Thursday, June 21, 2018

Review: 'James Cook: The Voyages' & 'Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land' at the British Library, 20th June 2018

On 26th August 1768, Captain James Cook departed Plymouth aboard HMS Endeavour with the stated objective of observing the Transit of Venus from Tahiti (thus helping determine Earth's distance from the sun), together with a more confidential mission to search the south Pacific for Terra Australis Incognita - the mysterious unknown southern continent. By the time he returned in July 1771 he had redrawn the globe, charting the eastern coast of Australia and New Zealand and had had first contact with multiple indigenous peoples.

The British Library's James Cook: The Voyages displays a wealth of documents, sketches, and artefacts from this first voyage and two subsequent ones to Antarctic waters and his doomed quest for the fabled North-West passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic. 

From the British perspective, these were courageous ventures into a savage land, with Cook's scientific explorations a gateway to the commercial expansion of the Empire. For the indigenous peoples, Cook's boot landing on their shores marks the beginning of their racial, economic and cultural subjugation and exploitation under colonial rule, the consequences of which still reverberate today. 

The exhibition leans into this dichotomy, subverting every bit of patriotic swashbuckling with representatives of the cultures explaining how their ancestors dealt with Cook's arrival. Its impossible to conclude whether Cook's voyages were a net good or evil, with perhaps the best summary being a Maori historian who shrugs with resignation: "It happened". 

As you travel through the various rooms you find yourself weighing up the morality of Cook. Even if you walk in armed with the knowledge of the consequences of colonialism, it's easy to feel an exhilarating Boy's Own call to adventure when you look at an unfinished map of the world with 'Parts Unknown' in the distant corners. Similarly, when you get into the nitty-gritty logistics of the expedition - the navigational methods, keeping the crew alive, methods of communicating with distant peoples and the sheer distance travelled - you begin to understand the scale of what these men set out to achieve.

The emotional heart of the exhibition is a series of sketches and drawings created on these voyages - their impact amplified by the fact that most of these artists died before returning home. An obvious highlight is Sydney Parkinson's tentative sketch of a 'kangooroo', in which you sense how important the artist knew it was to get the details right to communicate this surreal animal to audiences back in Britain. 

Then there are the careful profiles of the facial tattoos of Maori warriors. First contact was violent and relations were uneasy, but there's a respect baked into the artist's precise lines - as if they recognised a reflection of their own martial discipline in this alien culture.

Dramatic paintings from the second voyage by William Hodges also thrill, particularly a fantastically widescreen 'Cinerama' view of Polynesian war canoes on display. They look like science fiction apparitions, scenes that wouldn't look out of place in Moebius' L'Incal. Later paintings of the ships dwarfed by icebergs in the Atlantic make the ship look as if it has breached a strange unknown dimension, a little wooden husk of civilisation bobbing between uncontrollable cosmic forces.

It's easy to get swept up in this romance, but the careful layering in of the consequences of Cook's actions means we're never in danger of hagiography. By the time we get to his death at the hands of a Hawaiian tribe he appears to have waged a pointless war on, it feels like a fitting end to his story.

But, functioning almost as an extended epilogue, the neighbouring exhibition Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land continues some of the themes of The Voyages. We get a quick recap of British slavery, emancipation and Empire in the Caribbean, the historical forces that brought HMT Empire Windrush to Britain with 800 Jamaican passengers hoping for work. It was neither the first nor the last of these trips, but for some reason, it is this arrival that has lodged firmly in the British consciousness (and is obviously extremely timely right now).

What's on display closes a historical circle:  Britain ventures out into the world, exploits and commercialises its resources and peoples, builds an Empire on which the sun never sets, and begins a process of transforming people into mirrors of British values. Of course, cultural cross-pollination was also happening, with Britishness changing to accommodate its new  Imperial citizens - beautifully symbolised by the exhibits showing Caribbean culture in Britain.

It's often said we live in the age of identity politics - if that is true then we need to not only understand what our identity is, but the ways in which it has and will continue to evolve. These two exhibitions let us sip at the primordial soup of the modern Britishness: showing not only how we changed the world, but how it changed us. It's a sentiment beautifully summarised in Michel Tuffery's Cookie in the Cook Islands, imagining Captain Cook transformed by his explorations, with Polynesian features and flowers in his hair.

Captain Cook: The Voyages is open until 27 August. Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land is open until October 21st. Details here.

Thanks to Crafted Media for the invitation.

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