# 39484

COOK, Captain James 1728-1779; [REEVE, Joshua (copyist)]

An early copy of a letter by James Cook to John Walker of Whitby, reporting on Cook’s first voyage.

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Stockton : Joshua Reeve, December 16, 1774. Manuscript, 3½ pages, [2] sheets, foolscap (260 x 230 mm), written in ink in a uniform, copperplate cursive; old folds (now fragile, one expertly repaired), each sheet with a few small perforations (not affecting legibility), some roughening to the edges and scattered spotting; signed at the foot Joshua Reeve scrpt. Stockton, Decemr. 16 1774.

A very early copy of an important, informative letter by James Cook, which contains Cook’s impressions of the indigenous people of New Holland.

The letter is addressed to John Walker of Whitby, Cook’s former master. As an apprentice, Cook had learned all he knew about ships and the sea on Walker’s vessels and in his house in Whitby, and Cook corresponded with Walker throughout his career. The present letter reports on Cook’s exploration of the Pacific during his first voyage in search of the Southern Continent in 1768-71. The copy was made for Walker by Joshua Reeve, of the neighbouring town of Stockton, while Cook was still absent on his second voyage (he was to return in July 1775). Like Walker, Reeve came from a Quaker family that had been connected with shipping for generations. Reeve made the copy within Cook’s own lifetime and scarcely more than three years after Cook’s original, which is dated London September 13th 1771. Cook had arrived back in England from his first voyage in mid-July 1771, meaning that when he set down in writing his commentary and reflections on the voyage for Walker, his impressions of events were barely a two-month old memory, still entirely fresh in his mind. Although it is not clear whether Reeve made this copy of the letter for Walker, or whether Walker allowed Reeve to make a copy of the letter for himself, the latter scenario seems the more likely.

The original letter is held in the Mitchell Library (see Beddie, 2nd edition, no. 628, with Dixson’s manuscript and typescript transcriptions). A complete facsimile, accompanied by a transcription, is published in: Captain Cook in the South Seas. Two Letters written to Captain John Walker (Sydney : The Council of The Library of New South Wales, 1970; William Dixson Foundation, Publication no. 12).

The present copy of this letter made by Reeve is not a verbatim copy. In the course of transcribing the letter, Reeve took it upon himself to make occasional changes to Cook’s wording or style.The original letter also has a few small lacunae running across four consecutive lines (the result of breaking the seal, a commonplace occurrence), but the missing content in these small gaps has been anticipated and supplied by Reeve, who was able to divine the missing letters or words either purely from context, or else because Walker had kept the fragments of paper that had adhered to the seal. Whichever was the case, Reeve’s interpolations are one respect in which his copy differs from the original letter. These lacunae occur towards the end of the letter, at the point where Cook is discussing the natives of New Holland, ‘which I call new South-Wales‘. Cook’s impressions of the indigenous people he encountered were in stark contrast to those formed by Dampier in 1688. Dampier had described the inhabitants of Cape Leveque in northwest Australia as ‘the most miserable people in the world’. The way in which Cook describes the inhabitants of New South Wales can be understood as a deliberate revison of the view of Dampier. Cook’s original letter reads:

These people may truly be said to be in the pure state of Nature, and may appear to some to be the most Wretched upon Earth; but in reality they are far more happier tha… Europeans, being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluo.. bu…. …f the necessary conveniences so much sought after i.. Eu… …ey are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live… Tr… …ity which is not disturb’d by the inequality of conditions th… Ear… …nd Sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life; they covet not Magnificent Houses Household-Stuff &ca: they sleep as sound in a small hovel or even in the open as the King in his Pallace on a Bed of down-‘.

This passage in Reeve’s copy, with Reeve’s interpolations, reads:

These People may be said to be in the pure State of Nature & may appear to some to be the most wretched Creatures on Earth, but in reality they are far more happy than the Europeans being not only unacquainted with the Superfluous, but many of the unnecessary Conveniences, so much sought after in Europe, they live in great Tranquility which is not disturb’d by the inequality of Condition the Earth & Sea of their own Accord furnish them with all Things necessary for Life, they covet not magnificent Houses, Household &c, They sleep as well in a small Hovel or even in the open Air as the King in his Palace, on a bed of Down.’

Crucially, Reeve has corrected Cook’s ‘the necessary conveniences so much sought after in Europe,’ to ‘unnecessary conveniences.’ In the context of Cook’s contemplation of the utopian state of the noble savage, and the view he is expressing of the superfluousness of the trappings of the European lifestyle, Reeve’s correction of the word ‘necessary’ to ‘unnecessary’ makes perfect sense, and it illustrates the value that a contemporary copy of such a letter may have to researchers. It seems that Reeve clearly understood that Cook had intended to write the word ‘unnecessary’. It is also interesting to note that in this passage Cook has borrowed directly from his own journal entry for 23 August 1770, in which he wrote ‘these people may truly be said to be in the pure state of nature, and may appear to some to be the most wretched upon the earth; but in reality they are far happier than … we Europeans‘. Of course, at the time of writing his letter to Walker, Cook’s journal would not have been published in any form.

Another lacuna interpolated by Reeve is located a few lines further on, where Cook writes: ‘… we arrived at Batavia in Octr. All in good helth and high spirits at the arrival…‘ Here, Reeves supplies the phrase ‘in a European Port‘. Again, this demonstrates the importance of the contemporary copyist’s ability to supply, from the context, a convincing reading of Cook’s original wording.

Cook’s views on the mode of existence of the indigenous people of the South Seas reflect Enlightenment ideals, but they would also have struck a strong chord with both John Walker and Joshua Reeve who, as Quakers, conducted their lives in accordance with the tenet of the benevolent treatment of fellow human beings. Conversely, as Walker’s apprentice and lifelong friend, Cook would most certainly have been influenced by the humanist principles of his master. In this highly important and personal letter, then, in which Cook eloquently reveals his impressions of the indigenous people of New Holland, there is in a sense the completion of a circle in the flow of ideas. Although there is no evidence to suggest that Cook was himself a member of the religious Society of Friends, there can be little doubting the extent to which Quaker morality and humanism shaped his own character and determined Cook’s behaviour towards the indigenous peoples whom he encountered.