Each morning I go out for a 2.5 mile jog in our neighborhood on the Big Island of Hawaii. In one stretch of the run I am looking down at Kealakekua Bay and the white obelisk erected to commemorate the location where famed explorer Captain James Cook was killed at age 50 on February 14, 1779. Cook circumnavigated the Earth, mapping many coastlines for the first time, proving New Zealand to be an island and disproving the hoped for Northwest Passage. Cook’s journey ended on the Big Island when he returned to Kealakekua Bay to replace a broken mast. He took King Kalani’opu’u into custody to leverage return of one of his landing boats borrowed by local people. He was stabbed to death by warriors and villagers loyal to the king, ending his third journey of discovery into the uncharted waters of the Pacific Ocean and Coral Sea.
Sense of place is based on many components with human history being an important element. Our move to this hillside coffee farm on Mauna Loa volcano stimulated me to begin reading Cook’s journals, which I downloaded from Amazon.com. He wrote more than a million words over the years. I found them deadly dull with observations of sailing conditions, bland references to shipboard conditions and reports of disease or punishments handed out, but few of his motivations for exploring. Then I found Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz, a Pulitzer Prize winning author who wrote for the Wall Street Journal and New Yorker.
Many biographies have been written about Captain Cook. This book takes you on a unique journey with the author and colorful Aussie friend, Roger, to the modern-day locations Cook visited in the 1760s and 1770s. Horwitz blends his thoughtful observations of the modern realities of his stops along the way with Cook’s own words in his journals. The author speculates about Cook’s motivations and choices after interviewing local people and Cook historians at the locales visited. His extensive research of the varied side stories add charm and detail where needed to help sort out conflicting versions.
Horwitz started his research with a tortuous week-long internship as a sailor on a replica of Cook’s first ship, a wooden coal-hauling sailing vessel. Just one week convinced him that surviving a trip with Cook must have required incredible patience and endurance. Later in his research he traveled the Aleutian Islands on a ferry and learned that modern ships sometimes provide a miserable experience in the rugged waters of Alaska and the Bering Sea. His ferry captain observed that Cook’s feats were astonishing in surviving the rugged waters of the arctic.
The author also points out the broad influences of Cook on popular culture. I had never made the connection with the fictional Captain James Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, who also traveled with his trusted medical officer, Bones, and Science Officer Spock. James Cook traveled on the HMS Endeavor on his first journey with his trusted surgeon and science specialist.
Captain James Cook was a steady and fair captain by most accounts until the last few weeks of his life. He was a whiz at math, a master mapmaker, and ahead of his times in using fresh and preserved foods in keeping his crew alive without the losses from scurvy that plagued other sailors in his time. He traveled tens of thousands of miles in the worst possible conditions, but returned to his home in London for brief visits with family back in England before setting off on another exploration. His words from the 1770s sound like something a NASA astronaut might say today,
Ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go.
Those of us who interpret nature and history rely on biographies to interpret key events and characters in history. Every additional source adds nuance.
Horowitz’ interpretation of Cook’s life and journey is the best biographical and travel reading experience I have ever had. It especially makes a great read before visiting any of the places Cook lived or traveled – Yorkshire UK, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, Alaska and Hawaii.
P.S. Did I mention we live in Captain Cook, Hawaii?