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Captain Cook's Monument

Stowe: The Elysian Fields



Restored in 2002 to its original (1778) location on an island in the Alder River, or River Styx, this small monument to Captain Cook had stood for over 150 years on the south end of this part of the river, just north of the Shell Bridge.

Cook's Monument from the west side of the Upper River

Previously topped by a small granite sarcophagus, as seen in the photograph below, the pedestal once again supports a terrestrial globe nearly as large as the pedestal itself.

A close-up view of the medallion on Cook's Monument Captain James Cook (1728-79) who sailed from Whitby, North Yorkshire, is considered to be one of the greatest explorers, navigators, and cartographers in history. He was the first to circumnavigate the world in both directions. He made three voyages to the South Pacific that opened the way to the development of Australia, New Zealand, and the South Sea Islands. He was killed by natives on the Hawaiian Islands (then known as the Sandwich Islands) during his third voyage, and an account of his death may be found at this link to the Captain Cook Society's Web pages. Cook's profile is sculpted in a medallion on the north side of the Monument, and it can be seen clearly from the benches near the Seasons Fountain, where the visitor is invited to pause a while and contemplate the scene. Both Bevington and the Guide to the Gardens note that the Monument reflects the family's interest in and support of the expansion of the British Empire.

Details of the globe on Cook's Monument The Globe atop the Monument is decorated with brass strips to indicate latitude and longitude. Around the equatorial band is a quotation, in gold leaf, from Horace's Archytas Ode (Book I, Ode XXVIII): Te maris & terræ numeroque carentis arenæ mensorem, or "you were the man who measured sea, earth, and sand without number." In this passage from Horace's poem, the speaker--a drowned sailor--addresses himself to Archytas of Tarentum, a fourth-century Greek mathematician and astronomer, who had interests similar to Captain Cook's as an explorer and cartographer. Later in the poem the speaker addresses a passing sailor, begging the latter to grant his "bones and unburied head a measure of loose sand." In other words, the drowned man has not had a proper burial, and according to the Greek myth, cannot enter into his rest in the afterlife. A proper burial included a coin placed under the tongue of the corpse with which to pay Charon, the ferryman who carried souls across the River Styx. Without the coin, the unfortunate person would wander the banks of the Styx for a hundred years looking for the pauper's entrance into the realm of the blessed, the Elysian Fields.

Captain Cook's Monument offers an insight into the particular way in which Earl Temple, like his uncle Lord Cobham before him, designed the gardens to present an idea in three dimensions and to invite the garden visitor to participate in the process of interpretation. Captain Cook suffered a violent death at the hands of the Hawaiians: his body was dismembered and his flesh burned before his bones were returned to his crew. His remains were buried at sea. In this, he is like the drowned sailor in Horace's poem, unable to cross the River Styx to enter the Elysian Fields, and it is fitting that his monument should be placed on an island in Stowe's River Styx, rather than on one side of the river or the other. In addition, as the National Trust staff will point out to visitors to Stowe's Elysian Fields, in order to read the Latin inscription on the Monument, one must start on the western bank of the river, cross the Shell Bridge, and end on the eastern bank--that is, one must wander the banks of the Styx as the soul of Captain Cook might have wandered.

The Cook and Grenville Monuments

One other point should be made about the design of this area of the garden. As the photograph above shows, a direct line of sight exists between the monument to Captain Cook and the monument to another sailor who died at sea in the service of his country, Captain Thomas Grenville. Visitors to the garden would be expected literally to see a connection between these two English heroes, as well as to note their relationship to the other British Worthies in their own Temple to the south.

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John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College, jtatter@bsc.edu