“Blue Latitudes” by Tony Horwitz

“Boldly going where Captain Cook has gone before.”

Horwitz alternates telling the history of Cook’s background and expeditions with stories about the author’s own travels to some of the same regions.  I liked the book a lot and thought it was an entertaining way to learn about Cook and how he is perceived today.

As the subtitle alludes, Horwitz was inspired by comparisons of Cook to another captain, Star Trek’s Captain Kirk.  James Cook::James Kirk.  The Endeavour::the Enterprise.  Seeking out new peoples and new civilizations.  Makes you wonder if Roddenberry was paying homage to the great navigator.  Cook did boldly go where no (European) man had gone before, and experienced the drama of “First Contact” numerous times: in Polynesia, New Zealand, Australia, Alaska, and the Pacific Northwest.

The conditions aboard an 18th century sailing ship and the dangers Cook encountered during his three, multi-year journeys really give cause for admiration of his courage and determination.  It’s sad that many even today see Cook as the evil bringer of Western imperialism and the destroyer of native culture.  Maybe the native cultures really were idyllic and totally wonderful (kind of doubt it … people tend to remember the good and not the bad).  But, change was inevitable.  If not Cook, then someone else would have “discovered” these places and peoples.  It seems that Cook was probably more just to the natives than many other explorers might have been in the same situations.  I think that we need to remember Cook in the context of his own time and culture, and respect his accomplishments.  What he did was akin to exploring the Moon or Mars in our own day…gotta give him a little credit.

In light of this book and the previous one I read on Stanley, it makes me reconsider some of the places that would be fun to visit.  I used to want to travel to many exotic destinations; now I think I would be content to just read about most of them.  (Grand European Tour = still on!)

Factoids, etc:

  • Cook likely pronounced his name “koook”.  That’s what Horwitz reports as the Yorkshire accented pronunciation, which is where Cook was from.  Fits with the Tahitian name for Cook: “Toote”.  There wasn’t a “k” sound in the Tahitian language, but Toote sounds a lot more like Koook than Cook.
  • The Polynesian dancing that is p.c.-ized as being about “the rhythm of the seas” – er no.  It’s about what it looks like it’s about.  Traditional Polynesian culture was much more, shall we say, liberated with respect to morality than even our society today.
  • Seems like Cook wasn’t up to form during his third (and final) expedition.  He lacked some of his previous initiative (choosing not to try to find Fiji or Samoa after hearing of them) and was more insensitive to his crew and to the natives than before.  Horwitz cites experts speculating that a vitamin-B deficiency, caused by ringworm infestation of the intestines, may have been to blame.
  • Herb Kane’s historical re-creation painting of the Death of Cook on Hawaii is mentioned and discussed at length in the book, but isn’t included.  So I found the link.
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2 responses

  1. […] non-fiction: Blue Latitudes, with very honorable mentions to Stanley and Japan at […]

  2. […] demise reminded me of Cook’s death in Hawaii about 260 years later.  In fact, I was struck by a lot of similarities between the voyages.  Even […]

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