On the three scientific voyages he led between 1768 and his violent death in 1779, English Navy Captain James Cook explored and mapped vast regions of the previously uncharted world, filling in with astounding accuracy fully a third of the globe. Blue Latitudes is Tony Horwitz’s island-by-island account of those great discoveries and of the man whose infinite resourcefulness ensured their success.
"When I got into the story," Horwitz says, " I found out it was about cannibalism and sex and violence and adventure. Then I became fascinated with Cook, the man. He’s almost an Abe Lincoln story. He grew up in a mud hut in rural Yorkshire, the son of a day laborer, really at the very bottom of British society. Yet through natural talent and a lot of hard work, he rose to the top. He’s one of those astonishing, once-in-a-generation figures who come out of nowhere to transform the world." By poetic coincidence, Horwitz spoke to BookPage about the seafaring adventurer from another storied port, Nantucket, where he was resting up before embarking on his own perilous voyage the book tour.
Although the book is meticulously detailed about Cook and his travels, Horwitz has not written a conventional history. He tells more about following Cook’s trail than he does about the original voyages, although he does weave the two strands of narrative tightly together. Not only does the author seek to see and imagine what the captain encountered, he also hopes to find out what Cook still means to the modern world. In these politically correct times, is he perceived as a discoverer or a despoiler? The resurgence of indigenous cultures is both clarifying and distorting his legacy, Horwitz concludes. "For too long, Cook was viewed in the West only in heroic terms, as this great navigator who set off to discover the world. We know what’s happened since in terms of exploitation and the devastation of native cultures. The exact same thing happened here in America. Lewis and Clark are heroes to many of us. Yet, at the same time, we have to recognize the damage that happened in their wake. . . . So I think it’s important to recognize all that. On the other hand, I don’t think we should swing to the opposite extreme, where we assume that these men were monsters." To his evident dismay, Horwitz finds that in Tahiti, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii (where the disenchanted locals killed and butchered Cook) and elsewhere he anchored, the explorer is either fading in stature or has been forgotten altogether. Even in his own country, he is a much-diminished presence.
Horwitz first became interested in Cook in the early 1980s when he moved to Sydney after his marriage to native Australian and fellow writer Geraldine Brooks. "I arrived there really knowing very little about the place and in a state of some bewilderment," he says. "I guess, as a history buff, I started boning up on the local history. And the white history of Australia effectively begins with Captain Cook." Horwitz, a former Wall Street Journal reporter whose earlier books include Confederates In the Attic and Baghdad Without a Map, estimates he spent 18 months following Cook’s transoceanic routes and another year writing the book.
Sometimes Horwitz traveled alone, but he was often accompanied and upstaged on his journeys by his friend, the hilarious Roger Williamson, an Englishman transplanted to Australia. Where Horwitz is open and earnest in approaching new experiences, Williamson simply wants to know where the liquor and women are. His are the blunt opinions Horwitz dare not utter. In Yorkshire, after a particularly strenuous evening, Williamson awakens to greet the gray dawn thusly, "Still leaden. Like my stomach. All the forces of nature are focused on my gut. . . . It’s absolutely woeful here. Can we pack up and go now? Head for Costa del Sol for a week? Cook probably sailed near there."
"He’s a foil for me," Horwitz explains, "and I think, honestly, I hide behind him a bit in the book. He’s so quotable that I couldn’t resist the urge to let him do most of the talking. Traveling can get very lonely, and at least I had a mate along for much of the trip."
In trailing Cook, Horwitz shipped out on every available conveyance from rental cars and jet planes to an Alaskan ferry and a replica of the explorer’s most famous vessel, the Endeavour. It was not his intent, he says, to replicate Cook’s actual hardships or to simulate his interminable separations from home and family. Horwitz was rarely away for more than six weeks and makes little mention of his own feelings. "I guess one thing I find annoying sometimes with travel books," he says, "is that they’re all about self-discovery. In Cook’s day, it was about discovery, pure and simple."
As Horwitz sees it, Cook still has something to teach us. "When we talk about the global village’ that we live in today," he says, "it began to a great extent with Cook’s voyages. The part I found most compelling was the drama of first contact between Cook and his men and foreign cultures. He stepped off his ship dozens of times into a complete unknown. I became struck by how open and curious they were and how closed and suspicious we’ve become by comparison. We’re living in a moment when we’re scared of ‘the other.’ Many of us are scared even to fly, yet [Cook] wasn’t afraid of climbing onto a wooden boat and sailing off the edge of the known world, over and over again. He remained open to the cultures he encountered, and, for the most part, he did find a way to communicate and get along. It’s striking to me that here we are over two centuries later and not doing very well at that job."
Edward Morris works out of Nashville and satisfies all his nautical urges at the beach near his summer home in Martha’s Vineyard.