In an exhilarating tale of historic adventure, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Confederates in the Attic retraces the voyages of Captain James Cook, the Yorkshire farm boy who drew the map of the modern world
Captain James Cook's three epic journeys in the 18th century were the last great voyages of discovery. His ships sailed 150,000 miles, from the Artic to the Antarctic, from Tasmania to Oregon, from Easter Island to Siberia. When Cook set off for the Pacific in 1768, a third of the globe remained blank. By the time he died in Hawaii in 1779, the map of the world was substantially complete.
Tony Horwitz vividly recounts Cook's voyages and the exotic scenes the captain encountered: tropical orgies, taboo rituals, cannibal feasts, human sacrifice. He also relives Cook's adventures by following in the captain's wake to places such as Tahiti, Savage Island, and the Great Barrier Reef to discover Cook's embattled legacy in the present day. Signing on as a working crewman aboard a replica of Cook's vessel, Horwitz experiences the thrill and terror of sailing a tall ship. He also explores Cook the man: an impoverished farmboy who broke through the barriers of his class and time to become the greatest navigator in British history.
By turns harrowing and hilarious, insightful and entertaining, BLUE LATITUDES brings to life a man whose voyages helped create the 'global village' we know today.
Imagine you're an editor at a book publishing firm, and a writer comes to you with the idea of traveling to Seat-tle, Tahiti, Bora Bora, New Zealand, Australia, Tonga, England, Alaska and Hawaii in search of Captain Cook, the ex-plorer who charted and helped to "discover" about a third of the planet a little over 200 years ago. He wouldn't be able to say who he was going to interview at any given place, because for the most part, he wouldn't know yet. Instead, he would take things as they came, asking strangers if they knew about Cook, and if so, what they thought of him. He'd follow one lead to another, do a lot of reading, attend some Cook-related festivities, visit some monuments and write a funny, thought-provoking travelogue cum biography of the great explorer.
I'd say no. It's a sad day for the guy who embarks on such a vague, unruly quest. It's like renting a Zil in St. Pe-tersburg and setting out to "find" Russia. But somebody at Henry Holt and Company said yes to Pulitzer-winning war correspondent Tony Horwitz and by golly, they were right to do so. Who better to search for the legacy of Captain Cook than the reporter who wrote an acclaimed book about the Civil War, Confederates in the Attic, by schlepping around the South for a year interviewing reenactors? With prodigious research and a willingness to raise the subject of Captain Cook with anyone, including a drunk, a king and a girl in a wet T-shirt, Horwitz has managed to muscle a big, sloppy idea into something coherent and fun to read.
Granted, it takes him 450 pages.
He starts his journey with some frontline experience, pressing himself into service on the Endeavour, a working replica of the beamy,flat-bottomed ship Cook sailed on the first of his three voyages. Sea travel 18th-century style turns out to be as grueling and degrading as one would expect. The spaces are cramped, the officers are mean bas-tards and the work is backbreaking. Horwitz only crews for a week, which hardly compares to an eight-month passage from Plymouth to Tahiti, but he paints a vivid picture of life on that wobbly tub, plying along for months at a time with-out sight of land or a bite of fruit.
That trial endured, Horwitz heads to Australia, his base of operations for hopping to points Cook-related all over the Pacific. In alternating passages, he describes the wonders Cook found on various virgin shores, then reports on the state of each place today. One shudders to imagine the original Endeavour's arrival at Tahiti in 1769, when Cook's sex-starved, syphilitic sailors were loosed on that verdant island's girls, who were pretty, generally naked and willing to trade their favors for a nail. (Cook had a serious nail theft problem.) Hospitality doesn't come so cheap in Ta-hiti today--a rental car goes for about $100 a day and the bikini babes are standoffish. But even though the Tahiti of the 18th century is long gone, overrun by sailors, missionaries, French colonialists and tourists, Horwitz manages to find traces of the place Cook described in his journal. He sees the island's libertinism, so so shocking to the captain, on rau-cous display at a transvestite club, and he meets a group of teenagers who are as laid-back and starry-eyed as the Tahi-tians Cook met 200 years ago.
Whenever he can, Horwitz tries to create a Cook-like sense of discovery. He prepares for his visit to an island nation called Niue, a tiny speck between Tahiti and Tonga, by not learning anything about it. All he knows is that when Cook arrived there in 1774, he was confronted by an angry group of men whose mouths were stained a bloody shade of red, which compelled the captain to dub the place "Savage Island" before blowing out on the next gust.
Brief as that encounter was, Horwitz discovers, Niue's inhabitants are still trying to erase the spot it put on their reputation, particularly the widespread assumption that the red stuff was human blood. Was it, as the natives today con-tend, the smeared flesh of a local species of red banana? If so, why can't anyone show Horwitz a red banana tree? Pre-sented with a quirky little conflict like this, Horwitz is in his element. He dashes around the island asking about ba-nanas, and discovers all sorts of other secrets along the way. Niue is an offshore tax haven--just $385 a year to register a company--and despite the religiosity of its inhabitants, a major hub for telephone sex chat lines. It even has what ap-pears to be a sham medical school. To watch Horwitz, the star reporter, unravel that island like a ball of twine is pure pleasure. The Niuens are glad to see him leave.
As for his spot surveying, Horwitz finds that Captain Cook is many different things to many different people. To the Hawaiians who chopped him up and barbecued him in 1779, he was a god, and to many history buffs he still is. Yet in New Zealand, the native Maori see him as a villain, as do most natives of the places he visited. In Australia, Horwitz says Cook is being written out of history as an act of atonement to the wronged aborigines. The girl in the wet T-shirt has but a tentative grip on his character. "He'd think I was a complete lunatic," she says. Strangely enough, the man who still elicits such passion was remarkably rational and coolheaded himself, temper tantrums notwithstanding. If anything, Horwitz reveals the most about Cook by acting like Cook, exploring each place with the same energy and relentless curiosity as the man himself. A lesser writer would have gotten lost out there in the big blue, then chopped up and barbecued by book reviewers. Not Horwitz. He has one-upped Cook and made it home in one piece.