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Eighteenth-Century Life 30.2 (2006) 98-115
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Cook and the Question of Naval History
Four of these five books cover a narrow span, from 1768, when James Cook set off on his first voyage into the Pacific, until 1792, when Governor Arthur Phillip returned to England after founding a penal colony in Australia. The fifth begins with the execution of Charles I and ends with the Battle of Waterloo, but it is concerned with the politics and practicalities of British-fleet funding, manning, supplying, and fighting during the transition from Britain's [End Page 98] first empire to its second. So it embraces the exploration of the Pacific and the establishment of a convict settlement at Port Jackson (formerly "New Holland") in what Cook called "far distant parts." Yet Cook's accomplishments and the penal colony were really minor acts amidst much larger strategic operations linking subsidized continental warfare with blue-water naval policy. Compared with the remarkable achievements and notable disasters in European, North American, West Indian, and South Asian theaters in these years, the search for Pacific geographical entities that did not exist, namely the Northwest Passage and the Great Southern Continent, was a speculative sideshow. The convict settlement itself was based on highly fanciful estimates of the fertility of the soil in Botany Bay, made by Sir Joseph Banks and endorsed by Cook, that led to starvation and the near collapse of the infant colony.
Yet even these remote navigations and improbable penological experiments could not have been conceived without a navy whose vast resources could spare materials and skills for enterprises with no immediate economic or military advantage. That is why Cook's voyages are often assigned to the category of disinterested Enlightenment inquiry rather than aggressive imperialism, and it is true that the Royal Society took a leading part in planning them and in processing the results. However, the copresence of Spanish and French expeditions in the Pacific during this period suggests that it was not only in Britain that curiosity was whetted; rather, the prospect of a shortened trade route to China, and of a continent situated in the temperate zone of the South Pacific, exerted a strong appeal upon the imaginations of all the maritime powers. If such a passage or such a landmass had been found, it is likely that the wars of this era would have become global. As it was, the question arising from the eventual British predominance in the eastern and northern Pacific, to which Cook and his epigones such as Vancouver and Flinders so largely contributed, requires some sort of answer. Why was it that Australia, followed by New Zealand and a host of island nations, fell under British influence, along with the western seaboard of Canada?
N. A. M. Rodger's explanation involves naval debt. The British navy was extremely expensive to maintain and had always owed such quantities of money that its credit was shaky, and the interest it paid on its loans correspondingly heavy. The immediate reason for Charles I's loss of his crown and his head was ship money, a tax he tried to levy for the improvement of the fleet without consulting Parliament. Although no monarch ever afterwards assumed such a prerogative, Rodger shows that throughout the...