Voyages of Delusion: The Search for the Northwest Passage in the Age of Reason 
by Glyn Williams.
HarperCollins, 467 pp., £8.99, March 2003, 0 00 653213 6
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Voyage to Desolation Island 
by Jean-Paul Kauffmann, translated by Patricia Clancy.
Harvill, 177 pp., £14.99, October 2001, 1 86046 926 4
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The great Pacific navigations of the mid-18th century were officially failures. Cook managed to map the missing north-eastern section of the coast of a land he claimed for Britain as New South Wales, and he also produced a complete outline of New Zealand – with surprising accuracy, given that he was entirely dependent on lunar observations. But he didn’t find the Great Southern Continent. This had been his task, set out in the secret instructions for his first and second voyages; the other achievements were incidental. On his third expedition he spent time checking that there wasn’t a continent in the higher latitudes of the Indian Ocean, though his primary job was to locate the Northwest Passage that was supposed to link the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. He couldn’t find that either, but came across Hawaii instead.

Pedro Fernandez de Quiros, the Spaniard who landed in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) in 1605, believed he had found the southern and northern rims of a continent that stretched all the way from the western coast of New Holland (now Australia) to the eastern Pacific, and perhaps beyond. In 1588 Lorenzo Ferrer Maldonado sailed, or said he had sailed, from Davis Strait, north of Hudson Bay, into the fabled Strait of Anian that opened into the Pacific Ocean. These reports were later supported by Willem Schouten and Abel Tasman in the South Seas, and Juan de Fuca and Bartolomeo de Fonte in the Northwest. On these slender foundations, geographers and map-makers built elaborate outlines of coasts that had never been seen, and waterways that no one had visited. The idea of a Great Southern Continent in the temperate latitudes of the Southern hemisphere fed visions of settlement, trade and untold mineral wealth. A Northwest Passage, navigable in summer, encouraged fancies of a much faster route for British ships sailing to China, and of naval vessels being able to exploit rapid and unadvertised access to the Spanish Lake (the Pacific Ocean) in times of crisis. Oddly, the two great trading companies with an interest in these areas, the East India Company and the Hudson Bay Company, showed little interest in exploring them: a sign perhaps that existing trade routes had already determined the shape and, ultimately, the extent of Britain’s Empire, and that even the wildest imaginings of geographers could not make its ventures more profitable.

Still, the dreams persisted. For each one there was a line of patrons, and for each patron a map-maker. The most persistent advocate of the Great Southern Continent, Alexander Dalrymple, was convinced that a land-bridge connected Australia either to New Guinea to the north, or to the paradise de Quiros had named Austrialia del Espiritu Santo to the east. On his first voyage Cook was carrying maps by the French cartographer Didier de Vaugondy that imaginatively laid out both possibilities. By the time of his third voyage, Jacob von Staehlin’s 1773 map of the Northwest coastline, showing Alaska as an island, was supposedly the most accurate chart of the region. The navigators sent to confirm this dangerous cartographical nonsense had harsh things to say about armchair geographers and their fanciful illustrators. Cook accused de Vaugondy of making compilations of rough sketches and marketing them as authoritative, and von Staehlin, he said, had produced ‘a Map that the most illiterate of illiterate Sea-faring men would have been ashamed to put his name to’. In 1793, the year Vancouver completed his definitive survey, William Goldson published a map incorporating Cook’s chart of the Northwest into the draught of an inland sea that covered most of Washington and British Columbia. This ‘mer de l’ouest’ had been dreamed up forty years before by two French cartographers, Philippe Buache and Joseph Nicolas Delisle – Buache had claimed that his map was ‘supported by every kind of proof . . . except the living testimony of mariners who had made the voyage’.

Why enlightened and rational people should have entertained such improbabilities is a question Glyn Williams asks with increasing wonder in his account of the five principal eras of Northwest navigations. He finds no simple answer. Obsession, greed, fame, public spirit, ambition, curiosity, even revenge play parts in the narrative, whose constant theme is the anger directed by sailors at the fools, charlatans and madmen who were putting their lives at risk for the sake of delusions. Sven Waxell, who sailed with Bering, and saw him die of scurvy after they were marooned on a deserted island, spoke for many when he said: ‘My blood still boils whenever I think of the scandalous deception of which we were the victims.’ Navigators at the ends of the earth conventionally enjoyed a reputation for tall stories, but here the roles were reversed. The liars were sitting at the centre of the world, drawing visionary pictures of what its remotest places might look like; the empiricists and truthtellers were the mariners who came home with nothing, if they came home at all. Having lost the Great Southern Continent to Cook’s charts of the Southern Ocean, in the 1790s Dalrymple turned to the Northwest Passage for consolation, and Vancouver had him in his sights when he defended himself and Cook from ‘the enthusiasm of closet philosophy, eager to revenge itself for the refutation of its former fallacious speculations’. Experts, their dreams foiled, were prone to seek revenge. Arthur Dobbs deliberately set out to ruin the career and reputation of Christopher Middleton, who came back from Hudson Bay with news that there was no passage to the west. Dalrymple’s exasperation found an outlet in two public letters he wrote against John Hawkesworth, Cook’s editor; and of Cook himself, he observed: ‘I cannot admit of a Pope in Geography or Navigation.’

Williams takes these passions seriously because in them he detects the source of Cook’s odd behaviour before his death in Hawaii. It was inexplicable to Cook that von Staehlin’s chart could have been published, let alone called ‘a very accurate little Map’. His irritation grew stronger until it began to affect his commitment to the voyage, which he was now pursuing ‘more to satisfy other people than to confirm my own opinion’. All Cook’s voyages had involved a canny adjustment of navigational skill to the demands of the Admiralty and the public, but here the balance seems to have been lost. By the time he reached the Cook Inlet in Alaska, which he thought was a river, he had stopped naming places, and this one was left blank in his journal. ‘A damn’d unhappy part of the World,’ his second-in-command, Charles Clerke, reported, ‘just as destitute as a Country can be.’ To take possession of such a place was a waste of time and energy – ‘an essential loss’, he called it – and to chart it was ‘nothing but a trifling point of geography’. The dishonesty of map-makers, the credulity of men in power and the destitution of the land were robbing him of the pleasure, which he had felt so keenly on the Endeavour, of being the discoverer, ‘even was it nothing more than sands and Shoals’.

Now something akin to despair set in, so that the temptation of being worshipped as a god in Hawaii proved irresistible. His behaviour there, including his participation in the cult of Lono (the god of reproduction), has generally been regarded as responsible for the circumstances in which he met his death at Kealakekua Bay in 1779. The oddity of his actions has been ascribed variously to pellagra, hubris and ignorance. If Williams is right, Cook knew he had reached the end of the line, and that there was nothing left to enjoy but an exotic and fatal pantomime.

It was early in his third voyage that Cook put paid to the French version of the Great Southern Continent, which they called ‘La Terre de Gonneville’ after a navigator who in 1504 had mistaken the coast of Brazil (or Madagascar, according to some authorities) for a continent in the Pacific Ocean. In 1739, another Frenchman, Bouvet de Lozier, believed that an island he came across in the southern Indian Ocean was part of this same continent, and named it Cape Circumcision. In 1771 Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen-Tremarec, a Breton captain in the French Navy, was dispatched to investigate, but returned with equivocal evidence. Thwarted by heavy seas and thick mists, he glimpsed, but would not set foot on (he sent a deputy in his place), a coast that stretched as far as he could see from the north-east to the south. As a potential grande terre, it was named Kerguelen Land and claimed for the King of France. In 1773, Kerguelen was sent back to verify his discovery, and once more risked his men and his ships, but again found himself unwilling to go ashore. On his return to France he was court-martialled and imprisoned for failing to realise an imperial dream. Aware only of Kerguelen’s first visit to the place, Cook established that it was not in fact a continent, but a place so bare and sterile he called it Desolation Island.

The name provides Jean-Paul Kauffmann with the title of the second of his travel books to be translated into English. The first, The Dark Room at Longwood, recorded a visit to St Helena (‘the middle of nowhere’), the scene of Napoleon’s final exile and death. Voyage to Desolation Island is a meditation on the nature of emptiness and its effect on the human spirit. Kauffmann presents Kerguelen and Napoleon as figures trapped in landscapes so empty that nothing could be recognised, improvised or sentimentalised. ‘The walled-up prisoner inoculated himself day after day with the venom of boredom,’ Kauffmann writes of Napoleon, ‘that aching emptiness which searches for meaning but cannot find it.’ In the house at Longwood, every account of his circumstances ends in the same silence. ‘Emptiness, nothingness, nothingness was the only reply to this new king of the world.’ The same applies to Kerguelen and his island, whose treeless ridges convey ‘the impression of emptiness that nothing seems able to fill . . . clouds, water and light here suggest nothing at all.’ No trees, no birds, no vista, ‘there are no paths . . . no tracks made by feet . . . nothing is signposted.’ Even the insects have no wings. The wind on Kerguelen Island is the physical manifestation of the force of nothing, drowning articulate sounds in an indistinct roar.

Aware that stories of boredom can themselves be boring, Kauffmann uses a variety of devices to give his books shape. Both begin with the suggestion of a mystery to be disclosed. ‘This house holds a secret,’ he promises as he walks through the reconstructed rooms of Longwood, like a latter-day Catherine Morland. On Kerguelen, Kauffmann was ‘aware that a secret buried deep within a man’s life had been passed on to the land he had discovered’. But he finds it difficult to sustain the difference between a mystery and a muddle, and renounces the game of hide and seek in favour of an account of boredom as an existential test of character: ‘Whoever can fill the emptiness of his being, when there is nothing more to occupy it, will survive.’ Napoleon’s encounter with nothingness is understood to begin at the battle of Eylau, where he had his first intuition of mortal blankness, commemorated in the rolling of his eyes in Baron Gros’s picture The Battle of Eylau. As for Kerguelen, he found the offensive clutter of the island he had discovered – its rocks, bogs and watercourses, all surmounted by the hideous mockery of its greenery – so repulsive that he could not bear to set foot on it and sent his lieutenants Boisguehenneuc and de Rochegude in his place. Similarly, when he published his Relation de deux voyages dans les mers Australes et des Indes in 1782, he borrowed the account of an eyewitness on the Resolution (‘la relation de ce navigateur Anglois’) instead of using his own words.

Kerguelen, who had disobeyed orders by sailing into unknown seas with his mistress Louise Seguin (an erotic consolation suggested by Philibert Commerson, who had himself joined Bougainville’s round the world expedition with a young woman dressed as a man) and whose evasive treatment of his own discovery appears to be symptomatic of inner conflict, is the bolder and more desperate of Kauffmann’s two heroes. ‘He had to face up alone to the disappointment of discovery, the fraud of France in the southern seas. Desolation had always belonged to him.’ Kerguelen coloured the bleakness with romance not so as to assuage his pain but, as Montaigne would say, to taste it more distinctly. In this respect he has something in common with Kauffmann, who spent three years as a hostage in Beirut during the 1980s. If there is any ‘secret’ to Kerguelen’s voyage it lies, so far as Kauffmann is concerned, in this resemblance, and in the talent both seem to have shared for sharpening the edge of a terrified boredom until it yielded its own fantastic delights. He calls this ‘permeation’, the capacity to bleed absence until it is renewed as excess: ‘With almost nothing one can invent almost everything,’ he says. ‘When you have lost everything you can create abundance in your mind.’

Kauffmann makes these remarks on introducing the Robinson Crusoe of Kerguelen Island, John Nunn, a whaler who spent two years there as a castaway and related his experiences in The Narrative of the Wreck of the ‘Favourite’ on the Island of Desolation (1850). Like Crusoe, Alexander Selkirk and Prospero, Nunn’s initial difficulties make way for delights he could enjoy nowhere else. A copy of Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, saved from the wreck, instructs him in the consolations of Schadenfreude – he contemplates ‘the distresses by which many of the human race are overwhelmed’. And throughout the tale he takes an uncomplicated pleasure in the life around him, particularly the activity of birds, which he describes with great zest and exactness. He doesn’t run out of ink, unlike Robinson Crusoe, because he makes do with the gall of seabirds; nor does he lose his tongue, like Selkirk, who could only manage to speak half a word at a time by the end of his stay, for he sends messages to sea sealed in king penguin eggshells; nor does he have to renounce magic, like Prospero, for his reliance on airy messengers is altogether more material – he plans writing messages on shingles and fixing them to the backs of albatrosses. Kauffmann tries to present Nunn as a limit case of permeation, from whom all protections have been removed, and for whom the imagination is a last resource.

By carrying himself off to a place where the traces of a past heroic agony resonate with desolate moments in his own life, Kauffmann adds to a genre of sentimental revisiting that began in the 18th century, and has recently enjoyed some popularity, not only in the work of writers such as Jonathan Raban and W.G. Sebald, but also in historical re-enactments such as Channel 4’s 1900 House and 1940s House, which have exposed their participants to the rigours of a previous age. BBC2 responded with The Trench, whose volunteers were subjected to simulated barrages, mud and faked deaths in order to reproduce the misery and terror of the Western Front. No one expects the people who enter these factitious scenes of military stress then to be able to tell the world coolly, in the manner of John Keegan, how the Battle of the Somme was on the day. They are, instead, fit only to report with varying degrees of agitation their ignorance of purposes and explanations. Like Kauffmann they are stranded between the real and the unreal, the past and the present, no longer quite in charge of their own identity, dazzled by the unrelatedness of each succeeding event. It is this bemusement that wins viewers, and in some sense it replays the conflict between fretful sailors and imbecile experts that shaped the stories of the Pacific navigations.

A re-enactment of the later part of Cook’s first voyage shown last year on BBC2, The Ship was an experiment in sentimental history not unlike Kauffmann’s, intended to generate a fraught intimacy between the hero, his imitators and the audience. As a participant so-called expert on the Endeavour’s voyage from Cairns to Bali, I can say something about how that intimacy was created, and to some extent how it worked. There was no bad weather: every day was serene, and the monsoon never blew above 15 knots. But eating what you could of salt beef and pork (with bristles still attached), vegetables that tasted of soap, and ship’s biscuit that broke teeth, washed down with a single hot drink a day and nothing but water on the midnight watches, left most of us obsessed with dreams of food, and some of wine and beer. Every day was the same, starting with the drench of sea-water and the unslinging of hammocks, then the porridge like flour-paste, followed by cleaning lower decks with four feet of headroom, eating hot at midday the soapy salt sludge that we would eat cold at night. Every now and then, the tedium would be interrupted by an order to set or furl a sail, requiring us to climb the ratlines and negotiate the hideous backward angle of the futtock-shrouds, our hearts in our mouths and all the weight of our bodies hanging by slipping fingers from a greasy stanchion. Then there was the yard, on which, feet supported by the merest bight of rope, gaskets had to be loosed or tied two-handed with the sail billowing in our faces, and nothing but our hips keeping us from ruin.

The culture produced by this alternation between boredom and terror seemed to me unique, though it has surely always existed. There was a lot of nostalgia, nursed by popular music and reined in by ritual grumbling. There was ribaldry, ferocious but unprurient, whose purpose was to render sex unimportant. Certainly any liaison that went beyond verbal intimacy was punished by ingenious methods of shaming. The world of the ship was quickly defined, and self-contained. It took us only a day or two to set aside news of 11 September, much as Cook’s crew set aside news of riots in London and a looming war with America when they reached Batavia.

In a journal entry recorded after he lost a third of his crew to dysentery in Batavia, Cook sets out the difficulty of producing a credible narrative of discovery which will satisfy the world at large. He anticipates that the suffering of the Endeavour’s crew will be exaggerated in the newspapers, with fanciful and damaging additions:

For such are the disposission of men in general in these Voyages that they are seldom content with the hardships and dangers which will naturally occur, but they must add others which hardly had existence but in their imaginations, by magnifying the most trifling accidents and Circumstances to the greatest hardships, and unsurmountable dangers . . . as if real ones did not happen often enough to give the mind sufficient anxiety.

It is not clear, from this passage, whether Cook thinks journalists or mariners themselves the more to blame for the impossibility of establishing in the public mind any useful difference between imagined hardships and real ones. Either way, the voyager’s experience cannot be told in a faithful manner; all that can be defended is a dim sense of the importance of the difference between truth and fiction. And in his attempt to produce a ‘true’ record of the encounter with nothing, the explorer must find a rhetoric that will enable him to fill the emptiness. In his journal of the navigation of Desolation Island Cook began by reporting views ‘barren and desolate in the highest degree’, and went on to describe others ‘if possible more barren . . . full as naked and barren as any we had seen’ where ‘nothing but sterility was to be seen.’ Like Samuel Johnson in the Highlands, he was disturbed by the lack of trees: ‘Not a single tree or shrub, nor the least sign of any, was to be discovered.’ Even driftwood was missing: ‘throughout the whole extent of the harbour, I found not a single piece.’ Here Cook gets a taste of the nullity that obliterates his pleasure and his sense of purpose in the Northwest. Yet he is aware that (experts and their maps aside) it is only by investing these great hardships with some sort of narrative intensity that he will win any public attention or sympathy. What the reader wants (like the viewer of The Ship) is evidence of agitation.

Two of the best-known published accounts of the Terra Australis Incognita in the first quarter of the 18th century are those of William Dampier and Lemuel Gulliver. Dampier recites a litany of missing things: ‘There were no Trees, Shrubs, or Grass to be seen . . . I saw there was no Harbour here . . . a place where there was no shelter . . . we searched for Water, but could find none, nor any Houses, nor People, for they were all gone.’ Gulliver’s imagination, on the other hand, riots in the absence of the familiar items and recognisable institutions: ‘Here were no gibers, censurers, backbiters, pick-pockets, highwaymen, housebreakers, attorneys . . . murderers, robbers, virtuosos, no leaders or followers of party and faction… No dungeon, axes, gibbets, whipping-posts, or pillories. No cheating shopkeepers or mechanics. No pride, vanity, or affectation.’ The difference between want as it is and want as it might be, like the difference between Cook’s real and imagined hardships, is determined by the degree to which barrenness can become full, in the way that Prospero’s empty island yields him a ‘full poor cell’. But how to convey this replenishment to other people? For in filling emptiness with the specifically absent, the explorer begins to erode the difference between history and fiction. Each addition to the first bare statement is imagined.

The incommunicability of the explorer’s experience of nothing manifests itself, too, in the disintegration of language. Selkirk’s half-words, for example, are heard again on Kerguelen, where those serving at the French military base have a habit of shortening words: manip, disker, appro. The island’s gravestones have lost most of their inscriptions, the signposts point to nothing, and the pages of library books are stuck together. Kauffmann remembers that Kerguelen’s handwriting decayed during his three years’ imprisonment in the Château de Saumur, and he himself becomes so used to the voice of the wind, die Kerguelenhummel, that the words of an expert speaking on the radio, ‘well-ordered and fragile’, strike him as hollow and empty. In the same spirit, Robinson Crusoe gave up writing entries in his journal, and turned instead to ‘the secret Converse of Spirits’ and the voices in his own head.

Kauffmann sees the historical entangling of Kerguelen’s and Cook’s accounts of their voyages as a consequence of unscrupulous editing by John Douglas, who edited Cook’s record of his third voyage and ironically granted the Frenchman first discovery of the empty island: ‘I would not rob Monsieur de Kerguelen of the honour of its bearing his name.’ He passes over Kerguelen’s quotations from the ‘navigateur Anglois’, whom he seems to identify as an unreliable composite of Douglas and Cook, despite the difficulty that Cook’s record of his third voyage was published two years after Kerguelen’s Relation de deux voyages. In fact, Kerguelen was quoting from a French translation of John Rickman’s surreptitious publication of 1781, Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage, hoping to establish that the grande terre was only an island, and that it should bear his – Kerguelen’s – name: in Rickman’s version, Cook finds a ‘bottle with a letter inclosed, importing, that in January 1772, this island was discovered by M. de Kerguelen’. But the letter in the bottle made no mention of Kerguelen. Nor was it the original claim to the island planted by Boisguehenneuc at Sealion Bay, but rather the subsequent one left by de Rochegude at Christmas Harbour, as the so-called unscrupulous Douglas carefully points out in a note. But it remains a mystery why Kerguelen diminished the size and credit of his own discovery by citing an account he knew to be mistaken. Perhaps he was in a mood akin to Cook’s as he stripped for his installation at Lono. There appears to be no end to these confusions, and Kauffmann ends his book rather primly with a bibliography. If the shimmer of pretence, repetition and cross-quotation between voyager and voyager, journal and journal, served a purpose, perhaps it was to defend any single testimony from a decisive confrontation with public opinion, where it might be exposed as a lie or as an aggressive and self-justifying demonstration of ignorance. Kauffmann’s hostility to experts and meddling scholars shares something of that aggression with which Cook and Kerguelen faced a hostile world.

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