James Cook Revisited

I don’t know if this happens to you, but sometimes I will run across, say, one bright red pleasure boat speeding down the inlet, a fairly novel occurrence (as most pleasure craft seem to be white or blue), and then in the space of the next week or so, I will spy four more red boats in rapid succession. I always used to notice this with cars, auto geek that I am: the moment I bought a Triumph TR-6, I started seeing them everywhere. I haven’t owned a TR-6 in a dozen years or more, but I have no doubt whatsoever that if I were to buy one this afternoon, I would see another one before the day was out.

It doesn’t even have to be something that I know anything about. If I contract malaria, for example (admittedly a pretty unlikely scenario in Prince Edward Island), shortly thereafter I will be sure to happen upon articles about malaria, meet people who have had recurring bouts of malaria, read news stories about an outbreak of malaria in East Timor. And then there will be some tangentially related occurrence, like my Mosquito Magnet goes on the fritz. It is truly bizarre.

My latest example is James Cook. You probably have some vague memory of Cook from high school history, something about how he got killed (and perhaps eaten) by angry Hawaiians? I had ensconced him comfortably in a closet of my brain with other high school lore (the Pythagorean theorem, the Crimean War, frog dissection and the Periodic Table), only to be dragged out while watching Jeopardy or playing Trivial Pursuit. I can say with some confidence that I had not thought of him in years. And then I ran into James Cook three times in the space of a week. Go figure.

The first time was in Newfoundland, where I went on holiday earlier this month. James Cook was (and in some form or fashion, still is) all over Newfoundland. He mapped the entire coast, and spent some five years in that then-inhospitable outpost of the Empire. In the heights above Corner Brook, NL, stands a statue dedicated to the intrepid explorer, overlooking the vast harbor, a harbor that rivals those of San Francisco or Sydney, Australia.

After I got home, I began to attend to a couple of projects that I had postponed repeatedly, one of which was a purge of the bedroom bookshelves. Lo and behold, among my stepfather’s books was a volume on the voyage of the Endeavour, Cook’s first foray into the South Pacific. I haven’t finished it, as it is on the dry side, but I am working a chapter a day into my reading schedule, usually just before bed, as it has a remarkable soporific effect.

Encounter 3:  This week, I am finishing up books for the October Whodunit column for BookPage, and one of the books I will be reviewing is Louise Penny’s brilliant Bury Your Dead. And who should turn up in there but our old friend Captain James Cook, who participated in the 18th century siege of Quebec City, the setting for Penny’s book. It turns out that Cook’s mapping of the St. Lawrence River was instrumental in the victory of the English, allowing General Wolfe to launch his stealth attack on the Plains of Abraham (a battle well known to every school child in Canada, although perhaps less so in the US). Had the English lost that battle, French would be much more widely spoken across North America, of that there can be little doubt.

So where will James Cook turn up next in my life, I wonder? I half expect any day now to see a jaundiced, malarial Captain Cook motoring down the bay in front of my house, standing erect in the prow of a bright red pleasure boat, or perhaps piloting a cantankerous TR-6 down my driveway. Should that happen, it will definitely make it into this blog…

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