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- March 2003 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Into the Blue – Boldly going where Captain Cook has gone before
by Tony Horwitz
Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2002.
480pp., maps, index, bibliog.,pb., rrp $29.95
Reviewed by Bob Nicholls
The publisher, Allen & Unwin, lists this book under the heading of ‘adventure’. So what is this review doing in a naval history journal?
Well, it’s two tales of adventure, separated by over 200 years.
The first tale certainly falls under our heading, for it covers Captain James Cook’s three explorations – the last great voyages of discovery.
When he first set out for the Pacific in 1968, one third of the globe was blank. By the time he was killed, in a bloody clash on the island of Hawaii in 1779, the map of the world was substantially complete.
Cook sailed from the Arctic to the Antarctic, from Tahiti to Siberia, from Easter Island to the Great Barrier Reef, and introduced to the West an exotic world of taboo and tattoo, of cannibalism and ritual sex. Yet the impoverished farm boy, whose rise to Captain broke the bounds of Britain’s class system, remains as mysterious today as the uncharted seas he sailed in the 18th century.
Tony Horwitz is an award-winning American journalist and author. He divides his time between Sydney and the US. Reading Cook’s journals, more than two years later ‘I wondered what these places were like today; if any traces of Cook’s boot prints remained. I also wanted to turn the spyglass around. Cook and his men were as exotic to islanders as natives seemed to the English. What had Pacific peoples made of pale strangers appearing from the sea, and how did their descendants remember Cook now?
‘I wanted to probe Cook, as well. His journals recorded every detail of where he went, and what he did. They rarely revealed why. Perhaps, by following in Cook’s wake, I could fathom the farm boy whose ambition drove him further than any man, until it killed him on a faraway shore called Owhyhee.’
Into the Blue is the result, and a compelling read it is too. Horwitz meets native peoples – Aboriginal and Aleut elders, Maori gang members, the king of Tonga – for whom Cook is alternately a heroic navigator and a villain who brought syphilis, guns and greed to the unspoiled Pacific. He finds Miss Tahiti, the roughest bar in Alaska, and the secret of the red-teethed warriors of Savage Island. Throughout, he also searches for Cook the man; a restless prodigy who fled his peasant boyhood, and later the luxury of Georgian London, for the privation and peril of sailing off the edge of the chart.
The book is thoroughly recommended for any reader with an interest in the ‘then and now’ of history. At the same time it fills in the gaps in the somewhat sterile historical accounts to which we have become accustomed.