Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz

The only real analogy for Captain James Cook, who resolutely explored the Pacific between 1768 and 1780, is Captain James Kirk, captain of the starship Enterprise.

At least that is what Tony Horwitz thinks, and he is determined to come to an understanding of Cook, his restless adventuring, his compulsive will to plunge into the unknown, and the consequences of his deeds.

Horwitz approaches this task two ways. One is through the literature, Cook’s extensive records and the records of those who knew him or who have studied him. The other is by visiting many of the places that Cook visited.

Horwitz begins his adventure by signing on as an able-bodied seaman for a week’s sailing of the replica Endeavour. A week of this teaches him a thing or two about the rigors of seafaring before the mast. But Tony is only out for a week; a Pacific voyage of discovery in the 1770s took several years. Tony was sailing through charted, known waters. Explorers in the 1770s generally had no idea what lay five minutes ahead. Tony sailed with a replica that had an engine in it, just in case. There was no such escape for sailors in the 1770s.

Ships in the 1770s went to sea with twice the needed crew, on the assumption that even with a surplus of manpower they’d be shorthanded soon enough. Under good circumstances, mortality rates were commonly 60 percent or more, and good conditions meant only routine scurvy, malnutrition, diseases of all sorts, accidents and an occasional execution for bad behavior. Thus begins our adventure into James Cook’s character.

Unlike most captains of his day, he cared about his sailors. His losses were generally in the neighborhood of 40 percent. He experimented with methods of controlling scurvy. He was slow to let “the cat out of the bag;” that is, to discipline his sailors with the lash. He was a humorless, dour man with amazing leadership skills. And he recorded his sailors’ deaths with a chilling indifference: it was a simple matter of fact.

James Cook was a Yorkshire peasant. He probably should have died with his many siblings as a child, but instead he took to the sea, starting as a laborer on colliers before joining the Royal Navy. There, he rose to the highest ranks and mixed, if uncomfortably, with Europe’s budding intellectual and scientific community.

He is not an easy man to understand. While caring next to nothing about religion, he was a model Quaker. Almost, anyway. He is variously described as plain, commanding, austere, grave, steady, unsentimental, possessed of a cool objectivity and obsessed with factual precision. Well, he made his name mapping Canada’s coast and map making is not a trade for anyone cavalier about details. Many of the naval charts he prepared in the 1770’s were still in use in the 1990’s. But he also had a mercurial temper and at least occasionally a profane tongue. He was ambitious, driven and relentless. Yet he was modest, patriotic and devoted to the service of his country. Unlike many explorers of his day, he was not inclined toward PR stunts, and he was remarkably tolerant of the “natives” he met. However, 24 hours seldom passed between the first contact and the first shooting.

Horwitz’s travels in pursuit of James Cook take him from Yorkshire to London, to New Zealand, Alaska, Australia and dozens of Pacific Islands. The memory Cook has left behind in these places varies from near-idolization in Yorkshire (where most “Cook” related sites are pure fabrication), to indifference, to puzzlement and to open hostility. New Zealanders seem to be making a serious effort to relate Cook to the Maori and to their colonial history. Australians, driven by a guilt that has nothing to do with Cook, have ridiculously reconstructed Cook, making him over as “the evil invader.” Most islanders, however, seem to regard him indifferently, as only an obscure historical fact.

It is disturbing what the places he discovered have ultimately made him into. Even more disturbing, however, is what we have made of the places he discovered. His landing place in New Zealand is thoroughly “hardened” while the beautiful Botany Bay is an industrial wasteland. Tahiti is a wasteland of hedonistic tourism while Hawaii sells a sad, emasculated Polynesian culture. Tonga is a feudal monarchy and a near theocracy. Niue, the smallest country in the world, is fabulously silly, a collection of contradictions. But it’s at a nice place to visit, if only because its weirdness is genuine.

Cook, by his last voyage, is coming unhinged. He takes to sea in ill-prepared ships. Possibly ill, he is given to sudden outbursts of fury, to foot-stomping temper tantrums that alternate with periods of inaction and indecision. He seems to be confused, he makes navigation errors, and he names the same place two or three times. But among these signs of physical and mental breakdown is Cook’s increasing realization that “wherever he went he was spreading the curses much more liberally than the benefits of European civilization.”

Horwitz discusses his sources, which are many and complex. Cook’s journals alone amount to more than a million words, not bad for an uneducated Yorkshire peasant. The bibliography will get the novice student of the Pacific or colonialism pointed in the right direction. The index works like an index is supposed to and the maps are both useful and beautiful. All in all, this is a gem of a book.

Horwitz has produced a travel narrative that is a bit of a history. Or a history that is a bit of a travel narrative. If your reading habits incline you to either, you will enjoy Blue Latitudes immensely.

But Horwitz’s message is serious. I’m sorry, Captain Kirk, but none of us can go boldly, or even timidly, to new places without changing them, and that change will probably amount to trashing them.