Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before, by Tony Horwitz (Henry Holt, 496 pp., $26)
Horwitz, a former writer for the Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker, has been a fearless practitioner of "participatory journalism." For a series of articles on the conditions of low-wage workers, he once got a job working on the kill floor of a chicken plant. For a book on Civil War reenactors, he marched along with the hard-core buffs. But it's a good bet that he's never done anything more strenuous than work as a sailor aboard an 18th-century man-of-war.
An Australian foundation built an exact replica of Captain Cook's flagship, His Majesty's Bark Endeavour, and encouraged volunteers to join the professional crew. Horwitz signed up for a one-week stint from Gig Harbor, Wash., to Vancouver, B.C. He quickly discovered that this was no pleasure cruise. He spent a week heaving on ropes, climbing masts in roiling seas, and swabbing the deck, with brief periods in between of trying to sleep in a hammock with just 14 inches' air space. By the time he arrived in Vancouver and collapsed in a hotel room, he was bone-tired, unsteady on his feet, and dirty all over with "scrub tar stuck in my hair and the grime imbedded in every inch of exposed skin." We know why 18th-century sailors undertook such back-breaking work -- they often had no choice, either because they came from desperate economic circumstances, or simply because they were press-ganged into the Royal Navy. Horwitz, by contrast, eagerly volunteered, which attests to either his fortitude or his foolishness. Either way, readers are the beneficiaries of his exertions.
Horwitz's goal was to follow in the wake of Captain James Cook's famous expeditions. Cook's three voyages from 1768 to 1779 are, for those who have forgotten their schoolboy history, or more likely these days, never learned it in the first place, one of the great feats of exploration of all time. As Horwitz notes, when Cook first set out, "a third of the world's map remained blank, or filled with fantasies: sea monsters, Patagonian giants, imaginary continents." Cook dispelled the fog of ignorance, coming back with accurate charts of the South Pacific, and largely accurate descriptions of cultures that seemed utterly unlike anything else in the world. Tattoos, "taboos," kangaroos -- all were introduced to Europe by Cook.
Cook also opened this vast region to European intercourse -- sometimes in the very specific sense: One of the area's prime attractions to sailors was the lack of sexual inhibitions displayed by native women, who would trade their favors for a nail (steel being scarce in these parts). For European philosophes, the attraction was more ideological. Many of them idealized Polynesia as a paradise where man lived in perfect harmony with nature, unsullied by the constraints of civilization. Minor matters like the prevalence of cannibalism and infanticide tended to get ignored in paeans to the "noble savages." Europeans of a more religious bent saw the islands through their own prism, as redoubts of debauchery awaiting salvation.
What all sides agreed on, at least at first, was that Cook was a Very Great Man for having discovered this new world. His tragic ending -- Cook was killed and eaten by ticked-off Hawaiians during his third voyage -- only added to his allure, making him an 18th-century John F. Kennedy. But Cook suffered the same posthumous fate as JFK: attracting legions of iconoclasts eager to knock him off his pedestal.
First to turn on him, oddly enough, were American missionaries in Hawaii, who wouldn't have been there in the first place if not for Cook. But before long they were blaming the captain for all the nasty detritus of European civilization -- venereal diseases, alcoholism, firearms, crime. "Sin and death were the first commodities imported to the Sandwich Islands," complained the Rev. Sheldon Dibble in an 1839 history of Hawaii. Progressive thinkers, not normally sympathetic to Christian missionaries, picked up the refrain and amplified it, eventually turning this view into the background noise of polite society. In the course of his research on Cook, Horwitz found -- almost everywhere he went -- either indifference or hostility to the great navigator. Asking a Tahitian high-school student what he knew of Cook, Horwitz was informed, "He was the first taero here. A bad man." ("Taero" is a slang term, derived from the pulp of a coconut, for "white man.")
That attitude is at least understandable coming from peoples whose cultures were changed beyond all recognition by Cook's arrival. As Horwitz discovered in some of the seamier quarters of the South Pacific, full of unemployed and embittered young people, many of these islands still have not found their way in the modern world. Though it's hardly Cook's fault, one can see why they blame the great navigator for their woes. The indifference or outright hostility toward Cook in modern-day Australia and New Zealand -- settler colonies populated largely by Cook's fellow Britons -- is more surprising and dismaying.
In Australia, the school curriculum was once full of information on Cook -- no surprise, since the landing of the Endeavour played as large a role in Australian history as that of the Mayflower did in American history. But owing to pressure from Aboriginal activists, the official state-mandated curriculum now offers only two brief mentions of the captain -- in a section on the British "invasion" and "occupation" of Australia!
To the extent that there is any commemoration of Cook's achievements it tends to be as bland and politically correct as granola. In 1769 Cook landed in New Zealand, and he and his crew were the first white men these particular Maori had ever seen; the only previous white explorer to reach New Zealand at all had been the Dutchman Abel Tasman more than 125 years earlier, so the Maori were about as surprised by Cook as we would be to see an alien spaceship alighting on the Ellipse in Washington. (Perhaps more so, since we have seen lots of aliens in the movies, whereas the arrival of Europeans was outside the Maoris' imagination -- they thought the visitors were goblins.) Cook and his men were baffled, too. They tried to establish friendly relations, but things didn't quite click, and Cook's men wound up turning their muskets on several Maoris who tried to steal from them.
A fascinating encounter, and yet how is it commemorated? With a monument identifying this as the spot where Maori and white men "learned about each other" and "mourned the deaths which had occurred." This passive language is almost comically at odds with the violent reality. "Bureaucrats," writes Horwitz, with evident regret, "had turned the great adventurer into one of their own: a dull, bloodless figure who attended lots of meetings."
Blue Latitudes gives a good flavor of the real Cook and his achievements, which were staggering. A working-class boy, he entered the Royal Navy as an enlisted man and rose to the top by virtue of sheer ability. While serving as a lieutenant he was picked to command an exploring expedition to the South Pacific. Having successfully completed this epic voyage, and become the toast of London society, Cook easily could have retired to a nice sinecure. But he insisted on heading out again -- and again, until finally he did not return.
Horwitz offers a balanced, if hardly groundbreaking, assessment of the great navigator: "If Cook wasn't the uncomplicated hero of Victorian statuary -- spreading 'civilization and the blessings of Christian faith among pagan and savage tribes,' in the words of one memorialist -- nor was he a premeditated despoiler of natives and their culture." But the book doesn't wallow too long in historical controversies; there are plenty of other books for that. While Horwitz briefly recounts some of Cook's landings, he's more interested in relating his own encounters with various oddballs, from falling-down-drunk Aussies reenacting Cook's landing amid wet T-shirt contests, to the giant king of Tonga waddling around his palace while Horwitz sweats in an oversized polyester shirt.
Pretty droll stuff, but Cook's story does have serious resonance for our own day -- a tamer time when "extreme" adventure has come to mean bungee jumping or whitewater rafting. Real exploration still beckons, beyond earth's atmosphere; as Cook's voyages suggest, such exploration need not be entirely selfless, since it will inevitably open new avenues of commerce, immigration, and military advantage. We could use a real-life Star Trek -- a TV series inspired, Horwitz suggests, by the adventures of a certain 18th-century captain. Just as Captain James Cook sailed aboard the Endeavour "farther than any other man has been before" (to quote his journal), so Captain James T. Kirk set out on the Enterprise "to boldly go where no man has gone before." Kirk has one advantage over his real-life counterpart, however: He has yet to be denounced as an imperialist despoiler of the galactic Eden. Just wait till the Klingons write the history books.