He Tried Harder

James Cook
James Cook; drawing by David Levine

The qualities that make for success are at times baffling. G. H. Hardy, the great English mathematician, used to delight to point out that high intelligence was the least important quality for success in most human situations. Judgment he regarded as having little to do with intelligence (a view that may have been fortified by his friendship with Bertrand Russell); but even judgment, he thought, was of far less significance than application, a capacity to take risk, and luck. No one can make the most of his talents without constant application, or without taking frequent risks. Of course, Hardy allowed the importance of sheer gift—after all, that was the world he operated in; whatever else they may be, mathematicians, like musicians and painters, are gifted men. Gifted men are rare, but success is not uncommon in any age: And these considerations are peculiarly apt with regard to the fame of Captain Cook.

Cook started with no advantages. The son of a Yorkshire farmer, he had next to no schooling, and began his seafaring life in the coastal trade between Whitby and London. And yet he moved steadily forward by thoroughness, by competence, by taking infinite pains. He loved the tedium of surveying, of chart making, and proved an excellent draftsman. He seized every chance of advancement and went for several years to the wild shores of Newfoundland mapping with infinite care every rocky islet and cove. His management of his crew was as admirable as his maps. It was this gritty, detailed application to cartography that brought him his chance of world fame. He was selected to captain the Endeavour, which the Admiralty was sending to Tahiti to observe the Transit of Venus on June 3, 1769. This was his prime task; his second, to make sweeps into the South Pacific to find if there existed a great southern continent as another navigator, Dalrymple, who had been to Tahiti, believed, although others were skeptical.

Newfoundland had demonstrated that Cook had application. During those years he had made the most of his talents as a surveyor and navigator. To go to Tahiti was to leap at a risk. Disease usually decimated any ship away for years, and rounding Cape Horn was an appalling risk for a sailing ship in the eighteenth century. Also it meant leaving a young wife and family. Cook, however, accepted with alacrity. He was not given to doubt or fear. And then he had his luck in the shape of a rich, handsome, totally obsessed botanist—Joseph Banks, who happily paid for himself and his artists and, even better, persuaded Dr. Solander, Linnaeus’s great pupil, to go with him. Cook made the voyage successful, Banks rendered it famous.

Cook succeeded through method, not daring or imagination. A great deal was known about the Pacific, and Cook was given the best information. More pertinent was the fact that by the…

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