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Book Review: Blue Latitudes, and How the World Changed Hawaii


Admirers of Captain James Cook might now find his celebrated 18th century pioneer explorations of the South Seas diminished by today’s would-be revisionists.

Photography by the authors unless otherwise noted.

Blue Latitudes, Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before was published by Picador Henry Holt and Company, New York in 2002. It became a New York Times bestseller and received the most enthusiastic of responses from critics and fellow authors. Nathanial Philbrick called it “a rollicking read…I inhaled it in one weekend.” The New York Times Book Review gave it its cover and pronounced it “One of the best.” Newsday enthused with “A swashbuckling history.” Said the Chicago Tribune: “Delicious details.” The Boston Globe opined “…intriguing tales of travel.” And so on.

This might have swelled the head of any author but it was the fourth book for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize author Tony Horwitz and he had gotten similar accolades for his previous books Confederates in the Attic, Baghdad Without a Map and One For the Road. Of this book, the San Francisco Chronicle simply says: “Tony Horwitz has done it again…[With] keen insight, open-mindedness and laugh-out-loud humor, he … travel[s] across the globe in search of the memory of Captain James Cook.”

So Blue Latitudes has been well-received. The book has 480 pages and the website Goodreads lists 503 reviews, a few touching on today’s need for some reviewers to re-write history. Yet it does not come easy to one’s education and conscience to find many of the great maritime explorers who braved the most incredible hardships and dangers to set out to sea, and who behaved under the standards of the times, are now to be ostracized because morals and values have changed in the ideals of today.

Admirers of Captain James Cook, for example, might now find his celebrated 18th century pioneer explorations of the South Seas diminished by today’s would-be revisionists. Who was James Cook? Why has a 1775 painting of him by Nathaniel Dance (1735-1811) caused such interest for more than two centuries? Probably because “Cook's voyages are credited with … providing the first accurate map of the Pacific, and …[did] more to fill the map of the world than any other explorer in history,” and maybe because of his death, when he was killed by islanders in a skirmish in Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island of Hawaii on February 14, 1779. It has led to questions.

Horwitz addresses many of those but his book is not a philosophical dissertation, nor is it a timeline of Captain Cook’s three voyages from1768 to 1780. While meticulously researched, it is the tale of a current laid-back adventure visiting many of the places where Cook had called -- usually with the first European face the natives had seen. Horwitz, an American writer who had lived in Sydney, Australia started his quest serving on a replica of Cook’s bark, the Endeavour for one week to understand the misery of sailing in those former days. He then talked an Australian friend Roger Williamson whom he describes as “an intoxicating companion” to travel with him. Their banter adds greatly to the humor of the book even more than that between Bill Bryson and his mysterious sidekick Stephen Katz, in Neither Here Nor There, Bryson’s student adventure across Europe.

The Captain James Cook painting by Nathanial Dance is shown here copyright of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, the world’s largest maritime museum and an easy journey from central London by rail or boat. The pencil sketch of his bark Endeavour was drawn by his onboard artist Sydney Parkinson. Cook’s arrival in Huahine Bay Tahiti also courtesy National Maritime Museum. Cook’s death painting by artist George Carter, 1781, courtesy the National Library of Australia.

Take a look at Cook’s two ships entering Huahine Bay in Tahiti on his second voyage. How grand they look in comparison to the islanders’ boats! How easy it must have been, when in his third voyage at the Big Island of Hawaii his arrival made the natives think a god had come to their midst. There are several conflicting stories and many paintings of how he died. Some artists sanitized his death showing that he was gesturing his men in boats offshore not to shoot at their hosts.

Horwitz clarifies those inconsistencies by precisely searching official records including ones from Cook’s childhood in Yorkshire in northern England and then interviewing then traveling in the South Seas with the president of the Captain Cook Society. Horwitz’s style is based on his effortless ability to get strangers to open up to his interests. His pages alternate with descriptions of Cook’s voyages and his, Horwitz’s, personal impressions of visiting the same places Cook discovered but doing it more than 200 years later. The two prior voyages had seen Cook defeated by ice in the first when he answered the Admiralty’s command to discover a Northwest Passage before he headed into the South Seas in a voyage he completed at Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies without a single case of scurvy.

Top left: Plaque at Edinburgh University Medical School. Top right: TItle page Treatise of the Scurvy in Three Parts by James Lind, MD, 1753 courtesy of the James Lind Library, Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh, UK. Bottom: Today's tourists are more medically sophisticated than yesterday's mariners, they know that even a banana can provide 17% of a day's VItamin C.

The British Admiralty had failed to implement the findings of Edinburgh physician James Lind whose paper had been published 15 years before Cook’s Endeavour sailed on 1768. Cook, fortunately, had his own ideas on how to prevent scurvy which classically came after six weeks at sea. He carried a German carrot marmalade concoction, malt wort drinks, sauerkraut, vegetables and offal stews “boiled to a pulp then hardened into slabs dissolved into oatmeal and a pudding of boiled peas.” All this boiling guaranteed to destroy any Vitamin C in those talismans although more important was Cook’s determination at any port to obtain fresh food and encourage his crew to come back on board “from A pleasure Jaunt with A Handkerchief full of greens.” In Batavia on the north shore of Java, a seaport with all the infections of 18th century civilization, Cook’s crew became ill with dysentery while his ship was being repaired after being grounded and badly damaged on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Says Horwitz, “During ten weeks in port, seven men had died and another had deserted — a loss equal to that suffered during the prior twenty-seven months of sailing.”

James Cook, a Yorkshire farm boy, had a gift for mathematics which must have served him well as a mapmaker. He was also a curious and careful boy who at the age of 18 became an apprentice to a Quaker ship owner and coal merchant. For the next nine years he worked his way up the ranks, says Horwitz, performing “the dirty, heavy business of toting coal, in waters and along coasts that are the most storm-lashed and treacherous in Europe.” He came late to enter the Royal Navy and his contacts with Quaker pacifism informed most of his responses to the receptions his ships received in the South Seas. Except his final and fatal one.

Cook was not well on his third voyage. His violent death came 12 exciting and difficult years after the start of his first voyage. He was worn out as were the Hawaiians who had thought this distinguished white man might well be the god their mythologies claimed would come one day. Why not? He commanded an immense sailing ship and a crew, an army as it were, of disciplined men who hastened to do his bidding — and he arrived at a specific time in their year when their legends said their god would. So Cook received an extraordinarily devoted welcome that enabled him to repair his ship and collect resources like local food with gifts that must have hurt the islanders’ economy.

Maybe they were pleased to see him go, but when he returned with a broken mast at a time that no longer coincided with their legends, his reception was not as favorable. Natives stole a cutter from the ship. Cook went on shore with ten marines to capture a chief and hold him prisoner until the cutter, an important possession as it was the ship’s largest boat, was returned. The islanders became militant. Cook, incensed at what he saw as an act of insolence, gave up the Quaker-like attitudes that had served him well on many island shores, and shot his weapon killing a native who was threatening him with a stone knife. The crowd reacted, knocking him down with clubs and stabbing him many times.

The Cook Memorial is prominently displayed in the bay where he lost his life. It has been vandalized at times but not by the tourists who come there to snorkel and to gaze upon the cliffs that rise behind it in whose caves bodies of previous Hawaiian kings have been hidden. In the past, a young male Hawaiian, traditionally, would be asked to lower the body from the top of the cliffs and privately choose where it would be secreted. He would complete his mission, go back up the cliffs then with the promise that his family would be favored for all time, he would submit to execution taking the king’s location to his own grave.

Those who regard Hawaii as the perfect American vacation don’t always consider how different their reception is as they step out of their aircraft and receive their lei compared to what ancient mariners received when they attempted to beach their cutters on foreign shores.

Tourists see romanticized murals and delightful luau welcomes. It was not that way for any ship’s officer leading a landing party on a foreign beach.

Perhaps we can explore that thought more in our final Hawaiian story next week.

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