"Give Me a Ship to the Pacific": American Voyages of Exploration in the Wake of Captain Cook, 1780–1830

Thursday, January 5, 2012: 3:00 PM
Belmont Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Katherine Hermes, Central Connecticut State University
According to Thomas Hazard Roe, a captain who sailed to Hawai’i in the 1830s, the south Pacific island was “part of the world I have wished to see from my childhood,” and as he pondered the reasons for his interest, he realized it was “perhaps reading Cook’s voyages & journals the first book of a kind a child reads.”  Captain Cook was a sailor, explorer, and legend. Part of his fame lay in the fact that he was first a seaman surrounded by other sailors. Narratives by and about the Pacific explorers spurred American interest in Captain Cook’s voyages.

Enthusiasm was widespread among sailors, the general public, great intellectuals and scientists of the day, and the merchants who saw the opportunities to exploit his discoveries. Bookstores regularly announced the publication of new accounts of Cook’s voyages. The opportunity to learn about new people and places, scientific experiments, and harrowing adventures resulted in the immense popularity of the publications. In addition, there existed a private discussion among enlightened minds. Men like Benjamin Franklin kept up a lively correspondence about Cook, and despite the American Revolution, England’s Royal Society saw no conflict in keeping ties with Franklin. It is easy to imagine Franklin’s interest in Cook’s observations of the Transit of Venus, or Jefferson’s musings on the peoples of the Pacific, yet there were men who saw another side to Cook’s explorations. Trade was foremost in the minds of many people, and Cook’s journeys provided new venues for what was even then a global economy. As Atlantic historian Joyce Chaplin has noted, Americans were neither the equals of the British in empire or in the advancement of science. Americans were determined to become the equals of British citizens, and that meant a complete embracing of the Enlightenment in commerce, culture and science.

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