“Ambition leads me not only further than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go.” – The Journal of Captain James Cook.
So opens Blue Latitudes, author Tony Horwitz’s searching and thoughtful examination of Captain James Cook, whose three great voyages to the Pacific from 1768 to 1779 were the grand finale of the age of Discovery. Part whimsicle travelogue, part historical study, Horwitz tracks Cook’s path from the lush islands of Polynesia to the shattering reefs of Australia and the mind-numbing waves of the Aleutians.
Cook was born in Yorkshire, England, a child of the peasant working class, who built his sea-going experience first crewing on coal-ships. Horwitz chronicles his rise to pre-eminence as one of England’s most famous sailors and possibly the most famous navigator in history (some of his highly accurate coastal surveys were still in wide use well into the 20th century). Blue Latitudes seamlessly blends Cook’s voyages with the author’s modern-day visits to his many destinations, examining clues to Cook’s character and the important legacy he left both Pacific cultures and the West. Horwitz is careful to examine the mixed nature of that legacy, with Cook alternately being seen as the personification of oppression and destruction for the Polynesian cultures scattered across the islands of the Pacific and aboriginal cultures of Australia and the sterling-true British hero and discoverer. Ironically, as Horwitz outlines, Cook was probably one of the most enlightened encroachers on the Pacific, but as the first, his reputation must bear the weight of the destructive forces that followed in his wake.
Blue Latitudes is a fascinating read, not the least for the history, but also for the flat-out humor that permeates the author’s misadverntures and wanderings through Oceania. From the drunken festivities of Cookstown Australia’s Cook Celebration (“Why do you think Cook ran up on the reef? He was on the piss.”) where the Endeavour was nearly wrecked, to his wayward Australian friend recreating Cook’s arrival on a Tahitian beach (” ‘This is a solemn moment,’ Roger declared. ‘We’re seeing just what Cook saw. Tropical mountains, swaying palms, topless crumpet.’ “).
Blue Latitudes is not only a great read, but great fun and thought-provoking to boot. Highly recommended.
Interestingly enough, Cook’s own journal, along with that of Joseph Banks the Endeavour’s naturalist and botanist, can be found online here in a hypertext version.
For an excerpt from Blue Latitudes, and a first-rate interactive timeline map of Cook’s various voyages, check out the Blue Latitudes website.
Other recommended reading: Paul Theroux’s The Happy Isles of Oceania – a good read, but at times Theroux’s sometimes depressed and caustic take on exotic locales and travel can be grating. He really is an acquired taste.