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E koro te tino tangata e ngaro i roto i te tokohaha.
A Noble man cannot be lost in a crowd.
   -Maori saying


I'm a big fan of Tony Horwitz and there's much to like about this book, so it's only reluctantly that I say that it's structure is needlessly awkward. In past books Mr. Horwitz has established a certain style: he travels to unusual places and observes the citizenry, gently but indisputably poking fun at the natives. In One for the Road, he took us along for a hitchhiking trip through the Australian Outback. In Baghdad without a Map, he gave us an infidel's-eye view of the Muslim Middle East. In Confederates in the Attic, he introduced us to Civil War reenactors in the American South. In each case, without any mean-spiritedness, he demonstrated the humor inherent in various situations, especially in living in the past, as for instance when Yemeni men all still carry around enormous daggers or when grown men dress up like Rebel soldiers on weekends. Each of these books was also predominantly a travelogue, conveying Mr. Horwitz's impression of the part of the world to which his wife's work had taken him.

Blue Latitudes is similar in many ways, but it is its differences which really stand out. Mr. Horwitz and his wife having finally settled down, this time he sets out with a distinct purpose in mind, to follow the path of Captain James Cook's great Pacific voyages of exploration of the 18th Century. So, once again we do get a travelogue and much local color, but with a difference. Many of the natives in the places that Cook visited, from Australia to the Aleutians, are ambivalent about or even hostile to his legacy of "discovery". For many of them, though some respect his accomplishments, he seems to represent little more than the first wave of colonization, exploitation, and oppression. And, indeed, one could certainly write an impassioned polemic about the evils of the white man and of Cook as the harbinger of destruction, much like the books that came pouring out on the 500th anniversary of Columbus discovering America. Kirkpatrick Sale's Conquest of Paradise, for instance, gives away the game even in its title, conveying the absurd notion that pre-literate, pre-civilized, pre-Columbian America was some kind of a paradise. Hawaiians, Fijians, Maori, aborigines, and others seem to hold similar views about the pre-Cook Pacific, and one might simply have accepted their dubious version of reality.

Mr. Horwitz though, at the same time that he's writing a modern tale of travel, serves up a history of Cook's journeys and a biography of the Captain and, because he's fair in his treatment of Cook and reasonable in his assessments of Cook's character and behavior, and because Cook truly is a heroic figure and quite a decent man, it's rather difficult for us to accept the relentlessly negative view of the natives. Mr. Horwitz himself so clearly admires Cook that he inevitably ends up defending him. On the other hand, he's so sensitive to the political concerns of the modern natives that he seems reluctant to question their lingering resentments. This stands in particular contrast to his earlier books when you note things like the Maori basing land claims on details from Cook's logs or reproducing tattoo patterns from the sketches that Cook and his men did, because their ancestors at that time obviously left no books preserving such things for them. It's hard to believe that the same Mr. Horwitz who found such amusement in the desire of Southern men to dress up like their ancestors is not equally amused by the Maori's no less determined effort to live in the past.

These factors, the mainly humane and heroic presence of Cook and the somewhat too politically correct presentation of the natives, end up creating a dissonance in the book. We're whiplashed back and forth from rooting for Cook and his men as they face daunting challenges just to survive to apparently being expected to mourn his expeditions because of their impact on indigenous cultures. And Mr. Horwitz, by serving as neither an apologist for Cook nor a polemicist for the natives, ends up being eminently fair but somewhat unfirm as a guide.

Here's a typically laudatory description by Mr. Horwitz of Cook and his methods, following an encounter with the Maori that began friendly but ended in violence:
He led from the front, laying down his arms as the warrior had done, and going to meet him in the river rather than putting one of his men at risk. Nor did he flinch when the warrior pressed noses in a hongi, the Maori equivalent of a handshake or kiss. But Cook wasn't reckless. When surrounded by armed men, he retreated. And when natives failed to reciprocate what he regarded as peacemaking, he didn't hesitate to threaten them, and to make good on his threats. Small shot, intended to wound and frighten, was his first recourse. If that failed, Cook shot to kill. Cook would hew to this carefully calibrated escalation during tense moments throughout his Pacific career, with considerable success, until he lost control of himself and his situation early one morning on a beach in Hawaii.

Also characteristic were Cook's actions once the fray ended. Unlike many other explorers, he didn't sail away, or engage in wholesale massacre. Instead, he respectfully draped the dead warrior with beads and nails, and decided to row elsewhere in the bay, to find fresh water, and, "if possible to surprise some of the natives and bring them on board and by good treatment endeavour to gain their friendship."
Now, it may be possible to imagine some utopian alternate reality in which Europeans would never have come in contact with the peoples of the Pacific, or one where when they did they would have not sought to bring the natives the benefits of Western Civilization and not sought to exploit the new lands and resources they also discovered. But, if one accepts the reality that the encounter between European and natives was inevitable and was destined to radically alter the lives and societies of the natives, as it seems to me one must, then we might consider that the Pacific peoples were rather lucky that it was a man like Cook who initiated the encounter. Many, perhaps most, European explorers had far worse "human rights" records. In fact, though it is Cook's "civilizing" mission to the islanders that is portrayed as at least somewhat tragic here, as Mr. Horwitz hints in his comment about how Cook eventually met his end, it might equally well be said that, like Mr. Kurtz in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, that mission ultimately turned Cook somewhat savage, and that's the real tragedy.

All that said, the book is still well worth reading. That it might have been better had he been more decisive in his presentation does not prevent it from being enjoyable as is. Personally, I found Cook's story overwhelmed the rest of the book--no modern recreation can really hope to match the real explorations and no modern complaints can really convince one (or not me at any rate) that life was superior for the folks Cook "found" two hundred some odd years ago than it is today.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B+)

  

Websites:

See also:

Tony Horwitz (2 books reviewed)
Travel
Tony Horwitz Links:
    -BOOK SITE : Confederates in the Attic (Random House)
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Confederates in the Attic
    EXCERPT: from Blue Lattitudes
    -ESSAY : Battle Acts : The Civil War mania that has made weekend war games a national pastime. (Tony Horwitz, 2/16/98, New Yorker)
    -REVIEW : of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood By Janisse Ray (Tony Horwitz, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of APOCALYPSE PRETTY SOON Travels in End-Time America. By Alex Heard (Tony Horwitz, NY Times Book Review)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Tony Horwitz: Blue Latitudes (Diane Rehm Show, October 1, 2002, NPR)
    -POWELLS.COM INTERVIEWS: TONY HORWITZ
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : Tony Horwitz, author of "Confederates in the Attic" (Terry Gross on "Fresh Air," March 18, 1998)
    -INTERVIEW :  A Conversation with Tony Horwitz  . . . author of Confederates in the Attic (Random House)
    -INTERVIEW : Risky Business With Tony Horwitz:  Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Horwitz talks about America's obsession with the Civil War and how he finds great stories by taking chances.  (Dawn Simonds Ramirez, Writers' Digest)
    -PROFILE: Captain Cook's new mate: The British mariner was too modest for his own good. (Peter Fray, October 5 2002, Sydney Morning Herald)
    -INTERVIEW: Retracing the Voyages of Captain Cook (National Geographic News, October 1, 2002)
    -ESSAY : Damning Undercover Tactics as Fraud' : Can Reporters Lie About Who They Are? The Food Lion Jury Says No. (Russ Baker, March/April 1997, Columbia Journalism Review)
    -ARCHIVES : "tony horwitz" (Find Articles)
    -READING GROUP GUIDE : Confederates in the Attic (Random House)
    -REVIEW: of Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz (Adrienne Miller, Esquire)
    -REVIEW: of Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before (Steven Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
    -REVIEW : of Blue Latitudes (John McMurtrie, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Blue Latitudes (Outside)
    -REVIEW : of Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz (Roy Blount Jr., NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Confederates (MARYANNE VOLLERS, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Confederates  (William Porter, Denver Post)
    -REVIEW : of Confederates (Kurt Jensen, USA TODAY)
    -REVIEW : of Confederates (Tom Vincent, Charlotte Observer )
    -REVIEW : of Confederates (Peter Baniak for the Lexingon Herald Leader )
    -REVIEW : of Confederates (Thomas J. Brady for The Philadelphia Inquirer)
    -REVIEW : of Confederates (Patricia Holt , SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Confederates (Tracy Jones, Metro Pulse)
    -REVIEW : of Confederates (Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Confederates (Catherine Clinton, Civil War History)
    -REVIEW : of Confederates (Kara Fitzgerald, Ace Weekly)
    -REVIEW : of Confederates (David Madden, Book Page)
    -REVIEW : of Confederates (Elisabeth Sherwin)
    -REVIEW : of Confederates in the Attic (Shawn Rider)
    -REVIEW : of New Gilded Age: The New Yorker Looks at the Culture of Affluence (Sandra Block, USA TODAY)

GERALDINE BROOKS :
    -PROFILE : A wonderful year indeed : Former war correspondent Geraldine Brooks is shunning her old job like the plague after a triumphant crossover to fiction with a story about the Black Death (Susan Wyndham, September 1, 2001, Sydney Morning Herald)
    -REVIEW : of Year of Wonders (Alfred Hickling, The Guardian)

Book-related and General Links:


CAPTAIN COOK:
    Captain Cook Society (CCS) Home Page
    "Captain James Cook, The World's Explorer"
    Welcome to The Hunterian Museum's Captain Cook Collection
    Captain Cook Memorial Museum, Whitby
    Biography Of Captain James Cook
    European Discoveries: South Pacific and Indo-West Pacific
    Antarctic Explorers: James Cook
    Captain Cook
    Captain Cook Schoolroom Museum: Home
    BBC - History - Captain James Cook (1728 - 1779)
    -European Discovery (Big Volcano)
    -Memory of the World Register - Nominated Documentary Heritage:¾¾Australia:¾The Endeavour Journal of James Cook
    Captain James Cook | British Navigator and Explorer (Lucid Cafe)
    MMBC Exploration: Explorer Biographies
    James Cook link page
    -ARCHIVES: "james cook" (Find Articles)
    -ESSAY: In the Beginning was Captain Cook (Chris Healy, Australian Humanities Review)
    History, Lies and Imagination (Padraic McGuinness, March Ê2003, Quadrant)

THE SHIP:
    The Ship (BBC History)
    -PRESS RELEASE: South Sea adventure in the wake of Captain Cook (BBC)
    -REVIEW: Re-creation of Cook voyage is tasty history lite (JOHN LEVESQUE, October 14, 2002, SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER)
    -REVIEW: History Channel takes reality TV to new level--aboard 18th century ship (John Kiesewetter, Oct. 11, 2002, The Cincinnati Enquirer)

Comments:

I think you should get a search engine because it is hard to find the information I want.

- James Lawler

- Oct-10-2004, 23:16

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