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Retracing Captain Cook's Voyages—Author Interview

National Geographic News
October 1, 2002
 
James Cook was the 18th-century explorer who sailed off the map to
become the first European discoverer of many places and cultures in the
Pacific Ocean. In his new book, Blue Latitudes, Tony Horwitz
records how he retraced Cook's journeys, looking for traces of the
intrepid mariner in places as far flung as the Tongan archipelago, Niue,
the Cook Islands, and the Aleutians.


National Geographic News interviews Horwitz about his quest to experience some of the thrill of Cook's discovery, and understand what it meant to both Europeans and natives, and what it means to them now.

What were you setting out to achieve by retracing Cook's footsteps?

I wanted to explore Cook's voyages, Cook the man, and the captain's legacy in the lands he visited. To me, the most compelling drama of Cook's voyages is his encounter with Pacific peoples unknown to, and untouched by, the West. This is an experience we simply can't have today, yet Cook had it many times just a little over two centuries ago. By going to the places he did, I wanted to experience some of that thrill of discovery, and understand what it meant to both Europeans and natives, and what it means to them now.

You wanted to know what impact Cook had on the places he visited. What did you find out?

Cook's voyages occurred on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, and at a time when Britain was losing its American colonies. As a result, his discoveries led to the expansion of Europe's empires and economies into the Pacific, and all that came with them: whalers, traders, colonists, missionaries, rums, guns, smallpox. This was obviously a very mixed blessing. On the one hand, Cook literally put Australia and New Zealand on the map, and made possible their emergence as prosperous nations and entrepôts between Europe, Asia, and America. But for the indigenous inhabitants of these and other lands, as well as for the Pacific's fragile environment, the result was often disastrous.

Many of the Pacific countries you visited remain unknown to most of the rest of the world. What is your assessment of their condition and role and place in the 21st-century world?

It's hard to generalize, because the Pacific is so varied. The places Cook (and I) visited that still remain relatively unknown are mostly small, scattered islands, including the Tongan archipelago, Niue, the Cook Islands, the Aleutians. For the most part they are now modern societies, with economies and communication systems that connect them to the rest of the globe. But distance and size are still destiny. While jets and cruise ships have brought these lands within reach of the West, for the most part they remain sleepy, remote outposts with little role in world affairs.

Cook remains a legendary explorer and something of a hero in the English-speaking world. How is he regarded by the native peoples of the islands and places he contacted?

Cook was a humane man who tried to avoid violence and the spread of disease, even though he didn't always succeed. But those who arrived in his wake weren't there to explore and describe, as Cook was; they were generally there to exploit. And missionaries, while often well-intentioned, tried to stamp out native customs and beliefs. As a result, within a few generations of Cook's arrival, indigenous people lost their lands, their cultures, and in many cases, their lives.

Not surprisingly, then, Cook is often reviled today as the advance-man of empire; he's a convenient symbol of everything bad that's happened since his arrival. Monuments to him are frequently vandalized, and native people protest visits by a replica of his first ship.

But there's an interesting twist in almost every place I visited. The writings of Cook and his men, their artwork, and the artifacts they collected give us the best snapshot we have of what life and customs were like in the Pacific at the moment of European contact. Native peoples are now using this resource to rediscover their own arts and practices, such as canoe-building, tattooing, and dance.

Maori and Aborigines are also using Cook's journals as evidence in their land claims. So it's come full circle. A man seen as an agent of destruction is now a vehicle for recovering what was lost.

After your travels, how has your opinion of Cook changed?

I'm awed, first of all, by how courageous and intrepid Cook was. I spent some time as working sailor aboard a replica of one of Cook's ships, and it's truly awful: cramped, puke-inducing, and terrifying—particularly when you're furling sails atop a 127-foot-mast in heavy seas. Cook did this for three years at a time—three times! And he was in his forties—in that day, an advanced age—with a wife and children in London.

After his second voyage, Cook was a famous man with the offer of a comfortable retirement. Yet he continued to embark on reckless exploration of the unknown, ultimately at the cost of his life. He and his men were made of much sterner stuff than we are today.

I also came away with a profound admiration for Cook's humanity and tolerance, and how much we can still learn from that today.

We live at a moment when we approach the rest of the world with fear and suspicion. Cook sailed into the blue and stepped off his boat at countless shores with no notion of whether he'd be met with spears or embraces. In most cases, he and those he encountered shared not a single word or custom in common. Yet they found ways to communicate, and in almost all cases, to get along.

If there's an overriding message in Cook's journals, it's that humans the world over are alike in their essential nature, and that there are almost always grounds for mutual understanding and respect.

How has your view of the places and people he visited changed?

The curse of modern travel is that we have an image of every place we go before we get there, thanks to books, tourist brochures, and yes, National Geographic. There's also a depressing, conventional wisdom that the whole planet has become an Americanized monoculture of malls and Starbucks and satellite TV. So I was heartened to discover that there are still strange and wonderful worlds out there to discover.

Pacific peoples may share much of the commercial culture we do, but they also have their own. When watching a Maori haka, discussing the Dreamtime with Aboriginal elders, or learning about Aleutian kayaks in the Bering Sea, I felt very far away indeed.

At the same time, it's impossible to travel the Pacific without recognizing the damage done not only to native societies, but to the environment. Rising sea levels, bleached coral, polluted lagoons, overfished waters—the list goes on and on. Most of the lands Cook visited were very fragile environments; they almost melted at first touch. Many remain wild and beautiful places, but they won't last long unless we take steps soon to preserve what's left.

What advice would you give people who might want to visit these places?

Just go. Go now. Chuck the brochures and package holidays. Climb on a plane or ship. Don't worry about itineraries. The best travel is what's unplanned. And the most interesting places are the ones that are least visited—skip Tahiti, head for the far reaches of French Polynesia. Or try Niue, a tiny atoll no one goes to. And forget the honeymoon resorts. Yes, there are some nice beaches in the Pacific, but they're not worth flying 15 hours to visit, and the five-star hotels are ruinously expensive. Explore the culture and other attractions instead.

Your book mentions that the relationship between Cook and Joseph Banks (the botanist who financed much of Cook's exploration) was extraordinary, perhaps even like that between Lewis and Clark. Can you elaborate on that?

Cook and Banks couldn't have differed more, yet they forged one of the great partnerships in the history of exploration. Cook came from the bottom of British society: the son of a rural day laborer, with almost no formal education, who taught himself astronomy and navigation and rose through the ranks through natural talent and hard labor. He was an entirely self-made man. Banks, by contrast, was a landed gentleman, educated at Eton, Harrow, and Oxford, who had already inherited vast wealth by the time he joined Cook's expedition at the age of 25, as a dilettante botanist, bringing along his retinue of assistants and footmen, as well as two dogs.

While Cook steered his ship through innumerable perils, making charts and studying the stars, Banks immersed himself not only in botany, but in native cultures: learning Polynesian languages, participating in island rituals, taking Tahitians as lovers.

As a result, the journals of Cook and Banks give us the same story through complementary eyes, very much as Lewis and Clark do in theirs.

The two men also compared notes and relied on each other, and their relationship brought out qualities in each that might otherwise never have emerged.

Cook gradually opened up to topics well beyond his established talents as a mariner, while Banks matured into an inspired scientist and collector.

Despite a serious falling-out over Cook's second voyage (Banks wanted the ship refitted to accommodate his grandiose needs, including a mistress he tried to sneak aboard disguised as a man), the two patched things up and Banks became the captain's greatest advocate, perpetuating Cook's legacy by helping to dispatch other expeditions in his wake.

Is the age of exploration over? Was what Cook and others did—exploring the world the way they did—perhaps the high point of exploration?

Cook's voyages weren't the end of exploration—the Arctic, Antarctic, Himalayas, and other remote regions remained relatively uncharted long after the captain's death. But his travels marked the end of an era when people could sail off in a small wooden ship and "discover" vast stretches of the globe, and entire cultures, unknown to the West.

The only analogous experience today might be shooting into space. Except that astronauts have high-tech gear, contact with Mission Control, and satellite images of the galaxy. Cook sailed off the known map without so much as a life raft, or a decent chart.

To me, Cook's voyages are the high point of exploration because they combine the early modern experience of discovery with a sensibility very much like our own.

Cook and his men were the first scientific explorers. They weren't buccaneers or missionaries or gold-mad conquistadors; they were trained observers, including naturalists, astronomers, artists, even poets.

They were men of the Enlightenment who valued reason and objectivity, while also on the adventure of their lives. So the records they left are very rich and detailed and accessible to us today, in a way that those of Magellan or Columbus are not.

Tony Horwitz is the best-selling author of Confederates in the Attic, Baghdad Without a Map, and One for the Road. He is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked as a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and a staff writer for The New Yorker. He lives in Virginia with his wife, the novelist Geraldine Brooks, and their son, Nathaniel.

Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before is published by Henry Holt & Company (New York, $26).
 

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