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Once Upon a Sea ...

September 08, 2002

James Glennie, a British auction house cataloger, was combing through a Norfolk mansion this summer when he spotted a small, framed document hanging in a dark corner of the library. It was an original expense account from a 1776 voyage of Capt. James Cook. An interesting discovery about the discoverer. Then Glennie's hand grazed something. He turned the frame over. He pried a bit. What he uncovered tells an old story, fascinating even in an age of e-mail.

Secretly hanging for unknown decades in that country house was a handwritten, 231-year-old letter from Cook to the British Admiralty with first news of the safe return of his HMS Endeavour from a perilous three-year exploration of the South Pacific, including Australia's discovery. Written in his distinctive florid script upon sighting British shores, Cook's missive was rushed to shore by passing fishermen.

The letter, to be auctioned Dec. 17 by London's Bonhams Auctioneers, reported the status of the Endeavour and its crew (30% died of malaria and dysentery contracted in Indonesia) and presaged recognition of the thorough navigation, seamanship and science of an explorer whose lonely voyages from Newfoundland to Antarctica, from Alaska to Botany Bay, completely redrew the known world.

A farmer's son, the astute Cook apprenticed on North Sea merchantmen. His charting and navigational acumen helped ensure Britain's victory over France in Quebec, which changed North American history. Cook's voyages in wooden boats little longer than a tractor-trailer chronicled Australia, Antarctica, Asia, northwest America, numerous Pacific islands and cultures and debunked the myth of a Northwest Passage over North America.

His pioneering collections and reports on exotic plant life shaped biology; his suspicions and experiments about nutrition conquered scurvy. After wandering terra incognita as no man before then, Cook died in a 1779 skirmish with Hawaiian natives caught stealing a royal rowboat. His mutilated body was buried in the sea he lived his life upon.

Of course, if Capt. Cook had e-mail, the world then could have learned of those journeys instantly on, say, www.captcook.com and discussed his discoveries in online chat rooms ("Cook rules!" "You go, Jim!") with pop-up cell phone and mortgage ads. Who wants to read an actual non-laser-quilled letter from the 18th century and conjure images of its adventures?

With today's technology, we could have simply deleted those useless old letters and reports and been done with them, as we do so routinely and ruthlessly in our everyday life now. What can old stories teach the residents of future times about the human spirit anyway?

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