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Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before (edition 2003)

by Tony Horwitz

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1,290326,078 (3.92)124
Member:MrBadcrumble
Title:Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before
Authors:Tony Horwitz
Info:Picador (2003), Edition: Later printing, Paperback, 496 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:*****
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Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz

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"Cook’s greatest feat . . . was the three epic voyages of discovery he made in his forties—midlife today, closer to the grave in the eighteenth century.

"In 1768, when Cook embarked on the first, roughly a third of the world’s map remained blank, or filled with fantasies: sea monsters, Patagonian giants, imaginary continents. Cook sailed into the void in a small wooden ship and returned, three years later, with charts so accurate that some of them stayed in use until the 1990s.

"On his two later voyages, Cook explored from the Arctic to the Antarctic, from Tasmania to Tierra del Fuego, from the northwest shore of America to the far northeast coast of Siberia. By the time he died, still on the job, Cook had sailed over 200,000 miles in the course of his career—roughly equivalent to circling the equator eight times, or voyaging to the moon."


Tony Horowitz’s Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before is an odd, oddly appealing mix of history and somewhat humorous travel writing. Horowitz weaves the story of his own travels along parts of Captain Cook’s routes from his three Pacific voyages with the story of Cook himself. Throughout runs the theme of how the impact of Cook’s contact with islands and people previously unknown to Europe has reverberated throughout the intervening centuries.

Most of my prior knowledge of Cook comes from what I’ve read about Joseph Banks, the wealthy naturalist and botanist (President of the Royal Society for over 40 years), who accompanied Cook on his first journey. Horwitz relied on Banks’s journals, in addition to Cook’s and some of the other crew, for the history in this book.

Horwitz starts his adventures with a physically exhausting week volunteering on a replica of Cook’s ship the Endeavour. Later, he travels with his wife (Geraldine Brooks) and their son to his wife’s native Australia, which he plans to use as a home base for his research and travel. An old (often inebriated) friend, Roger, offers to join him on his journeys. Roger, a keen sailor, provides much of the comic relief throughout the book. On their visit to Matavai Bay, Cook’s landing site in Tahiti, Horwitz and Roger dress in wigs, white stockings and knee breeches, splash in the water, and unfurl a Union Jack, while nearby sunbathers ignore them. This humor, though, is counterpointed with how far removed Tahiti and Bora-Bora are from the paradise described by Cook and Joseph Banks (Horwitz particularly cites the environmental damage in Bora-Bora), and how the native populations were decimated by disease and the introduction of guns and other weaponry into their society. Missionaries in the 19th century completed the destruction by successfully convincing the people to let go of their native customs and folklore, much of which has now been forgotten forever.

Cook’s reputation in the Pacific is primarily negative, particularly among the native population. While in New Zealand, Horwitz learns that a visit by the Endeavour replica four years prior was greeted by death threats for the captain, and refusals by tribal elders to guarantee the ship’s safety. As one activist said, “We wonder at those who would honour the scurvy, the pox, the filth, and the racism that Cook’s arrival brought to this beautiful land.” Monuments to Cook, where they exist, are often vandalized.

In Australia, where Cook’s ship was probably the first contact the Aborigines had had with the outside world in eight thousand years, the European legacy is particularly problematic. A population estimated at the time to number between 300,000 and a million, who merely wanted to be left alone (the first group he encountered ignored the ship, and when most fled upon the ship coming close to land, two men stood their ground and called out to the sailors to “Go away”), was reduced by 1901 to 94,000.

In many places, Horwitz points out, Cook has mostly been eliminated from the history books, and Horwitz struggles with what he sees as an emphasis on trying to find politically correct ways of discussing the “encounters” between the native populations and the Europeans rather than facing head-on the seizure of lands (Cook’s orders were to get the consent of the natives before taking possession of any land, orders he consistently disregarded) and the negative impact on people, environment, and culture.

Horwitz decided not to follow fully in the path of Cook’s second and third voyages like he did the first, because he felt that Antarctica and the Arctic Circle would be too cold and bleak, and wouldn’t give him enough people to talk with. Instead, he decides to try to experience Cook’s sense of newness and uncertainly by selecting the island of Niue, which Cook called “Savage Island”, and traveling there blind, with no knowledge of the country. Later, he visits Tonga, England (where again, it’s hard to find representations of Cook’s legacy, although he does visit a delightful museum created and run by another Cook obsessive), and Alaska, before ending up at the site of Cook’s death in Hawaii.

Horwitz presents the history in an accessible, fascinating way, and his own travels and encounters with people from all walks of life with humor and respect. He raises questions with no easy answers (and perhaps no answers at all) that I know I will continue to spend a long time pondering.
  cabegley | Jan 28, 2016 |
I loved this book. Tony Horwitz has a wonderful writing ability that brings you along on his journey with him, sharing in his good and bad times. He challenges accepted history with his hands-on approach, following in the footsteps (and waves) of Captain Cook. Horwitz is always looking deeper, asking one more question, and experiencing one more event in his pursuit of historical truth (if such a thing can be achieved).
  Flagrua | Sep 5, 2015 |
Tony Horwitz, in his characteristic style of boy adventures in history, follows the path of Captain James Cook in several jaunts across the Pacific Ocean, often joined by his irreverent pal Roger. Well researched and entertaining, with centuries of colorful characters.
  qebo | Dec 21, 2014 |
At time humorous, at times snarky, at times unbearably saddening. Horowitz's typical blend of travelogue with history, he muses of the effect and result of Captain Cook and the results of mixing colonial Europeans powers with the native lifestyle. It is similar to the re-writing of Columbus as the bringer of evil to an otherwise peaceful and good people, but without the harshness of an extreme position. Well written and a quick read that makes you consider the consequences of actions and the ongoing effects that 250 year old events have on people still today. ( )
  cyclops1771 | Nov 11, 2014 |
Reading about the three voyages undertaken by Captain James Cook in the late 18th century leaves one with mixed emotions. On the one hand, as Horwitz points out, Cook "named more of the world than any navigator in history" and his "achievements contributed, in no small way, to London's becoming the headquarters of an empire that would ultimately span eleven thousand miles of the globe and rule over 400 million subjects." But on the other hand, in the wake of Cook, massive destruction of Polynesian cultures across the South Pacific was the far-reaching legacy. The western view was that Cook "discovered" storied places from Tahiti to Tonga, but from the Polynesian point of view, they had been there the whole time and the notion of discovery as applied to them is viewed with contempt.

This is the current state of affairs as explained by Tony Horwitz, who not only read about and thoroughly researched the subject of Cook's voyages, which were undertaken between 1768 and 1799, but made an attempt to visit many of the places that were significant in his travels. By interviewing local residents and dignitaries, Horwitz deepened his own understanding of how the Cook voyages could leave such widely divergent reactions. Cook remains a hero in Britain, but is reviled throughout Polynesia, and even 18th century Americans took a dim view of his legacy. Of course, this was at a time when America was trying to throw off the shackles of British rule and so their viewpoint was highly prejudiced. But then they turned around and added to the burdens suffered throughout the Pacific by the influx of well-meaning missionaries who did great damage to local culture in their efforts to introduce Christianity and stamp out any vestiges of indigenous religion.

So exploration and discovery have acquired a bad name, which is a shame because western civilization was greatly benefited by the people who had the courage to go into what was for them the unknown. There are no easy answers to the philosophical questions raised in this context. Unintended consequences are seldom anticipated and certainly it was not Cook's intention to inflict harm. He is blamed for much that he actually tried to prevent once it became apparent to him that the mingling of his crews with local populations was inflicting harm.

Be all this as it may, Horwitz has produced a tremendously interesting account, mingling the story of Cook, the man and leader, with his own present day investigations. From conversations with drugged-up hippies at one extreme to the King of Tonga at the other, and many colorful personalities in between, Horwitz manages to give us a feel for the situation on the ground throughout Polynesia, New Zealand, the east coast of Australia and the Aleutian Islands of Alaska — both now and at the time of Cook's visits.

The consensus of opinion is that Cook himself was a good man. His leadership was exemplary. His first two voyages were enough to put him in the record books. During his third voyage, however, something in him was deteriorating and his judgment seemed to suffer as time went by. By the time of their return to Hawaii from the Arctic, his irascibility caught up with him and he was murdered, by the very people who had initially treated him as a kind of god, with a dagger fashioned out of one of the iron spikes that Cook had brought along as gifts to the islanders for whom iron was highly prized. Not an auspicious finale to an otherwise illustrious career, but in the end, it is easy to see how people might feel about Cook on either side of the cultural divide.

So much more could be said about Blue Latitudes, and so much has been left out of this brief commentary. Readers will find much to enjoy and much to ponder in this fascinating book. Highly recommended. ( )
5 vote Poquette | Sep 9, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 32 (next | show all)
Tony Horwitz has done it again. In his earlier, riveting book, "Confederates in the Attic," he journeyed through the South to explore the rich and thorny legacy of the Civil War. With the same keen insight, open- mindedness and laugh-out-loud humor, he undertakes another daunting quest in "Blue Latitudes" -- to travel across the globe in search of the memory of Captain James Cook, the 18th century English explorer whose ambition led him, as he famously put it, "not only farther than any other man has been before me,
but as far I think it possible for man to go."
 
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Epigraph
Ambition leads me not only farther than any man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go.----THE JOURNAL OF CAPTAIN JAMES COOK
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For Natty, an adventurer at five
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Just after dark on February 16, 1779, a kahuna, or holy man, rode a canoe to His Majesty's Sloop Resolution, anchored off the coast of Hawaii.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0312422601, Paperback)

Captain James Cook's three epic 18th-century explorations of the Pacific Ocean were the last of their kind, literally completing the map of the world. Yet despite his monumental discoveries, principally in the South Pacific, Cook the man has remained an enigma. In retracing key legs of the circumnavigator's journey, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tony Horwitz chronicles the cultural and environmental havoc wrought by the captain's opening of the unspoiled Pacific to the West, as well as the alternately indifferent and passionate reactions Cook's name evokes during the writer's journeys through Polynesia, Australia, the Aleutians, and the explorer's native England. Horwitz skillfully weaves a biography and travel narrative with warm humor that is natural and human-scale, and his restless inquisitiveness quickly infects the reader. While striking dichotomies abound throughout that journey--Maori toughs who adopt Nazi imagery to symbolize their own fight against white domination, millennia-old Polynesian sexual mores that would shame the Reeperbahn, a sense that Christianity decimated native cultures at least as effectively as Western venereal diseases did--few are more poignant than the ones that abound in Cook's own life. This fine work is an adventurous reminder that answers to historical riddles are elusive at best--and seldom as compelling as the myriad new questions they pose. --Jerry McCulley

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:16 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Documents the three high-adventure voyages of Captain James Cook, who between 1768 and 1779 mapped a final third of the globe that was previously uncharted.

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