Channeling Captain Cook Across the Pacific

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Tony Horwitz has written a funny and yet sobering book about the explorations of Captain Cook.  Blue Latitudes — Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before combines historical research into Captain Cook and his voyages with a sort of drunken buddy attempt to trace Cook’s travels.  Horwitz, together with a frequently drunk old friend, tries to visit virtually everywhere Cook has gone.  It isn’t clear what Horwitz expected when he visited these places, but what he finds are a whole bunch of island nations and communities that haven’t fared very well since Cook’s visits.  Even in places such as Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii that have quite well, Cook is no hero.  It isn’t really surprising that Cook is frequently regarded more as a villain than an intrepid adventurer.  Horwitz does a great job of getting people to talk to him and learning to appreciate how they might react negatively to certain questions.  With far less humor, it seems that Cook also demonstrated good people skills from time to time.

The fact remains that for many people, being “found” by Captain Cook wasn’t necessarily a good thing.  There is ongoing, bitter resentment.  Of course, as some of the people Horwitz visits acknowledge, if it hadn’t been Captain Cook, surely some other Westerner would have come and ruined their paradise.

Although the premise of this book sounds fun and romantic, the reality is often cynical populations who haven’t fared very well.  The book has a lot of strengths  —  I learned an almost numbing amount about Captain Cook, the author is a good and educable listener, and some of the author’s sailing in bad weather adventures are tremendously exciting and absolutely terrifying.  The Aleutian experience was particularly alarming.  Of course, as the author is careful to point out, any sailing he does in the course of this book is pretty much a luxury cruise compared to what Cook endured.

At times I did feel the story bogged down.  This may be in part because Cook wasn’t all that fascinating or romantic a person.  He doggedly organized amazing explorations and he recorded what he saw in matter-of-fact terms.  Of course he had to be highly imaginative to even conceive of and pursue his voyages, and yet he didn’t seem nearly as excited about it as one would have liked him to be.  In the end, the author’s careful piecing together of the miscalculations on Hawaii that led to Cook’s death provided the most interesting information about Cook.  In a way that is sad, because the author is careful to show that in his last days Cook was not  acting with his normal patience and acute awareness of his circumstances.

This is a great book for fans of exploration and Captain Cook.  Also, I can’t think of anywhere to get this information delivered so well and with such a clear appreciation of its application to current times.

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