This book retraces the voyages of Captain James Cook, the Yorkshire farm boy who drew the map of the modern world. Captain James Cook's three epic journeys in the eighteenth century were the last great voyages of discovery. His ships sailed 150,000 miles, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, from Tasmania to Oregon, from Easter Island to Siberia. When Cook set off for the Pacific in 1768, a third of the globe remained blank. By the time of his violent death in Hawaii in 1779, the map of the world was substantially complete. Tony Horwitz vividly recounts Cook's voyages and the exotic scenes the captain encountered: tropical orgies, taboo rituals, cannibal feasts, human sacrifice. He also relives Cook's adventures by traveling in the captain's wake to such places as Tahiti, Savage Island, and the Great Barrier Reef along the way, he discovers Cook's embattled legacy in the present day. Signing on as a working crewman aboard a replica of Cook's vessel, Horwitz experiences the thrill and terror of sailing a tall ship. He also explores Cook the man: an impoverished farm boy who broke through the barriers of his class and time to become the greatest navigator in British history.
This is the current state of affairs as explained by Tony Horwitz, who not only read about and thoroughly researched the subject of Cook's voyages, which were undertaken between 1768 and 1799, but made an attempt to visit many of the places that were significant in his travels. By interviewing local residents and dignitaries, Horwitz deepened his own understanding of how the Cook voyages could leave such widely divergent reactions. Cook remains a hero in Britain, but is reviled throughout Polynesia, and even 18th century Americans took a dim view of his legacy. Of course, this was at a time when America was trying to throw off the shackles of British rule and so their viewpoint was highly prejudiced. But then they turned around and added to the burdens suffered throughout the Pacific by the influx of well-meaning missionaries who did great damage to local culture in their efforts to introduce Christianity and stamp out any vestiges of indigenous religion.
So exploration and discovery have acquired a bad name, which is a shame because western civilization was greatly benefited by the people who had the courage to go into what was for them the unknown. There are no easy answers to the philosophical questions raised in this context. Unintended consequences are seldom anticipated and certainly it was not Cook's intention to inflict harm. He is blamed for much that he actually tried to prevent once it became apparent to him that the mingling of his crews with local populations was inflicting harm.
Be all this as it may, Horwitz has produced a tremendously interesting account, mingling the story of Cook, the man and leader, with his own present day investigations. From conversations with drugged-up hippies at one extreme to the King of Tonga at the other, and many colorful personalities in between, Horwitz manages to give us a feel for the situation on the ground throughout Polynesia, New Zealand, the east coast of Australia and the Aleutian Islands of Alaska — both now and at the time of Cook's visits.
The consensus of opinion is that Cook himself was a good man. His leadership was exemplary. His first two voyages were enough to put him in the record books. During his third voyage, however, something in him was deteriorating and his judgment seemed to suffer as time went by. By the time of their return to Hawaii from the Arctic, his irascibility caught up with him and he was murdered, by the very people who had initially treated him as a kind of god, with a dagger fashioned out of one of the iron spikes that Cook had brought along as gifts to the islanders for whom iron was highly prized. Not an auspicious finale to an otherwise illustrious career, but in the end, it is easy to see how people might feel about Cook on either side of the cultural divide.
So much more could be said about Blue Latitudes, and so much has been left out of this brief commentary. Readers will find much to enjoy and much to ponder in this fascinating book. Highly recommended.
If an amusing, well-written travelogue spiced with a fair bit of painless history appeals to you, this is your book. If you're looking for a clear understanding of who Cook was and what he meant, try Lynne Withey, Alan Villiers, Alan Moorehead, or Richard Hough. A serious-but-readable look at the diversity of lives lived today in Oceana? You're on your own, mate.
Roger: “You try to escape, to find simplicity, and end up bringing all the baggage with you. So you end up turning paradise into the same hellhole you left.” (p. 69)
“Reg’s attraction to Cook was entirely different from my own. While I was drawn to Cook’s restless adventuring and plunge into the unknown, Reg worshipped the man’s modesty, sense of duty, loyalty to home and country. Maybe it was good that we knew so little of Cook’s inner life. As it was, each of us could fill him up with our own longings and imagination.” (p. 303)
Horowitz artfully mixes facts with humor as he educates you in the life of Captain Cook. The book switches flawlessly between Cook’s travels and Horowitz’s own. You are able to see both the similarities and the differences between their experiences.
I never thought I could laugh and learn at the same time, but Blue Latitudes proved me wrong! I found myself laughing while actually absorbing information about this interesting man. It takes a truly skilled writer to entertain one as much as Horowitz does. I highly recommend this book whether you’re a traveler or not; you can brave the high seas from the safety of your own couch or bring this book along with you as you sail the waters yourself!
I would love to have dinner with Tony and Geraldine. I believe it would be a great evening and there would be a lot of really interesting conversation.
I'm going now to find another one of his books - probably "Baghdad Without a Map".