CHAPTER VII. Character of Captain Cook. - Effects of his Voyages. - Testimonies of Applause. - Commemorations of his Services - Regard paid to his Family. - Conclusion.
From the relation that has been given of Captain Cook's course of life, and of the important events in which he was engaged, my readers cannot be strangers to his general character. This, therefore, might be left to be collected from his actions, which are the best exhibitions of the great qualities of his mind. But, perhaps, were I not to endeavour to afford a summary view of him in these respects, I might be thought to fail in that duty which I owe to the public on the present occasion.
It cannot, I think, be denied, that genius belonged to Captain Cook in an eminent degree. By genius, I do not here understand imagination merely, or that power of culling the flowers of fancy which poetry, delights in; but an inventive mind; a mind full of resources; and, which, by its own native vigour, can suggest noble objects of pursuit and the most effectual methods of attaining them. This faculty was possessed by our navigator in its full energy, as is evident from the uncommon sagacity and penetration which be discovered in a vast variety of critical and difficult situations.
To genius Captain Cook added application, without which nothing very valuable or permanent can be accomplished, even by the brightest capacity. For an unremitting attention to whatever related to his profession, he was distinguished in early life. In every affair that was undertaken by him, his assiduity was without interruption, and without abatement. Whereever he came, he suffered nothing, which was fit for a seaman to know or to practise, to pass unnoticed, or to escape his diligence.
The genius and application of Captain Cook were followed by a large extent of knowledge; a knowledge which, besides a consummate acquaintance with navigation, comprehended a number of other sciences. In this respect the ardour of his mind rose above the disadvantages of a very confined education. His progress in the different branches of the mathematics, and particularly in astronomy, became so eminent, that, at length, he was able to take the lead in making the necessary observations of this kind, in the course of his voyages. He attained likewise to such a degree of proficiency in general learning, and the art of composition, as to be able to express himself with a manly clearness and propriety, and to become respectable as the narrator, as well as the performer, of great actions.
Another thing, strikingly conspicuous in Captain Cook, was the perseverance with which he pursued the noble objects to which his life was devoted. This, indeed, was a most distinguished feature in his character: in this he scarcely ever had an equal, and never a superior. Nothing could divert him from the points he aimed at; and he persisted in the prosecution of them, through difficulties and obstructions, which would have deterred minds of very considerable strength and firmness.
What enabled him to persevere in all his mighty undertakings was the invincible fortitude of his spirits. Of this, instances without number occur in the accounts of his expeditions; two of which I shall take the liberty of retailing to the attention of my readers. The first is, the undaunted magnanimity with which he prosecuted his discoveries along the whole southeast coast of New Holland. Surrounded as he was with the greatest possible dangers, arising from the perpetual succession of rocks, shoals, and breakers, and having a ship that was almost shaken to pieces by repeated perils, his vigorous mind had a regard to nothing but what he thought was required of him by his duty to the public. It will not be easy to find, in the history of navigation, a parallel example of courageous exertion. The other circumstance I would refer to, is the boldness with which, in his second voyage after he left the Cape of Good Hope, he pushed forward into unknown seas, and penetrated through innumerable mountains and islands of ice, in the search of a southern continent. It was like launching into chaos: all was obscurity, all was darkness before him; and no event can be compared with it, excepting the sailing of Magelhaens, from the straits which bear his name into the Pacific Ocean.
The fortitude of Captain Cook, being founded upon reason, and not upon instinct, was not an impetuous valour, but accompanied with complete self-possession. He was master of himself on every trying occasion, and seemed to be the more calm and collected, the greater was the exigence of the case. In the most perilous situations, when our commander had given the proper directions concerning what was to be done while he went to rest, he could sleep, during the hours he had allotted to himself, with perfect composure and soundness. Nothing could be a surer indication of an elevated mind; of a mind that was entirely satisfied with itself, and the measures it had taken.
To all these great qualities Captain Cook added the most amiable virtues. That it was impossible for any one to excel him in humanity, is apparent from his treatment of his men through all his voyages, and from his behaviour to the natives of the countries which were discovered by him. The health, the convenience, and, as far as it could be admitted, the enjoyment of the seamen, were the constant objects of his attention; and he was anxiously solicitous to ameliorate the condition of the inhabitants of the several islands and places which he visited. With regard to their thieveries, he candidly apologized for, and overlooked many offences which others would have sharply punished; and when he was laid under an indispensable necessity of proceeding to any acts of severity, he never exerted them without feeling much reluctance and concern.