When Tony Horwitz stepped off the plane to Savage Island, he knew almost nothing about the place.
He'd done this on purpose. As part of a year and a half-long journey throughout the Pacific following in the wake of 18th century explorer James Cook, Horwitz wanted at least one blank spot on the map -- a place that was truly terra incognita for a 21st century American author.
So he flew to the tiny Pacific island of Niue without consulting brochures, Web sites, or magazine articles. There was one thing Horwitz did know -- that Cook had named the place "Savage Island," after being greeted by a hail of spears and stones from the island's inhabitants.
That sense of meeting the unknown was what so attracted Horwitz, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent and author of the bestseller Confederates in the Attic, to the voyages of the British explorer. In tracing Cook's route, Horwitz has crafted a delightful new book, Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before, published in October by Henry Holt and picked by independent booksellers for the September/October Book Sense 76.
The connection between Cook and Captain Kirk of Star Trek is more than glib. "Part of what appealed to me about Star Trek," said Horwitz in a recent phone interview from his home in Virginia, "was this notion of voyaging into the unknown. And beaming down to planets and not knowing what you were going to find. To me that's the heart of Cook's story.
"He goes to land after land where he steps off his ship not knowing if he's going to be met with spears or with hugs."
Horwitz found that Savage Island didn't quite live up to its reputation. "As it turned out, it's a very warm, friendly place. It wasn't savage or primitive, but quite wonderful and unspoiled. Only about a thousand people live there. Virtually no tourists go there. And I, at least, had a little whiff of what it might have been like before Cook and other Europeans arrived."
From late 1999 to the summer of 2001, Horwitz roamed throughout the Pacific in search of the sites visited by Cook -- the British explorer whose three voyages in the late 1700s confirmed the existence of Australia, and introduced places like Hawaii, Tahiti, New Zealand, and the Aleutian Islands to European consciousness.
Those who enjoyed Horwitz's previous book, Confederates in the Attic, won't be disappointed with his latest endeavor. Blue Latitudes is filled with good-humored and lively reporting. Horwitz has a knack for seeking out quirky people and events and bringing them to life on the page. We're treated to the queasy reality of sailing on a replica of Cook's ship Endeavor through Puget Sound. In Australia, Horwitz witnesses a Cook reenactment fueled more by beer than a commitment to historical accuracy. In Niue, he searches for the mysterious "red banana" that scared off Cook and his men. In Alaska, Horwitz visits the second most violent bar in America and lives to tell the tale.
Adding to the book's liveliness is the presence of Horwitz's Falstaff-like traveling companion, Roger Williamson. The Australian publishing sales rep is an incessant wag with mediocre sailing skills, a withering sense of humor, and a penchant for wine and women. Often serving as the foil to Horwitz -- the earnest journalist and Cook investigator -- Williamson lends a welcome dose of irreverence to the Pacific adventures.
Woven throughout Blue Latitudes are historic accounts of Cook's travels -- three extraordinary voyages that culminated with the captain's death in Hawaii after a battle with the island's inhabitants. "To me what makes his death so ironic," said Horwitz, "is that during most of his voyages he was an astonishingly peaceful man. I think when we regard these explorers as a whole we tend to see them as brutal men -- conquistadors who pillaged and didn't care about native life. Cook wasn't like that at all."
In fact, for his time, Cook was an especially tolerant man. Born literally dirt-poor as the son of a Yorkshire farmer, Cook was also a rare case of upward mobility in the stratified society of 18th century Britain. "I think he perhaps had a bit of a chip on his shoulder," Horwitz said. "He needed to prove something. He felt he really had a mission to show what he could do. And that's why I think, sadly, he went out on that third voyage when any sensible person would have retired, written his memoirs, collected his pension, and lived out his days."
Throughout Horwitz's travels, Cook emerges as a complex figure -- someone who means many different things to many different people. To British historians, he's a blameless hero. To Maori activists in New Zealand, he's the advance guy for imperialism and the ravages that followed in his wake. Though Horwitz saw much in the contemporary Pacific to confirm the hard legacy of colonialism, he also discovered in Cook's adventures a genuine curiosity and respect for what was foreign to Europeans.
"I think he actually has a lot to teach us about being very open to other cultures. He saw these islanders neither as noble savages nor depraved heathens. He saw them for what they were: fellow human beings, even if they practiced cannibalism or idol worship or free love. And I found that a heartening and really relevant message for today."
This month, Horwitz completes a book tour in the U.K., and then commences promotional tours in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. What might seem an ambitious travel schedule is nothing for Horwitz, who braved Aleutian ferries and three-masted ships to get a sense of Cook's travels.
He noted to BTW: "I was very struck by something the captain of the replica of Cook's ship said to me -- that today we've become very promiscuous in the way we throw around words like stress and courage. Anyone who does anything out of the ordinary is a hero, a survivor. I think there are very few of us who could put up with what Cook's crew did, physically or psychologically, for more than a few weeks.
"I've come to appreciate how comfortable life is today, and I'm a little less inclined to complain when I'm taking a 24-hour flight to Australia -- which sometimes seems like the limit of human endurance."
He reflected on that a moment.
"Although I sort of quietly hope I won't have to board another ship again other than the Staten Island ferry." -- Andrew Engelson