Exploration,Colonization; Region: Pacific Rim

Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz

  • A thoughtful consideration of the impact Cook’s travels had on each of the cultures he visited as well as the one from which he hailed…along with a good chuckle in parts
  • 500 pages (440 pages to Selected Bibliography)

Back when I needed to digest and write about a fresh book every two weeks to keep my New Year’s resolution in the History Reading Challenge’s first year, I got away from choosing books this hefty. Don’t let page count put you off, however. Horwitz’s engaging style and fun sense of humor keep the story moving, so you’ll power through this content before you know it.

Meet the Neighbors…Really

What makes Horwitz’s book shine compared to standard biographies of Captain Cook is how beautifully he distinguishes each of the island populations Cook and his crew meet. These Pacific cultures are very different; consequently, the explorer receives a very different reception at each island. The Tahitians, for example, become known for their very non-British sexual mores and beauty standards, while the Maori are entirely hostile to the Western sailors. I can’t remember a standard history textbook bothering to so carefully distinguish any of these wonderfully diverse cultures when recounting Cook’s travels.

To drive home the differences in each of Cook’s ports of call, Horwitz visits the modern place personally. Through his first-person experiences, readers get a sense of how differently each of these locations has developed since Cook’s eighteenth century explorations. Some locales, like Hawaii, are pretty familiar to American readers. Others are much more exotic even today. Horwitz’s Hawaiian visit brings up an interesting point I had never considered: most modern Hawaiians are no longer commonly one hundred percent genetically Polynesian. So, an individual Hawaiian may have some European ancestry making his or her thoughts about Cook’s arrival there rather mixed.

Hail to the Hero?

Interestingly, hardly any of the Pacific Rim places Horwitz visits holds Captain Cook in high regard, and a few bear him outright contempt. One destination Horwitz visits is mounting a statue labeled as Captain Cook which is widely thought to bear no resemblance to him at all. In Hawaii, the site of the Endeavor’s landing is marked with a monument often defaced with anti-Western graffiti (other local Hawaiians try to keep the monument in good condition). Even if Cook wasn’t the first European to arrive in a particular place or enjoyed good relations with its eighteenth-century population, he has emerged as a symbol for all the unpleasantness Western contact has caused in the subsequent centuries. Disease, exploitation, cultural erosion – many in the Pacific Rim equate Captain Cook with these problems, even if the man himself would have been disgusted with the way other Westerners subsequently treated some of the peoples he met.

Europe, on the other hand, treats the famous explorer and navigator entirely differently. Cook’s parents’ humble cottage, the shop where Cook once worked, the place where Cook boarded as an apprentice…these locations all still exist, complete with signage, as tourist stops. However, hardly any of them is in a condition Cook would have recognized. His parents’ home has been completely displaced from its original site. The contrast in how this captain is regarded is complete: in one hemisphere, the bringer of doom, while in the other, a gifted navigator and benevolent leader.

Buddy Trip

My favorite parts of Horwitz’s largish book were the narratives about his own travels to these locations with his Aussie friend. Horwitz had a book to research, but his chum had other priorities, like booze. His friend is a straight shooter, unaffected by the romance many historians attach to their interests, so his point of view on the locales they visit together is often quite different from Horwitz’s own. The resulting interactions are hilarious.

Speaking of some good laughs in the Pacific Rim, there’s one more smallish book from my reading this summer worth considering…

Girt: The Unauthorized History of Australia by David Hunt

  • Not the first book non-Aussies will pick up for history of this curious nation, but a really fun read
  • 286 pages (Acknowledgements begin at page 280, but are worth a scan)

Also this summer, I picked up this little treat as some light vacation reading. I blew through it in a couple of afternoons, even with some significant interruptions, and learned some surprising things in the process (Catherine the Great cornering the cannabis market, for example…yes, it came up).

All Convicts and Sheep?

As far as learning things, however, one should not make this book one’s go-to text for comprehensive Australian history, and author David Hunt flat out says so. He wrote this book because he had been bored by the traditional textbook Australian history taught to him. He remembers it as “convicts and sheep.” Instead, he highlights the surprising and even absurd aspects of history topics familiar to Australian schoolkids. He does it with scathing hilarity…if you already know something about what he is discussing. If you don’t already have at least a nodding familiarity with this country’s history, then much of Hunt’s humor may periodically make you stop and ask yourself, “wait…is he serious?” You may be able to settle the question by consulting his extensive footnotes rather than resorting to Wikipedia.

Even if you aren’t deeply familiar with Australian history – I am still not – then this book is great fun and can offer a sense of the place. Yes, convicts were a big part of the country’s history, but many of them arrived for rather minor offenses: shoplifting from London bakers or butchers, for example. Their terms were relatively short, but they couldn’t afford passage back to England, so they tucked into building a decidedly rougher, but more egalitarian country than the one from which they came. Aristocrats also arrived to fill out the top of the social pyramid. Of course, social pedigree couldn’t prevent one from being broke or a family embarrassment, and New South Wales (as Australia was known in those days) was an ideal place for the British aristocracy to turf the oddball uncles and unmarriageable cousins. Hunt gives us great fun at their expense. He also succeeds in giving us some good laughs over Captain William Bligh, who served as governor of New South after that whole misunderstanding on the Bounty.

Author David Hunt will soon release a sequel to this book, called True Girt. Consider his stuff for the long flight Down Under, but plan to pack another source if you also want to learn some serious Australian history.

Image: by chillervirus, via Pixabay.com.

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