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Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before    by Tony Horwitz order for
Blue Latitudes
by Tony Horwitz
Order:  USA  Can
Picador, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I thoroughly enjoyed Blue Latitudes, which combines in one volume the best of modern travel adventues with an insightful portrayal of one of the greatest of historical explorers, Captain James Cook (1728-1779). The subtitle 'Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before' captures both what the author attempted in his own travels and, through its analogy to Captain James Kirk's fictional space explorations, the immensity and challenge of the tasks undertaken by James Cook.

The author comments that Cook 'exploded' out of the cycle of a normal life for a day laborer's son in 18th century Yorkshire. His three epic journeys filled in about a third of the world map (so accurately that his charts were still in use till the 1990s), and had a profound impact (both good and bad) on the West and on the cultures that Cook encountered on his voyages. In 1768 his orders from the Admiralty essentially sent him to 'voyage to the end of the known world, then leap off it and sail into the blue.' Tony Horwitz shares with the reader his own exploration of James Cook's travels. First he does a gruelling one week stint aboard a replica Endeavour, where he feels like 'a carcass in a meat locker' while sleeping in a seaman's hammock. Then he follows the explorer to Tahiti, where 'Mutual incomprehension over notions of property and justice' plagued Cook and his crew.

Next comes Australia, where the author's friend Roger adds comic relief to their travels, with his ongoing search for booze and 'crumpet', and on to the Maori of New Zealand, 'a brave open warlike people and voide of treachery'. They remembered the Endeavour as 'Tupaia's ship', Tupaia being a Tahitian priest who journeyed on with Cook. Regarding the impact on the Maori people, the author comments on the thin line between 'exploration and exploitation'. While the Tahitians welcomed the English ships and the Maori were militant, the Australian Aborigines simply said 'Warra warra wai' (go away), but made a positive impression on the explorer who wrote 'They may appear to be the most wretched people on Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans'.

During the second voyage in 1772, Cook crossed the 71st Parallel, deep in the Antarctic Circle, with some stops on Pacific Islands like the one he called 'Savage Island', modern Niue. After his own discovery of a very peaceful community, the author sums up Cook's visit with the fact that he 'got scared off by red bananas'. On the other hand, Horwitz's reaction to Tonga, which impressed Cook, is of 'the place where time had gone back.' After the warmth of the Pacific, the author flies to chilly Yorkshire for the birthday celebrations of a true Yorkshireman who had 'grit and stickability and stubbornness', and explores the Quaker influence on Cook's life. Next he follows the 3rd and final voyage to Alaska and Hawaii. In Alaska there is a telling comment from an Aleut (whose culture believed in banished souls called 'outside men'), that the peoples of his and other cultures that Cook encountered have all been turned into outside men.

In Hawaii, as in other places, the author attempts to understand the locals' perception of the explorers as much as Cook's and his men's reactions to them. He also develops a balanced and seemingly realistic view of Cook's death, and sums up 'an overriding message' from Cook's journals that 'No matter how strange another society might at first appear, there were almost always grounds for mutual understanding and respect.' On the other hand, Roger's take, which may be equally valid, is that 'Cook travelled because he liked to run away.'

Don't miss Blue Latitudes if either travel literature or the history of exploration intrigues you; it's a fascinating window into the South Pacific (and a few other places), then and now, and into the profound impact that someone with the 'novelty-seeking' gene can make on our world.

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