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Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before
Reevaluating Captain Cook's legacy
By Steven Martinovich
The judgment of history has not been kind to Captain James Cook, a remarkable explorer whose impact on the world is still felt today. It's fashionable these days to excoriate historical figures like Cook for being the early agents of colonialism and globalization regardless of what their true motivations were. With an eye to redeeming when necessary the son of a Yorkshire day laborer, Tony Horwitz has put together a remarkable travelogue-cum-history of Cook's pioneering travels in the Pacific.
Horwitz's interest in Cook began as a youth when he realized that another pioneering explorer - Star Trek's Captain James T. Kirk - bore more than superficial resemblance. His full-blown fascination with Cook wasn't sparked, however, until he moved to Australia, the search for which was one of the explorer's orders and one of the places where he is most reviled.
The heart of Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before explores the attitudes to Cook held by those in the places that the Englishman discovered during his three voyages, a much more interesting story since the basic history of Cook's travels are well known. His legacy among the natives of the Pacific is a sad one. In Tahiti, for example, where sex with a native girl could be had for the price of a single nail - leading many of Cook's crew to steal them from the ship and nearly maroon themselves on the tropical paradise - venereal diseases ran rampant and took a heavy toll on the population.
Across the Pacific, Cook is known today to the descendents of those and other natives as a man who swindled and butchered his way through a quest for riches and glory. Yet, as Horwitz points out, history is rarely a one-sided proposition. Cook took pains to limit the damage that contact had to the natives and later came to rue the deleterious effects that Europeans had on their cultures. Far from looking at the natives as a resource to be plundered, Cook admired many of them and often considered their way of life superior to that of Europe's.
Despite that, there are concerted campaigns across the Pacific to wipe out Cook from the history books - currently at its worst in Australia - or paradoxically to downplay the clashes between natives and Europeans, something that clearly pains Horwitz.
"...I also felt wearied by the pendulum swing of historical memory. Cook, to me, wasn't the wicked imperialist that modern-day Maori and other Pacific peoples imagined him to be. Nor was he the God-like figure...bestowing Christianity, commerce, and civilization on benighted savages. Somehow, in remembering the man, the world had lost the balance and nuance I so admired in Cook's own writing about those he encountered," he writes at one point.
By his third voyage, the strains of travel and age had taken their toll on Cook. He had changed, in his own words, "if not in body, then in spirit." Declining health and a shortness in temper began to become visible to a crew used to captain who personified calmness. When he reached Hawaii in 1778, Cook's concern for the natives reached such a point that he forbade any sexual contact by his crew. Yet despite that, Cook's impatience with what he perceived was the natives' thefts of his materials led him to open fire, a move that culminated in his death at their hands on February 14, 1779.
Although the debate over Cook's legacy has some way to go before it is resolved, if ever, it's possible through Horwitz's account of the man to understand why Cook felt so compelled to explore a part of the world largely unknown to the West. Working his way up from the lowest of the lower English classes, Cook escaped a life of manual drudgery to find lands filled with exotic delights and terrors. Far from being a stereotypical monster, Cook was a man like any other, driven by curiosity to find out what that next frontier held, not unlike the Kirk of Horwitz's youth.
Horwitz's extensive travels, his dialogue with the descendents of the peoples Cook interacted with and his choice of traveling companion, an Englishman by way of Australia named Roger Williamson whose contributions included a propensity for drink, admiring the local women and humorous but valuable insights into the character of Cook combine to create a rich and compelling story. Although Cook's voyages took place over two centuries ago, a wealth of detail and a passionate eye have allowed Horwitz to bring them and the man responsible for them to vivid life.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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