The case of the Captain Cook project and the stolen book

Once upon a time, in my dark and shady past, I stole a book. Yes, that’s right! I am a criminal… or, at least, my 9-year-old self was. It was the one and only time I have ever stolen a book. And it wasn’t really intentional, although it was premeditated. Let me explain…

My memories of the incident itself are rather hazy… what I do remember clearly are the feelings. I was in grade 4 at the time and my teacher had set an Australian history project. On the day that it was due, I had nothing to hand in. When questioned by the teacher, I admitted to not having done anything. No writing, no reading — I had not even borrowed any books from the school library, as I was meant to. The teacher gave me an extension and she even got me a book from the library — James Cook, Captain, R.N. by C.A. Burland.

I still did not do the project. In fact, I never even read the book. I remember the teacher asking me a couple more times about it as the year progressed. And each time I made up some excuse. Eventually the teacher stopped chasing me. Either she forgot about it, or she simply gave up on it as a lost cause.

In all honesty, I have no recollection of why I did not do the assignment. It’s not as if I was a disobedient student. It’s not as if I was incapable of the work. I usually did my homework and I remember being rather proud of numerous projects I handed in over the course of my primary school life. So it beats me why I did not do this particular one.

What I do remember is the fear — the fear that the teacher would eventually tell my parents. So when the teacher appeared to have forgotten about the work I had not even started, I wanted to make damn sure I didn’t remind her. And so, I never returned the book. The librarian never reminded me about it, because I had not officially borrowed it — the teacher had gotten it for me. And I couldn’t return it, in case her memory was jogged. I did not want to steal the book. I had no desire to read it. But I did plan never to return it. In fact, I hid it. And every time I came across it, I felt a moment of panic about the project that never was and a pang of guilt about the theft.

Just a few weeks ago I found that book. Although the panic was no longer there, the guilt was. That guilt was then intensified by my 2-year-old, who managed to get a hold of the book and separate it from its cover. So now I had a stolen, vandalised book. What was I going to do?

Well, there really was only one thing I could do. And that was… to finally read the book!

It was a rather interesting read. Published in 1967 by Hulton Educational Publications in London, it was very obviously a school reader — full of facts and figures, but with quaint, jolly storybook overtones that help to gloss over any of the nastier elements. Definitely sanitised history!

James Cook, and indeed all the English explorers, is presented in a heroic light. Cook is referred to as “a good Captain, a brave and wise man who was kind and helpful to every one he met.” In fact, the book recounts numerous incidents of him making friends with the native inhabitants of the lands he visited.

There is one passage that sticks in my mind, relating to Cook’s time in Tahiti…

“There were a few quarrels, often due to the Tahitians trying to steal iron from the sailors. Usually they were sent off with a warning not to do it again. But one man kept on stealing things.

Captain Cook decided he must be taught a lesson, so when he was caught one night, he had him taken to the ship’s barber, who shaved his head quite smooth. He never stole anything more because his own people had never seen a bald man before and laughed at him so much that he ran away and hid.”

It is accompanied by this illustration…

Seems like it was all jolly good fun!

If you’re interested in reading up about James Cook, there are only 11 days left until the release of Frank McLynn’s new book Captain Cook: Master of the Seas.

And for some more jolly good fun, tune in next time to find out about Department 19.

Catch ya later, George

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Published by

George Ivanoff

LITERARY CLUTTER: Bookish bloggings from the cluttered mind and bookshelf of Melbourne author, George Ivanoff. George is the author of the YOU CHOOSE books, the OTHER WORLDS series, the RFDS Adventures and the GAMERS trilogy.