John Cawte Beaglehole

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John Cawte Beaglehole, OM, CMG (13 June 1901 – 10 October 1971) was a New Zealand historian whose greatest scholastic achievement was the editing of James Cook’s three journals of exploration, together with the writing of an acclaimed biography of Cook, published posthumously.


Early life and career

Beaglehole was born and grew up in Wellington, New Zealand, the second of the four sons of David Ernest Beaglehole, a clerk, and his wife, Jane Butler. He was educated at Mount Cook School and Wellington College before being enrolled at Victoria University College, Wellington, which later became an independent university, and where he subsequently spent most of his academic career. After his graduation, he was awarded a scholarship to study at the London School of Economics, and left for England in 1926. After three years of post-graduate study Beaglehole obtained his PhD with a thesis on British colonial history. At this time he was much influenced by left-wing teachers, especially R.H.Tawney and Harold Laski, and on returning to New Zealand he found it difficult to obtain an academic post owing to his radical views. For a time he had various jobs including a spell as a Workers Educational Association lecturer, and had time to develop other enthusiasms including civil rights issues, writing poetry, and music, an interest inherited from his mother. His academic career finally took off in 1934 after the publication of his first major book, ‘‘The Exploration of the Pacific’’, after which he developed his specialist interest in James Cook. He became lecturer, later professor, at the Victoria University College New Zealand.

He married Elsie Mary Holmes in 1930, and they had three sons.

Editing Cook’s journals

Beaglehole became known internationally for his work on Cook’s journals which brought out his great gifts as historian and editor. It was not all desk work among the archives – he also travelled widely in Cook’s wake, from Whitby to Tahiti, to Tonga and to the New Hebrides. The four volumes of the journals that emerged between 1955 and 1967 were subsidized by the New Zealand government which also set up a special research post for their author. The sheer size of these tomes, each of them approaching 1,000 pages, may seem disconcerting at first sight, but they are enlivened by Beaglehole’s stylish and often witty introductions, intended to set the journals in their contexts. As well as Cook’s own journals Beaglehole also printed, either entire or in lengthy extracts, the journals of several of Cook’s colleagues on the voyages. The introductions themselves, together with copious footnotes, reveal the breadth of his erudition. They cover many topics, ranging from the structure of Polynesian society to oceanography, navigation, cartography, and much else.

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