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New Books: Blue Latitudes

Jan 1, 2003
From Ocean Navigator #127
January/February 2003
When Capt. James Cook departed Southampton, England, in 1768, a full third of the world's surface remained unexplored to Europeans. Much of the world's map was simply blank. None of the thousands of islands of the South Pacific had been charted except for those lying within a thin band along the trade routes. The Dutch had explored parts of western Australia, but the shape and size of the continent was largely unknown. The same was true of Antarctica and New Zealand, where no contact had yet occurred between the warrior-like Maoris and Europeans. Rumors of a fertile southern continent, rich with gold and jewels, were rampant. Cook was charged to soberly explore the world, learn what resources were available, and report back to the Crown on everything.

Tony Horwitz retraced the route of Cook's three voyages, which covered 200,000 miles, to offer an analysis of his character (shrewd, a meticulous observer, not inclined to take unnecessary chances) and how his contact with native people changed their cultures forever. While this contact often led to the complete ruin of numerous cultures through disease and war, Cook himself was no conquistador. He seldom fought with native people, choosing instead to interact peacefully so that he could learn from them about the land's resources and environment. (Cook was eventually killed in a bizarre encounter in Hawaii, in which he behaved uncharacteristically violent, perhaps as a result of suffering from mental illness brought on by fatigue.)

Blue Latitudes was researched not by sailboat, although the author spent a week aboard the replica Endeavour off the west coast of Canada, but by airplane. Nonetheless, sailors will appreciate the work for its thoughtful look at many wonderful far-off ports, alternately through the eyes of Cook and his men and through the lens of a 21st-century observer. The book is funny, profane and raw, capturing the same spirit that followed Cook and his band of roughnecks around the world on his historic mission, and Horwitz is a master storyteller.

Henry Holt, New York; 496 pages; $26.