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.

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