Pulitzer-winning journalist and travel-writer Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic, 1998, etc.), dogging the wake of Captain Cook, discerningly braids Cook’s long-ago perceptions with his own present-day inquiries into the lands the Captain encountered.
Cook made three epic voyages, sailing from Antarctica to the Arctic, from Australia to Alaska, and to many of the islands that lie between. Fascinated by the man and his accomplishments, Horwitz visits those far-flung lands where the impact of Cook’s arrival was more profound and lasting than the news of the lands’ existence was upon the Europeans back home. The author travels by sailboat and ferry, often in the company of his Australian chum Roger, an odd-fellow and contrarian of rare stripe who adds a comic counterpoint to Horwitz’s probings into attitudes toward Cook in the places he set anchor—attitudes that run the gamut from loathing to reverence. Natives for the most part revile him, though it’s a quirk of fate that the captain’s logs are now helping New Zealand’s Maori establish land claims. Horwitz’s portraits of the lands can be dispiriting: Bora Bora on the brink of environmental collapse, Tahiti gripped by ennui, Tonga feudal with feudal squalor and ill temper. But there are also innocent Niue and vibrant Hawaii and Australia—where Cook is sooner forgotten by all concerned. Of the navigator himself, Horwitz says that “his journals allow us to chart almost every one of his steps and sails, right down the minutest degree of latitude. But [he] left us no map to his own soul.” Still, he rises from these pages as a thoughtful and humane character sensitive to the men who served him and to the local populations he met, though “mutual incomprehension over notions of property and justice [plagued him] throughout his Pacific voyages” and in fact led to his death.
Tandem voyages taken 200 years apart: filled with history and alive with contrasts.