Captain James Cook’s three voyages of discovery to the Pacific culminated in his death on 14 February 1779 in Hawaii. Very shortly after the news reached Europe, his death gripped the imagination of writers, poets and artists who saw in the account of the voyage, and in Cook’s tremendous achievements, the values of the Enlightenment. Representing the scene posed a problem for many: how could Rousseauian ‘noble savages’ who lived in what was believed to be the new Arcadia, have killed the greatest hero of the Enlightenment? No eyewitness accounts of Cook’s death were recorded, leading to the production of images that not only sought to document, but also to write history. This exhibition will present a variety of images tracing the evolution of the representation of the death of Cook in printed books. Whilst playing a central role in the mythologizing of Cook’s death, these images also bear witness to the extent to which his discoveries of distant lands and cultures became appropriated into the visual language of European popular culture at the turn of the nineteenth century.
The exhibition will take place in the entrance hall of the Cambridge University Library from 23 June to 19 July 2014.