Books in action

Maybe it’s because I’m a curator, but I do like it when you get a glimpse of how the things we now treasure were really used in the past, and that includes books.

I’ve recently been looking again at the short life of William Gooch, about whom I did a post last year. I’ll be speaking about him at the project’s next event at the Huntington, California, in January, so I’ve been re-reading the letters and journals from his time on the Daedalus. Among the snippets I’ve found are some comments about the published accounts of James Cook’s voyages, of which they clearly had a full set.

One mention comes in Gooch’s journal in December 1791, when the Daedalus was in Rio de Janeiro and he had set up a temporary observatory on an island in the harbour. Throughout their stay, the observatory and ship became sort-of visitor attractions for the residents of Rio. After one visit to the observatory on 9 December (when there was a misunderstanding with a telescope – but that’s another story), Gooch took the group over to the Daedalus . There, ‘after drinking Tea, Mr. Hergest amus’d them with the large Folio-plates belonging to the Quarto Edition of Cooks Voyages’, Gooch tells us. This is the sort of image they would have been looking at:

A View at Anamooka

although I’ve also found a complete set of the quarto edition that was once owned by Jack Lord (Steve McGarrett in Hawaii Five-O).

A more serious use for voyage accounts, as navigational aids, crops up in a letter Gooch wrote home the following April. As the Daedalus arrived in the Marquesas Islands on 22 March, they used Cook’s description to locate a safe harbour. Gooch notes, however, that there was some doubt about what Cook had written:

We went past the Harbour (Port Madre de Dios) we were to anchor in, thinking it look’d too small from the Description in Cooks 1st Voyage; however we found no other, so return’d to this, but that there might be no risque in running in Mr. H[ergest] & I went first in a Boat to sound & examine it & found it to be the right.

In fact, Gooch made a slight mistake in his letter: Cook called at the Marquesas during the second voyage when in command of the Resolution. Cook’s description of Madre de Dios in A voyage towards the South Pole, and round the world (London, 1777) places the north and south points of the bay (which he named Resolution Bay) a mile apart, with the bay itself ‘three-quarters of a mile deep, and … from thirty-four to twelve fathoms’ water, with a clean sandy bottom’. It also has ‘two sandy coves, divided from each other by a rocky point’, although some of the other coves or bays nearby could be mistaken for this, Cook warns. This may be what concerned Gooch and the crew of the Daedalus as they approached in 1792 and made their cautious landing.

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