THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Living Knowledge blog

27 July 2018

An explorer on what James Cook: The Voyages means to her


Cécile Manet has worked as an expedition guide for PONANT for many years, specialising in expedition cruises sailing to both the polar and tropical regions.

In contrast to James Cook, who started his voyages with the South Pacific and Tahiti, Cécile visited the poles first before sailing the South Pacific. She spoke to us about what Cook’s voyages – and the current British Library exhibition – mean to her as an explorer.

Where does your interest in exploration spring from?

Cécile Manet, expedition guide for PONANT   PONANT cruise ship
Cécile Manet, expedition guide for PONANT

I have a passion for history and more specifically the history of explorations, the stories of the first navigators who circumnavigated the globe, the ones who completed the first landings in Antarctica, the ones who tried (and sadly failed) to reach the North Pole, the incredible story of the North West Passage…

There must have been so much excitement and pride in these explorations. A lot of fear probably too, but people like James Cook were cut out for the job. I feel privileged to be able to tell our passengers how much he has done and to show them the places and seas he’s seen and sailed.

Which item in the James Cook: The Voyages exhibition did you find most memorable and why?

Engraving by J K Sherwin, after William Hodges, The Landing at Tanna
Engraving by J K Sherwin, after William Hodges, The Landing at Tanna

The engraving of William Hodges’s ‘Landing at Tanna’. It is a famous representation which perfectly captures the often-double-edged nature of first contact between explorers and inhabitants. While Cook is shown in the foreground trying to land peacefully with a green branch in his hand, in the background the ship’s cannons can be seen firing over the heads of the people on the beach. But it is also an incredibly detailed piece of work which says a lot about the talent of the artists Cook had with him to record every single aspect of his explorations.

Notwithstanding the harsh reality of the engraving, the first thing that jumped at me when I saw the artwork in the Cook exhibition is its name ‘Landing at Tanna’. It is quite an iconic name for me as it is, I believe, the exact name we gave to this excursion on the cruise programme.

What I find incredible too is that looking at the engraving I actually recognised that beach and the volcano in the background, almost before I saw it confirmed by the text in the caption. That volcano is an absolute wonder. Mount Yasur is an active volcano, and probably one of the most accessible of all. It not only displays fumes but also flying lava and debris.

Mount Yasur at Tanna, photograph by Fred Michel
Mount Yasur at Tanna, photograph by Fred Michel

The inhabitants of Tanna always welcome us warmly and offer to take us to look at the volcano – it is incredible: we can hear it way before we reach it and the idea is to get there at twilight to see the action at its best. Tanna never leaves anyone unmoved.

Did you come across anything in the exhibition that surprised you?

Copies of John Harrison’s chronometer made by John Arnold. ©The Royal Society
Copies of John Harrison’s chronometer made by John Arnold. ©The Royal Society

It is not exactly something that surprised me but rather moved me: to see the copy of the chronometer used by Cook on his second expedition. The story of this chronometer is quite amazing as a clockmaker named John Harrison worked on it his whole life. Indeed, the Board of Longitude offered huge prizes to those who could find a method to precisely determinate a ship's longitude at sea. In 1761, on his fourth attempt, Harrison succeeded in creating a clock that was accurate to within seconds per day.

This scientific instrument was designed to keep accurate time at sea, making it possible to calculate longitude more easily than by the method of lunar distances used on Cook’s first voyage. Several copies of Harrison’s design were made for Cook’s second voyage (1772-1775) and one of these kept the correct time with an error of only one minute over the three-year expedition. It took a long time for Harrison to get the prize promised by the Board of Longitude but, aged about 80, he was eventually awarded £20,000 (equivalent to £2.5 million or more today).

James Cook: The Voyages, open until 28 August, is supported by 
PONANT Yacht Cruises & Expeditions and UK Antarctic Heritage Trust