Author of Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before
by Bella Stander
Tony Horwitz doesn't suffer from sea sickness-except when he goes out to sea, he wryly confesses in the first few pages of Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before (Henry Holt). The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Confederates in the Attic set out to follow 18th century English explorer James Cook along some of his trailblazing routes. He writes, "…if I was going to understand Cook's travels, I first had to understand how he traveled." So for two weeks he worked as a sailor on a replica of the 97-foot ship in which the Yorkshire-born commander and his crew set off in 1768. Afterwards, except for a nauseating and icy ferry journey in the Gulf of Alaska and an occasional short boat jaunt, Horwitz trailed his subject by land and air.
Knowledge of Cook is vague on the U.S. mainland. "My very first review gave the subtitle as 'Captain Hook,'" sighs Horwitz, reached at his home office in the Loudoun County village of Waterford. "Captain Hook, Captain Kidd-it's all blurred by Americans." However, everything's in sharp focus in Blue Latitudes, an engaging blend of history, reportage and travelogue. The narrative is further enlivened by the alcohol-fueled antics and acid tongue of Horwitz's sailor friend, Roger.
"Roger is a wonderful mate and the perfect traveling companion," the author says fondly. "It was useful to have someone along who not only would force me to get on boats, but also communicate to a landsman just how amazing Cook's seafaring talents were." He adds, somewhat anxiously, "I love Roger but he's not everyone's cup of tea. He's a hard drinker, politically incorrect and a blatant skirt chaser." (The often drunk Limey always has an eye out for "crumpet.") "He's a complete cynic and I'm kind of the straight guy. Roger allowed the reader to be along for the ride, without it being so much about me."
Asked how he got interested in Cook, Horwitz recalls, "I discovered him by accident because my Australian wife [writer Geraldine Brooks] dragged me off to Sydney and we ended up living quite close to where Cook landed on the east coast of Australia. I started reading his journals, and they were great stuff-ritual sex, cannibalism, crashing into the Great Barrier Reef. The only thing I can liken it to that Americans have read are the journals of Lewis and Clark." In fact, he notes, "Lewis based his journal on Cook's; the similarities are very striking."
"The great drama of Cook's story," Horwitz enthuses, "is when he steps off the boat on one land after another, and there's that wonderful moment of first contact between natives and Europeans. We simply can't have that experience anymore. No matter how far you travel, you're not going to encounter people who have been untouched by the West. To me, that's the wonder of Lewis and Clark's story: They head across the continent and meet tribe after tribe, and have this wonderful human encounter. You try to communicate, you try to show peaceful intentions, you trade, you have sex. I found that much more exciting than figuring out how Cook drew a map of New Zealand without any modern equipment."
"For the most part," Horwitz says, "Cook was a very humane man, but those who followed in his wake weren't." (Even so, he ordered that natives be "punished" or killed on several occasions, and was himself slain-and then roasted-by Hawaiians in a skirmish he provoked.) "Cook opened the door for a tremendous amount of exploitation and suffering, and has become a convenient villain for Maoris and Hawaiians in particular."
"There are some interesting analogies to other 18th century American figures," he observes. "For a long time many people saw them only as heroes. In some cases we have let the pendulum swing too far the other way, and they've become symbols of hypocrisy and repression. With Cook I've tried to avoid both those extremes, and to look at the man for good and ill. Perhaps because I'm an American, I don't have an ax to grind; he's neither a hero nor a villain to me. But for people in the U.K., Australia and the Pacific, it's hard to look at the man with the same sort of detachment."
© 2002 Bella Stander