Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before

Posted by nliakos on July 7, 2010

by Tony Horwitz.  Picador, 2002.

Of course I had heard of Captain Cook–hasn’t everyone? But what did I really know about him?  Nothing.  I think I used to mix him up with Captain Hook (possibly that is what J. M. Barrie intended!).  But no more.  Thanks to Horwitz’s book, I now know something about this extraordinary man who rose from the English working class to explore some of the remotest lands imaginable, from the Arctic to the Antarctic with a plethora of South Sea islands (and Australia and New Zealand) in between.  Horwitz writes, “In 1768, when Cook embarked for the first time, roughly a third of the world’s map remained blank, or filled with fantasies: sea monsters, Patagonian giants, imaginary continents. Cook sailed into this void in a small wooden ship and returned, three years later, with charts so accurate that some of them stayed in use until the 1990s.” (p. 3)

Horwitz based his book on both research and personal travels (he starts out as a hand on a replica of Cook’s ship the Endeavor and follows that up with travel to most of the places Cook went to, where he not only sought out official monuments and exhibitions pertaining to the captain but also interviewed the locals to find out what they think about Cook today).  Much of the information about Cook’s original voyages came from the journals of Cook himself and his fellow sailors and scientists.  Dry facts are livened up with references to Horwitz’s travel companion, a Briton living in Australia named Roger, whose primary interests in life seem to be drinking and women.

Reading today about Cook’s feats of navigation and endurance, it is hard to believe that he actually did what he did, so dangerous was it. He and his men and ships got into such difficulties it seems impossible that they survived them all.  (Many did not, and Captain Cook himself was eventually killed in a fight with native Hawaiians.) But they managed to keep going for an awfully long time, and Cook made not one but three of these astonishing voyages into the unknown.

Horwitz portrays Cook as an extremely intelligent and able man who for the most part treated the people he “discovered” with respect and friendship (while claiming their land for the King), punishing severely those of his men who did not do so.  Still, he acknowledges (and believes that Cook also foresaw) the many negative changes in these people’s lives that would come as a result of European contact. I felt that he gives the reader a balanced view. An excellent book.

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