, and the depth of the topics discussed. Thus, while it is often unfair to criticize a book for failing tomention a specific topic, unless the topic actually fits into the book's discussion, to leave an important topic out of an encyclopedia is a serious shortcoming.

This encyclopedia does not offer a comprehensive guide to the different places that Cook visited during the voyages or a workable system for handling the variations of names and spellings. There is an entry for "Easter Island/Rapa Nui," but none for islands such as Atiu, Tubuai, or Thule. Atiu and Tubuai are mentioned in longer articles that summarize an entire voyage, and they can be found listed in the index, but in a comprehensive encyclopedia, all of the places in Cook's voyages should have entries, however insignificant they might be to the voyages. Some entries for places are also inconsistent. Why, for instance, is there an entry for "Hawaiian Islands and Hawaiians" but separate entries for "Tahiti" and "Tahitians"?

The entries for place-names are typically organized by their modern names and spellings, which has its benefits, but also hinders anyone using the encyclopedia while actually reading Cook's voyages. There should have been a cross-reference in the text from variant names and spellings to the one used as the main entry. An obvious example is the lack of a path for readers to move from Otaheite to Tahiti, a connection that might be obvious to many readers, but still should not have been assumed.

While places and place-names should have been handled in a more comprehensive and consistent way, the encyclopedia is very good at providing biographical information on people connected to Cook's life and voyages. There are entries for people such as William Anderson, John Webber, and Sir Edward Hawke, who was the First Lord of the Admiralty when Cook's first voyage was planned and implemented. Some of these biographical entries provide useful and interesting information about people who...