Boldly going where Captain Cook has gone before

Blue Latitudes    by Tony Horwitz,

480 pp., Henry Holt and Co., New York 2002  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern


      This is a travelogue, following the journeys of Captain James Cook on two different levels. It deserves to be savored slowly.

    On one level, this is the story of three great voyages of discovery by Cook, between 1768 and 1779. Sailing for the British navy, Cook cruised across the Pacific Ocean, discovering and mapping islands, and also probing the edges of Antarctica and of the Arctic in search of new lands and new passages. And paralleling those voyages are those of the author, Tony Horwitz, retracing many of those trips in the company of his hard-drinking Australian pal Roger, also exploring Cook's roots in Yorkshire and tasting the sailing life aboard a replica of Cook's "Endeavour." The two stories are nicely intertwined, each presenting its unique viewpoint.

    Cook was the last of the great explorers, and as Horwitz points out (and suggests in the book's subtitle, heading this page) his exploits have an uncanny resemblance to those of the "Starship Enterprise" in TV's "Star Trek." Even the names resonate--"Enterprise" and "Endeavour," Captain Kirk and Captain Cook. Cook wrote that he "sailed further than any man has been before" whereas the mission of the Enterprise was "to boldly go where no man has gone before." All that may be more than a coincidence, although "Star Trek" has no parallel to the strange and tragic way in which Cook's voyages ended. Was his body eaten by the Hawaiians who killed him, or (as the book suggests) was his flesh carefully removed and discarded, while his bones, believed to have magic powers, were carefully stashed--and if so, where? No one seems to know. And could Cook had saved himself that day, had he known how to swim?

    The civilizations touched by Cook were alien and exotic. Tahiti seemed obsessed with sex, even staging public exhibitions (babies born of such unions were smothered at birth), yet it also knew violent warfare. New Zealand was a tangle of warring clans, each with its fortified hilltops, and losers were sometimes eaten. Australia's aborigines, by contrast, were feral, shy and unsophisticated, living close to nature without artifacts of civilization. Cook noticed their nakedness and presented some of them with garments, which were later found in a pile, discarded. Cook almost came to grief on that journey, discovering too late that the placid sea along Australia's shoreline was actually hemmed in by a vicious wall of coral, the Great Barrier Reef.

    Aleuts lived underground in man-made caves, adapting to their icy climate, and Hawaiians--with distant ties to Tahiti--had their own mix of sex and warfare, with chiefs, priests and strange taboos. Try to match all that, "Star Trek"!

    Two centuries later Horwitz obviously finds great changes, many traceable to the two great scourges brought by the Europeans--disease ("the pox") and alcohol. But the imprint of the original societies remains among their descendants, and one often gets the feeling that stone-age societies do not easily adjust to the modern world. Some of those descendants still try to recapture their past, or at least preserve it, and the memory of Cook among them may be alternately reviled and cherished. Encounters with such descendants make interesting reading, too.

    Two subsidiary questions are also addressed. What was life like aboard Cook's ships, on voyages lasting years on end? After a short trip aboard the "Endeavour" replica, the author agrees that sailors had a raw deal--hard work, vile food and cramped quarters, swaying hammocks touching each other. Their work took them to the high rigging of a swaying ship, with no better footing than a stretched rope, and for sanitation, there was the "head"--a board with a hole, jutting over the water at the bows. Death was lurking everywhere, and scurvy was a real threat, with supplies carried for preventing it totally useless. No one had heard about vitamin C, of course, but Cook at least knew that fresh food offered a safeguard and never missed any opportunity of obtaining it.

    The other question concerns Cook's origins: how did the son of a day laborer, raised in a "biggin," a mud-and-thatch hovel, rise to the top ranks of the British Navy? He was even awarded a coat of arms, though posthumously. It was (as often happens in such stories) a combination of talent and persistence, with a good measure of luck thrown in. He was lucky to get three or four years of schooling before being employed in a store, then became apprenticed to a merchant whose ships carried coal from Newcastle to London. But all the time, he was studying--learning math and navigation, developing his terse factual style of writing, gradually rising in the ranks of the coal-hauling fleet. Then, when he was offered a command of his own, he resigned and joined the British Navy, where he distinguished himself in the attack on Quebec.

    The rest is history, as the saying goes. Yet that was Britain of the 1700s, still extremely aware of aristocratic background. Cook could claim none, and maybe that was why after his death his memory tended to fade, at least officially. Luckily, his legacy is so powerful that diverse individuals across the globe have made it their mission to ensure the public did not forget. Tony Horwitz took pains to locate such people, listened to them, and here he passes their messages to us. If the spirit of Cook is still hovering above the Pacific, it should be pleased.


    Note: If you liked this sort of two-level travelogue, you may also like "Out West" by Dayton Duncan. It describes the expedition of Lewis and Clark of 1805 while retracing its route in the present, helped by persons passionate about its story. Published by Viking Press (1987) with a paperback by Little, Brown and Co. in 1996, reprinted 2000, also available from sellers of used books.


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