Wednesday, January 13, 2016

January's Book: Blue Latitudes

Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz
Journalism (2002 - 444 pp.)

In Blue Latitudes, Tony Horwitz recounts his retracing of some of Captain James Cook's most memorable steps in exploring much of the Pacific Ocean. Tied into the account is an overview of some of what Cook and his shipmates might have experienced, based largely on the works of John Beaglehole. As someone who has never read a comprehensive history of Cook, I had to fumble my way through the story without as much of an informed eye as I often take into historical journalism-type works.

Horwitz tells the story compellingly, making his personal anecdotes far more interesting than most writers' personal anecdotes. The first chapter discusses Horwitz more than Cook, specifically Horwitz's week-long voyage on a mock Endeavour. It is not until Horwitz leaves North America for the South Pacific that the book really takes off.

One of Cook's most famous discoveries* is New Zealand, and Horwitz does not waste time getting there. After a brief stopover in Tahiti, he and Australian friend Roger Williamson find themselves in the middle of a society in some ways defined by its history of British-Maori relations. These began with trade; Cook saw the Maori as "a people he could do business with". (117) Later legacies have led to everything from new words (like "rorohiko", or "brain lightning", for computer [119]) to unsubstantiated rumours of widespread Maori cannibalism and British sodomy (127-129) to a controversial mixed-race group called the Mongrel Mob that, of all things, identifies with Yale University due to its bulldog logo. (132) From a purely cultural studies perspective, the New Zealand chapter is the most interesting one in the book. New Zealand is a modern, industrialized country that owes a significant amount of its history to Cook and to the peoples he met upon landing there, which was not always the case elsewhere.**

For the little I knew of Cook going into this read, I never knew he almost went to Antarctica. The Endeavour reached a stunning 71 degrees South, which causes Horwitz to note with rightful incredulity, "Sailing blind, in a lone wooden ship, Cook had added ten degrees of latitude to the map. Almost another fifty years passed before another vessel so much as crossed the Antarctic Circle." (218) Only a retrospectively poor location prevented Cook from reaching one of Antarctica's many peninsulas, so he only reached ice, not land. Nonetheless, this was an unparalleled feat, so much so that Williamson, and not Horwitz, finally travelled there after the book's journey had ended. (442)

I had barely heard of Niue at all, so I could identify with Horwitz's statement that "It was oddly relaxing to set off on a trip for which you couldn't prepare." (223) I assumed going in that Niue would be warm year-round, given its equatorial location (and I was right), so my wool sweaters and winter boots could at least stay at home. Aside from that, though, and given the week Horwitz and Williamson were forced to stay there because of some bizarre plane scheduling, (222) I imagined hiking gear and books would be best. What struck me about Niue, but that makes perfect sense after only a few seconds of reflection, is that policing in Niue lacks the urgency it possesses in other places because no one can escape. As a result, car theft is solved politely the next day, when everyone involved has had the chance to sleep. (240) It borders on comical that this was the place Cook dubbed "Savage Island", but recall, sometimes words come from other languages. Niue seems "wild... and untamed" at times in Blue Latitudes, let alone in the 1700s.

Cook did not get to Alaska until his third and final voyage, when instead of seeking Terra Australis,^ he was instead tasked with finding the Northwest Passage. Alaska is not a pleasant place to travel by boat even now, as Horwitz and Williamson's captain relays: "What Cook did, it's hardly even comprehensible... This is a graveyard for ships. I wouldn't risk a day sail out here without all these instruments [such as radio and GPS]." (339) The rest of the Alaska chapter is the most entertaining part of the Horwitz-Williamson voyage, including seasickness and "an all-night drinking bout". (349) There is also a valuable lesson in how cultures hybridize, specifically the Russian-American experience of the Aleuts. (363) Unfortunately for Cook and his crew, Alaska was not the most momentous leg of their voyage - the Northwest Passage was finally discovered by Roald Amundsen in 1906.

Blue Latitudes ends where Cook does: in Hawaii. Horwitz finishes the trip by visiting Herb Kane, a local artist who "had drawn together the past and present, art and science, the English and native perspective." (426) I linked to his website there. His work is unsurprisingly quite good. This is a fitting end for a meandering trip around a significant portion of the Pacific.

Many places Cook went, nails were used as currency. They purchased food, sex and souvenirs. At times, sailors were so nail-hungry one of Cook's shipmates worried they might strip the entire boat. (391) However much of an exaggeration this may have been, sailors almost constantly tore nails from the ship. The Endeavour (first voyage) and Resolution (second and third voyages) were capable of holding livestock. How was it that not one sailor appears to have thought of packing a box of nails? This question plagued me throughout the book. I do not blame Horwitz for failing to find an answer.

Greedily, I wanted a final chapter on Horwitz and Williamson travelling to Petropavlovsk,^^ where the Resolution and Discovery went after Cook's death. Cook never actually saw the city, though, and it would have been a costly plane ticket. It may figure more prominently if a similar book is ever written about Vitus Bering, who visited the city more than once.

Blue Latitudes could have been a little better edited and a little more cleanly written. For example, the phrase "begged the question" (78) is used where "raised the question" would have made more sense grammatically. Similarly, there is occasional purple prose throughout, such as alliterations that do not add to the book's message, poetic speculation on what Cook might have experienced, and so on. These passages take the reader out of Cook's voyage, where Horwitz presumably wants the reader to be. These are typically only minor issues in what is, overall, a well-written book.

Blue Latitudes fits nicely into a tradition of historical journalism by American writers. Unlike books like The Devil in the White City and Island of Vice, which conveniently take place in Chicago and New York City respectively, Horwitz writes about a Brit who travelled the world. Considering Cook's voyages occurred during the Revolutionary Era, or close enough to it (1768-1779), another author may have been tempted to write about George Washington instead. It certainly would have required less travel time. I applaud Horwitz for going so far out into the world and trying something new.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 6

NOTE: I would discuss Joseph Banks, the botanist who accompanied Cook on the Endeavour and who advanced science a long way, but that would necessitate an entry of its own.

*I use the word "discovery" the way Cook may have used it, effectively to mean "cartography". Cook's map-making abilities far surpassed those of any of the peoples he encountered, as far as we know.

**For example, Tahiti became French, and much of Horwitz's trip to Australia concerned interactions between the Aborigines and later German Lutheran missionaries. Hawaii's lack of British heritage should speak for itself.

^Terra Australis was originally a widely speculated enormous southern continent. It lent its name to one continent and its geography to another.

^^In the book, this is referred to as "Peter and Paul", which is simply an English translation.

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