BOOK REVIEW / Cook's fatal overdose of overblown fish: 'Captain James Cook' - Richard Hough: Hodder & Stoughton, 20 pounds

Ian Thomson
Wednesday 19 October 1994 23:02 BST

WHAT is the connection (albeit tenuous) between Captain Cook, James Bond and Haiti? Answer: tetrodotoxin. One of the most potent neurotoxins known, TTX is prized by Haitian witch doctors for inducing catalepsy. It is found in the liver and gonads of puffer fish, and was used by Ian Fleming in an unsuccessful attempt to stupefy 007 in From Russia With Love. And it almost killed Captain James Cook.

In his own book Second Voyage of Discovery Towards the South Pole and Round the World, the English navigator relates how in 1774 he ate puffer fish liver for supper near the Polynesian Islands. The next morning he was seized by a numbness of the limbs. 'I had almost lost the sense of feeling. Nor could I distinguish between light and heavy bodies . . . a quart pot full of water and a feather being the same in my hand.' When a group of islanders saw what he had eaten, they indicated that it caused a life- in-death nausea. Cook was revived by an emetic, but a pig on board ship which snuffled the entrails died.

Captain James Cook is a diligent biography, though there is no mention of this dramatic scrape with TTX. Cook ate all manner of disgusting foods throughout his three voyages, including walrus meat (which one of his crew likened to 'train oil').

During his Pacific explorations, Cook also sampled blowfish, globefish, balloonfish, swellfish and porcupine fish, all of which contain the TTX nerve agent. On his last, and fatal, voyage of 1776-79 Cook ordered Polynesians to be flogged and their ears cut off. This behaviour was so out of character that Hough suggests 'a change in the organic structure' of Cook's brain.

Cook's cruel reprisals for thieving (he burnt Tahitian property after some goats went missing) resulted from his failure to understand non-Christian morals, and it eventually cost him his life. Spreadeagled on the earth like some tropical crucifixion, he was hacked to pieces by Hawaiian tribesmen after a small misunderstanding over a stolen boat. The shocking glamour of Cook's death tends to overshadow his achievements.

Cook, who was born to a Yorkshire farming family, circumnavigated New Zealand and charted parts of Australia; sailed round Antarctica and discovered several Pacific islands; and also helped to identify a new world of plants, birds and animals. Before his death at the age of 50 he straddled the scientific curiosity of the 18th century and the new industrial age.

Hough gives a glowing account of the botanical specimens that Cook brought back to London's Royal Society. One brightly coloured tropical creeper was later named after the French explorer Louis Bougainville. Cook's scientific team was led by the wealthy patron and amateur botanist Joseph Banks, whom Hough refers to as 'the Malvolio of the Endeavour, the big-headed botanist'.

Yet it was through Banks that the breadfruit was transferred from Tahiti to the West Indies, the mango from Bengal, and many fruits from Ceylon and Persia.

At least Captain Cook never ate albatross (unlike Banks, who stewed them).

Hough presents Cook as a sober, quietly authoritarian man of natural dignity. His wife, Elizabeth, who survived him by 56 years, held parties every Thursday at three o'clock throughout the Battle of Waterloo, the French Revolution and the American War of Independence.

This sympathetic biography is occasionally marred by fusty descriptions ('The sea was as calm as the proverbial millpond'). However, Captain James Cook does handsome justice to the navigator - even without the tetrodotoxin.

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