The 18th Century Instagram Star

How a British explorer paved the way for our celebrity culture

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“Captain James Cook,” by Nathaniel Dance-Holland (1775-76).
“Captain James Cook,” by Nathaniel Dance-Holland (1775-76). Credit: National Maritime Museum

The Pacific Ocean, mirror-smooth in every direction, was scoured by the sailors on the HMS Endeavour. Suddenly, Nicholas Young, a cabin boy, spotted a small protrusion on the horizon. Two days later, on October 8, 1769, Captain James Cook and his crew made landfall. Cook immediately named the site Young Nick’s Head (as in headland, or promontory) after the boy, although he later gave it a different name: Poverty Bay.

The crew disembarked on the beaches of the strange land, which they found to be inhabited. While attempting to make contact with the residents, one sailor, feeling anxious, shot and killed one of them. The captain tried the following day to initiate a meeting with the locals, but the suspicion was mutual: Nine natives were shot, six of them fatally.

New Zealand is currently marking the 250th anniversary of the arrival of the first Brits on its shores – a milestone of British colonialism, which was then encroaching on the South Pacific en route to making the empire the ruler of the high seas. A skilled cartographer and navigator, James Cook was and remains a significant historical figure in the annals of New Zealand, Australia, Great Britain and Canada. Of late, however, his historical role is being revisited. Increasingly, voices are being heard from the populations that were affected by Cook’s discoveries, and about the prices paid by their ancestors.

One example of this reassessment is currently on view at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, in a video projection called “In Pursuit of Venus [Infected],” on through December 14. In the work, Lisa Reihana, a New Zealander of Maori descent, depicts Captain Cook’s arrival on the islands from the viewpoint of the indigenous population. In reaction to her critical approach, others are seeking to defend the honor of the famous Royal Navy captain as a historical and national figure.

Captain James Cook, Sir Joseph Banks, Lord Sandwich, Dr Daniel Solander and Dr John Hawkesworth. By John Hamilton Mortimer, 1771.

A source of inspiration – at least in part – James Cook remains very much alive today in popular culture through such figures as Captain James Hook in “Peter Pan” and Captain James Kirk in “Star Trek.” In general, discourse surrounding his legacy tends to be split into two poles: heroic explorer vs. harbinger of colonialism and imperialism. In fact, the famous captain represents an additional benchmark, which is equally relevant for the 21st century.

The 18th century is etched in the world’s collective memory because of the great figures who punctuated it: philosophers, scientists, writers, artists and explorers. Their common denominator was a new type of fame and glory, then unprecedented in human history.

“In the last decade many historians and commentators have become fascinated by the apparent similarities between the 18th century and our own times,” British historian Stella Tillyard wrote in a frequently quoted 2005 article (in History Today), “Celebrity in 18th-Century London.” “Like so much else that defines us in Europe and America now,” wrote Tillyard, “celebrity appears to have been made in the 18th century and in particular in London, with its dozens of newspapers and print shops, its crowds and coffee-houses, theatres, exhibitions, spectacles, pleasure gardens and teeming pavements.”

Tillyard and other scholars are seeking to remind us that our memory of the celebrities of that bygone era is no accident; it was shaped deliberately, similar to our perceptions of contemporary celebs. Cook gained fame on the backdrop of a significant shift in mass culture, which redefined such concepts as publicity, fame and gossip. His was an era when people became famous in new ways, which were alien to their contemporaries but which now appear quite familiar and understandable.

HMS Endeavour.

In his 2016 online publication “News, Biography and Eighteenth-Century Celebrity,” Brian Cowan, a historian of early modern England, emphasizes that the ostensible shift over the centuries could be a nuance. After all, fame and glory existed earlier – there were people who won public attention during their lifetime even in ancient eras. Nevertheless, the emergence of printed popular culture signaled a substantive change, akin to the transformation that accompanied the advent of the internet and the social networks. When it comes to the 18th century, scholars stop talking about publicity and fame, and start to talk about what we refer to as modern-day celebs.

The key point of departure for understanding the first celebs, among them Captain Cook, lies in the rise of the British Empire. The race to conquer the far reaches of the world made London the beating heart of the globe, and injected capital and goods into the metropolis on a scale that had never been seen before. In short order the imperial wealth trickled down. The gaps between rich and poor were astronomical, but London’s lower classes started to enjoy the fruits of the conquests in the form of consumer goods, such as sugar, heretofore considered elite luxuries. The new consumer culture went hand in hand with new reading habits.

“The 18th-century press generated a commercialized fame market that could make anyone with an interesting story… into a figure of public speculation,” writes Cowan, adding that while gossip is a familiar and time-honored human activity, the printing press changed the rules of the game. Clever public figures were able to exploit the media to enhance their reputations.

The seeds of a mass culture capable of reaching millions of people, together with financial incentives for publication of human-interest stories, created the modern incarnation of celebrity culture. In 1767 alone, according to a study published in “Newspaper, Politics and English Society,” a 1999 book by British historian Hannah Barker, more than 11 million copies of newspapers were sold in London. In 1776, 53 different newspapers were published there, alongside periodicals and other publications. In contrast to famous personalities in the past, those who thrived in the new culture of that era were people whose stories were sold for payment. Tillyard emphasizes that the word “celebrity,” as applied to an individual, first appeared in print only in 1849. However, already in the preceding century it was possible to identify figures who were the subject of coverage in newspapers and books, or who published diaries and autobiographies in order to gain fame and fortune. Cowan adds that one of the traits of celebrity culture, then and now, is a shift in which the masses are empowered to decide who is famous, by means of their choice of what to read: “Celebrity is a form of fame that is more ephemeral than glory and it is characterized by contemporaneity and popularity… It is a form of fame that is very much defined by the present moment.”

The first issue of the Daily Courant, the first daily newspaper to be published in the United Kingdom. 1702.Credit: Edward Mallet

Brave new world

James Cook was not born to be popular. The second of eight children from an undistinguished rural family, he started out serving on merchant ships. He then advanced to an impressive career in the Royal Navy. His cartographic skills in the wars against the French in Quebec gave him the opportunity of his life. In 1768 he was given command of the HMS Endeavour, with the task of mapping the transit of the planet Venus across the sun. Along the way, he was sent to look for new lands in the South Pacific, and so reached the shores of New Zealand and Australia. The mission for which he gained fame was accompanied by precise documentation in his diaries, which served him well in construction of his public persona.

Cook returned to London with his crew in July 1771, and the first book publicizing his story appeared that September. It was a modest, anonymously written pamphlet of 130 pages titled, “A Journal of a voyage round the world in His Majesty’s Ship Endeavour, in the years 1768, 1769, 1770, and 1771; undertaken in pursuit of natural knowledge, at the desire of the Royal Society.”

That was only the first of a series of heroic tales starring Cook and his crew. Although the captain became the focal point of discussions in the scientific community, in the popular culture of that era there was greater interest in the aristocratic botanist Joseph Banks, who accompanied Cook on the voyage and wrote a more commercially successful journal. Banks collected samples of thousands of indigenous species of plants with the aid of an independent team that he had brought along. His journals also contained colorful descriptions of the indigenous residents – their appearance, language and culture – and he fired the popular imagination with exotic images of a brave new world offering a dizzying diversity of life. It was the kind of analysis that 18th-century readers found fascinating, as people do today, and it made Banks’ name more popular than that of Cook.

"The death of Captain James Cook at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii," unknown artist, 1790.Credit: Mr. Sean Linehan

When he set out on his second voyage in 1772, during which he was to map Australia and other islands, Cook was already a genuine celebrity. He had a firm grasp of the effect of publicity on his success and understood that the public was more attracted to a human-interest story than to drawings of precise maps. In April 1774, for example, he wrote about an encounter with natives whom he wished to educate – not only in the rules of etiquette but in economics. “But in this traffic,” he wrote, “they would frequently keep our goods, and make no return, till at last I was obliged to fire a musket-ball over one man who had several times served us in this manner; after which they dealt more fairly.”

Cook’s persona was meanwhile becoming better known among the public, especially in London, and many people were curious about the world he had discovered. However, he would not see the fruits of his third voyage: The attempt to find a northern passage from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic was stymied in Alaska, and forced Cook to return to Hawaii, in 1779. The local residents were not pleased to see him again. When a British rowboat was stolen, it sparked a confrontation between them and Cook. According to testimonies, when he tried to take their leader captive, one of the locals struck him in the back. He was then stabbed to death, together with four of his men. In accordance with the local tradition, his body was disemboweled and his bones were preserved as religious icons.

It’s interesting to follow the way the press portrayed Cook’s persona in the first years after his violent death. Journalists and illustrators provided a first draft of the saga, with tales of a tragic hero who fell victim to savages. Subsequently, magazine writers, authors and various intellectuals turned his story into a narrative of a figure of enlightenment and progress: a scientist who mapped the world and advanced civilization, only to fall at the hands of reactionary forces. All this was grist for the mill of the legend of Captain Cook, but a survey of the changes in the way he was depicted reveals a fledgling mechanism of mass communication that transforms a private individual into a larger-than-life personality. A true celeb, whose death only magnifies him.

An exhibition mounted at Cambridge some years ago, titled “The Death of Captain Cook: Mythmaking in Print,” vividly traced the stages by which his persona was shaped. On display, for example, was the first illustration drawn of his death, published in 1780, immediately after the event became known. Based on a reconstruction of the account of one witness, it shows Cook being dragged to the shore and beaten to death senselessly. There is no indication of that happening in The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, which published an illustrated report in June 1781 titled “‘A succinct account of the life and voyages of Captain James Cook; with an exact representation of the death of that celebrated navigator, communicated by respectable authority, and elegantly engraved on copper.” The lengthy title reflects the period but also the article itself, in which Cook is depicted as the model of a modern scientist who sacrifices his life for the advancement of humankind.

“The Death of Captain Cook, 14 February 1779,” by Johann Zoffany (1794). A true celeb, only magnified in death. Credit: National Maritime Museum

A two-fold change emerged in the narrative: Cook was no longer portrayed as having ordered his men to fire on natives, and the image of the local population of Hawaii gradually morphed from barbaric cannibals to what might be called noble savages. This was not meant to glorify them but to provide tragic validation for an unnecessary and pointless death. In the illustration best known to Cook’s contemporaries, published by A. Hogg in 1784, the scene of the deadly attack itself appears even more heroic, tragic and almost salvationist: The captain is no longer fomenting violence but is being murdered as he tries to stop his errant troops from opening fire on the locals. He sacrifices himself for science, knowledge and even for the sake of the aborigines.

In death as in life, Cook strikingly embodies the advent of a new culture in which the general public and market forces determine what is worth publishing, and sometimes change their minds. Anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere terms this process “the apotheosis of James Cook.” Indeed, at the time of his death, 240 years ago, an entire systematic industry, geared to selling books, already existed and was nourished by the public image of the courageous captain. This phenomenon dovetailed with the process of building the British Empire, which lauded figures like Cook so they would turn the conquest of lands into a positive symbol. The heroic narrative centering on Cook was not affected by his death, but was certainly rewritten ceaselessly, from year to year and from generation to generation. As in the 21st century, death was for him only a beginning, a new stage of celebrity status.

Perhaps Cook had mixed feelings about that status. Thus, for example, he wrote about Australia in August 1770, complimenting the simple culture he had encountered: “The Natives of New-Holland… are far happier than we Europeans… They live in a Tranquillity… [in which] they covet not magnificent houses.”



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