The subtitle of Blue Latitudes is “boldly going where Captain Cook has gone before” and Tony Horowitz and his occasional side man, Roger Williamson (a constantly well-oiled Aussie) take it seriously…. sort of. The book is a combination of historical research (and setting some facts straight), and anthropological look at the “civilizing” impact that Cook (and the West) had on the countries he “discovered” and/or just visited (including Australia and the Great Barrier Reef, New Zealand, Polynesia, Tahiti, Hawaii, Bora-Bora, Easter Island, New Guinea and the Aleutian Islands. Trailing along (and sometimes leading) is also a completely madcap travel guide and stream-of-consciousness social commentary of Tony (the American with the Australian spouse) and Roger (the Australian married to beer).
Captain James Cook was born in 1728 and died in Hawaii in 1779. In between, he made three major circumnavigations of the globe (or nearly so) and filled in nearly one-third of the world’s map that heretofore included sea monsters and imaginary continents. Cook’s first voyage, begun in 1768 and taking three years, produced charts so accurate that some of them stayed in use until the 1990’s. His two later voyages took him from pole to pole; from Tasmania to Tierra del Fuego, and to the shores of Siberia. In total, Cook logged some 200,000 miles (8 times around the world) and touched off (or provoked) any number of profound changes in the societies (ranging from the paradise of Tahiti to the cannibals of Vannatu and New Guinea, to the fierce tribes in Polynesia and Hawaii).
Horowitz really does good work here. He says, “apart from the coast near Sydney, I’d seen none of the territory Cook explored…the list of alluring destinations seemed endless. I wondered what those places were like today, if any trace of Cook’s boot prints remained. I also wanted to turn the spyglass around. What had Pacific peoples made of the pale strangers appearing from the sea, and how did their descendents remember Cook now. I wanted to probe Cook, as well. His journals recorded every detail of where he went, and what he did. They rarely revealed why. Perhaps, following in Cooks wake, I could fathom the biggin-born farm boy whose ambition drove him farther than any man, until it killed him on a faraway shore called Owhyee.” Blue Latitudes delivers on his initial promise.
Horowitz tunes up for his travels by signing up as a crew member for a leg of a trip on a replica of Cook’s first vessel, His Majesty’s Bark Endeavour. Horowitz’s leg of the voyage is one week – from Washington to Vancouver. One week in “blue water” and Horowitz quickly turns to an exploration of what it must have been like to be seasick, scurvied and starved and frightened and wet for three years at a time. His description of what life was like for a 16th century sailor, tied to his own week-long experience is hilarious, educational, and deeply disturbing.
After the tune up, off they go….retracing the voyage, interviewing the current generations, and dealing with modern day bureaucracy, air travel, and accommodations in the developing world. Through his typical alcoholic haze, Roger has the most telling observations…of the impact of the white man’s coming on the native populations as well as the attractiveness of local women and the quality of local beer. All the way, Horowitz weaves in his own observations of society (and its relative state of progress or regression) while introducing, interpreting and elucidating Cook’s journals and descriptions of the same places. I will not spoil the fun of this book by revealing the findings – about the “facts” of Cook’s voyages nor the observations of the current state of affairs in the places Cook traveled
However, I will leave you with Horowitz’s last words on Cook and on his own efforts, [Cook] was one of the world’s great explorers, but also among the its last. In his wake, other discoverers filled in the few remaining blanks on the map. Eventually, there wasn’t any place left on earth where no man had gone before…as an Alaskan archeologist had told me, there was evidence of a “novelty-seeking” gene in humans’ make up. Cook, because of the early deaths of his own children, wasn’t able to pass this trait along. But maybe I could, if not genetically, then with my stories about the navigator.”
I say, job well done. Enjoy this wonderful book.