When I started reading Blue Latitudes I thought the author was a poser. Here he was retracing the voyages of the great Captain Cook, and he flew to most of the destinations. Aside from a week on the Endeavor replica and a few weeks on some charter sailboats, Tony Horwitz isn’t a sailor. He is, however, a great writer, formerly of The New Yorker. Blue Latitudes is researched meticulously and Horwitz succeeds in giving us a more human portrait of Cook.
I thought I was into Captain Cook, but now realize I’m a complete dilettante. The Captain Cook Society publishes a quarterly newsletter, members exchange research, and several historians have devoted their entire lives to Cook. Most of my knowledge comes from various cruising guides and general histories. Like many sailors, I’ve come to admire the man through sailing in his tracks, visiting his landfalls, and trying to imagine being the first European to reach many of these places. Earlier this year my wife and I made a little pilgrimage to the site of his death in Hawaii:
It turns out Cook-ophiles are nothing new. Cook’s journals were published after his first voyage, and his tales of Tahiti and the Antipodes captured Europe’s imagination. By the time he started his third voyage he was a celebrity. As Horwitz points out, this fascination has continued into modern times, with Star Trek being a thinly disguised modernization of Cook’s voyages: Captain James Kirk for Captain James Cook; a five-year mission to discover new lands; the Enterprise instead of the Endeavor; a gentlemanly Dr. Spock standing in for the aristocratic Joseph Banks; and a whole legion of nameless “expendables” meeting their dooms in far-off lands. Even Star Trek’s intro, “…to boldly go where no man has gone before,” mirrors Captain Cook’s most famous quote, which still sends shivers up my spine knowing its emotional and geographic circumstances:
“Ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go.”
The difference in Horwitz’s book is that he travels to many of Cook’s landfalls to ask how he is perceived today. The answer is seldom pleasant. Native peoples throughout the Pacific regard him as an invader who brought misery. Since Cook’s crews carried syphilis, tuberculosis, and smallpox, it wasn’t long before these native populations died off to half or less of their pre-Cook levels. While Cook was generally thought to be diplomatic and kind in his dealings with native peoples, Horwitz points out that he was probably starting to lose it toward the end, and he may have brought his violent death upon himself.
Some island nations still cringe or glory in the original names Cook gave them: Tongans love to be “The Friendly Isles,” but the Niueans can’t shake “The Savage Isle.”
If we can set aside Cook’s diplomacy and the fatal impact that followed his and all European contact with the New World and the Pacific, and just look at him as an explorer, sailor, navigator, and mapmaker, he still deserves the respect of all sailors: Until Star Trek becomes a reality, no man can touch him.