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Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz

history and travel, Henry Holt (hardcover), 2002, 480 pages

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

Captain James Cook was the quintessential English hero, a brilliant navigator and explorer who filled in the blanks on the European maps of the Pacific Ocean and delivered the land masses of Australia and New Zealand to the colonial attentions of the British Empire.  His martyr's death at the hands of Hawaiians in 1779 further embellished his legend, so it was no surprise that a replica of his first ship, the Endeavour, was made for the bicentennial celebration of the founding of the British penal colony in Australia.  The latter-day Endeavour plied the world's oceans, taking on local crews for short hops between ports.  Travel writer Tony Horwitz sailed on this ship from Seattle to Vancouver, and set himself a daunting task - to visit all the places first explored by Captain Cook and write about how they had changed over the last two centuries.
Armed with his "bible," the definitive biography of Cook by Kiwi historian J. C. Beaglehole, Horwitz visited Tahiti, New Zealand, the eastern coast of Australia, Tonga, Hawaii, Alaska, and the north country of England's Yorkshire where Cook grew up and from where he first shipped out.  Accompanied by a pal, a hard-drinking Aussie yachtsman who could be counted upon to provide comic relief and unremitting cynicism, Horwitz weaves together two narrative strands - the epic journeys of Cook and his crew, and the more farcical adventures experienced by those who would follow in Cook's wake.  This may not be the most detailed account of Cook's tours, but it is without doubt the most amusing.
When Cook visited the South Pacific ports of call, he was oftentimes the first European to encounter the native cultures.  His perspective is frequently that of an amateur anthropologist, noting the friendliness and open sexualtiy of the Tahitians, the fierce posturings of the Maori, and the Stone Age indifference of the Australian aborigines.  By the time Horwitz arrives, colonial and missionary settlement have transformed these landscapes, usually to the detriment of the original inhabitants.  Tahiti has become a tourist trap for Paradise-seekers, with every other establishment invoking the legends of Cook, Gaughin, or Robert Louis Stevenson for commercial gain.  New Zealand has become the Southern Hemisphere mirror image of the British Isles, and Maori-pakeha intermarriage has blurred the original Polynesian culture to the point where Maori elders now sport Orders of the British Empire citations.  The waves of convict transport! ation to New South Wales has decimated the aborigines and pushed the few remaining survivors into the harsh interior outback.  Horwitz notes all this with tongue firmly in cheek and lager in hand.
When he visits Yorkshire, Horwitz sheds some light on a central paradox about Captain Cook - for a man of such bold accomplishment, Cook in his personality and his writings seems almost colorless, matter of fact, stoic.  This contrast is especially apparent on his first voyage, where he is accompanied by the flamboyant aristocrat Joseph Banks, botanist extraordinaire, a younger man who has no trouble "going native," an unimaginable pursuit for Cook himself.  Horwitz points out that Cook was schooled and apprenticed by Quakers during his teen years in the north country, and was most likely influenced by the humility and aversion to ostentaciousness or self-aggrandizement that Quakers exhibit.  This essential decency and self-effacement is unique among British colonial adventurers, and explains why Cook never succumbed to the blandishments of sexual freedom that made the rest of his crew think they had found Eden in the South Pacific.
There is ample evidence to conclude that Cook, once the most enlightened of rational men, sank into a kind of megalomaniacal madness during his third and final voyage.  Years of rough living with inadequate food on unforgiving seas, attempting to control crews that more resembled the inmates at de Sade's asylum in Charenton than trim, precise naval professionals, took their toll on the great explorer.  Cook was more likely to flog crewmen for petty offenses and more likely to use rifles on thieving Polynesians than he had been in the past, and the growing swells of mutiny can be detected in crew journals of this last voyage.  So Cook's ultimate fate in Hawaii comes as no great surprise.  The Hawaiians welcomed this first European visitor as an incarnation of the god Lono, and Cook no longer possessed the wisdom to separate myth from reality.  He welcomed the deification, and used his privileged status to re-provision his ships without regar! d to how this impacted the native Hawaiian economy.  Resentment smoldered, and one fateful day, after a Hawaiian had stolen a small shore boat, Cok retaliated with wholesale slaughter that triggered a riot in which he was clubbed to death.  Lono was mortal after all.
When Horwitz visits the scene of Cook's death, Kealakekua Bay, he asks many modern-day Hawaiians what they think of Captain Cook.  He finds that Cook is not held in the same esteem by islanders as he is by the imperial British, and finds proof of this in the persistent desecration of the Cook memorial statue that was erected on that spot during the 19th Century.  The legacy of discovery has turned into a legacy of venereal disease, exploitation, and expropriation, an attitude that Horwitz discovers not only in Hawaii, but in other Pacific islands as well.  The apotheosis of Captain Cook is a strictly cultural phenomenon, rooted in 18th Century British imperial mythology, not the universal truth that Eurocentric commentators have often attributed to it.

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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