BoatGirl’s #CBR4 Review #18: Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz
Blue Latitudes was an engaging, informative read that touched on so many things I enjoy. Sailing, history, world cultures, philosophy, religion, science – they’re all in there. The author, Tony Horwitz, is an American journalist living in Australia. Becoming interested in the story of Captain James Cook, he sets out to visit many of the places where Cook was the first Westerner to arrive and try to understand the man behind the legends. Along the way, he discusses Cook’s journals and the writings of others travelling with him, as well as the responses of the indigenous people he encountered.
The Captain Cook he presents is a man who achieved great fame in his day, but today is largely forgotten and tossed aside in a sea of political correctness. Cook was born into extremely humble circumstances in northern England, but through luck, hard work, and the occasional astute sponsor, rose to a high rank in the British naval system. At the time, this was an extremely unlikely story, as England had not long outgrown feudalism. Given a ship, the Endeavour, he was tasked with mapping the transit of Venus across the sun in the Pacific Ocean and then to continue on in search of a southern continent. Along the way, he visited Tahiti and many other Pacific Islands and was the first Westerner to map the Eastern coast of Australia. In many of these island nations, he is now considered a villain and blamed for opening up their lands to outsiders. However, Horwitz points out that in approaching locals, Cook tried to communicate, tried to avoid harming locals and tried to prevent his men from passing their venereal disease to the island women. He paints a sympathetic portrait of a reserved but fair man.
He looks at situations from both sides, that of the indigenous peoples as well as the sailors. The indigenous people didn’t know what to make of several hundred strange looking men with no women, in a boat taller than they’d ever seen before, who suddenly appear on their shores. Are they looking to settle? To fight? To trade? Are they outcasts from their own homes since they have no women or children with them? Meanwhile, the Western sailors expect to find islanders, but since the sailors are generally uneducated and living in a brutal and oppressive culture, they aren’t exactly the most open-minded people to go adventuring.
In addition, Horwitz also talks about his own travels to many of these same places, journeys which range from banal to hilarious to soulful, and generally involve copious amounts of alcohol since it is a sailing related book. Writing about the misery involved in serving as crew of a week on a reconstruction of the Endeavour made me question my own desire to do something similar – sounds dreadful.
I finished the book with a great admiration for Cook, as well as sympathy for everyone involved, sailors and islanders alike.