Harry Mead is fascinated by an account of Captain Cook's encounters with cannibals and other natives.

THE TRIAL OF CANNIBAL DOG: Captain Cook in the South Seas by Anne Salmond (Penguin, £8.99)

DURING Captain Cook's fateful third voyage of discovery, his crew staged a mock court martial of a savage dog, which they found guilty, executed and ate. It was a gesture of scorn against their captain - a protest against the courtesy he showed towards Maori cannibals, who had murdered some of Cook's men on his first voyage.

Facing on-shore danger wherever he landed, Cook also risked mutiny by his men, who believed he treated the natives better than them. For their part, the natives came to regard Cook's forbearance when they stole from his ship as a sign of the lack of spiritual power they once believed he possessed. Cook thus became a victim of his own enlightenment.

Against what have often been critical reassessments of Cook, especially from Down Under, Anne Salmond, Professor of History at Auckland University, upholds the more traditional picture of Cook as a highly civilised man. Unlike most of his crew, he never slept with the native women, though many tried to entice him. He ordered his crew to regard the natives as "still the Lords of their country".

Salmond argues that it was ultimately the clash of European and Pacific cultures that killed Cook. Only because the natives' view of Cook changed, partly as a consequence of his own high principles, did the final violence become possible.

In developing her theory, Salmond provides an excellent detailed account of all three of Cook's epic voyages. Here is a taster, almost literally: "As Cook examined one of these bones, he realised in consternation that it might be from a human forearm. He asked one of the family members if they were not dog bones, but in answer the man took hold of the flesh of his own forearm and began to chew...''

WHAT THE PAST DID FOR US: A Brief History of Ancient Inventions by Adam Hart-Davis (BBC Books, £16.99)

BALL-bearings, the wheelbarrow, trousers ("a shock to the toga brigade'') coins and paper money (not to mention paper itself) - all grist to the briskly-turning mill (that's there too) of the irrepressible Hart-Davis who examines these and other inventions in the book of his new TV series. As lively and fascinating as you would expect from the zestful populariser of history.

OLD IRONSIDES by Frank Kitson (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £14.99)

UNTIL the Civil War of 1642, Oliver Cromwell was no more than a gentleman farmer and backbench MP. His rout of the Royalist troops at Marston Moor was his first battle. Amazing. Kitson digs for the secrets of his success, which included courage and energy, a keen eye for ground, and an instinctive understanding of the importance of concentrating forces on one point. The New Model Army he raised was also the foundation of the modern British Army.

1215 - THE YEAR OF MAGNA CARTA by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham (Coronet, £7.99)

ARGUABLY the one date everyone should know is not 1066 but 1215 - the signing of Magna Carta and the start of our political freedom. An account of the great event itself is here coupled with a depiction of English life at the time.

1968 - THE YEAR THAT ROCKED THE WORLD by Mark Kurlansky (Jonathan Cape £17.99)

SOME might prefer 1968 to 1215. Beginning with Dr Christian Barnard performing the first successful heart transplant, and ending with the Apollo moon mission, it also included the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, student rebellions, and the arrival of Women's Lib. Truly momentous, and all thoroughly explored here.

Published: 25/01/2005