Friday, April 1, 2011

In the wake of Captain Cook

Blue Latitudes, Tony Horwitz

This one has been on the TBR pile for quite a while.  As near as I can remember, I bought it after reading an excerpt of the first chapter, "One Week Before the Mast," which is about Horwitz's experiences working as a sailor on a replica of Captain James Cook's ship Endeavour.  I was probably in full Patrick O'Brian mode at that point.  Though the chapter title is "one week," and though the book's cover clearly states its subtitle, "Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before," yet somehow I was surprised to find that this is not a book-length travelogue set aboard a "tall ship" replica, a modern Two Years Before the Mast. Any disappointment I felt was brief. I was actually hooked by the end of the introduction, which includes a comparison of Captian Cook and Captain Kirk, the Endeavour and the Enterprise, red-jacketed marines and red-shirted disposable crewmen.

Like Horwitz, and "Like most Americans I grew up knowing almost nothing of Captain Cook..."  I think I knew that he discovered the Sandwich Islands. Horwitz remedies that, placing Cook's amazing record of exploration and discovery beside his own modern travels re-creating Cook's journeys.  I feel like I also know a lot more about the Pacific Ocean, Australia and New Zealand, Polynesia, even Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, than I did before reading this book.

Cook's early life is a great story in and of itself, how a farm boy from Yorkshire found his way to the sea and into shipping, then into the Royal Navy, then to command, to become one of the world's great explorers.  And as Horwitz reminds the reader more than once, an explorer in a wooden ship, with only clock, compass and sextant to guide him where few Europeans had gone before.  One of Cook's greatest strengths was in charting, and some of his charts remained in use until only a few years ago.  Also, Horwitz shows, an explorer with an unusual toleration, even respect, for the native peoples he encountered - though both respect and toleration had clear limits.  Cook is not viewed favorably by the modern descendants of many of these peoples, but Horwitz argues that Cook is actually taking the blame for what followed his first contacts, as other explorers, then settlers and missionaries followed.

The sections recounting Horwitz's travels in the Pacific can be a bit bleak, showing the negative effects of those contacts reverberating down to today.  The sections on Polynesia are also frank about the pervasive sexuality of the culture, including some names that I'd be put to the blush to repeat.

Several years ago I read and enjoyed Horwitz's A Voyage Long and Strange, about the explorers who reached America long before the Pilgrims but who have never gotten the same recognition.  That was also a fascinating read.  In Blue Latitudes, Horwitz mentions three books that are currently in my TBR pile: Longitude, by Dava Sobel; Passage to Juneau, by Jonathan Raban; and In a Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson.  Maybe that will inspire me to move them from the TBR to the "currently reading" pile.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!