Thursday, October 30, 2014

Book Review: Blue Latitudes

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Blue Latitudes
Author: Tony Horwitz
Date: 2002
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
ISBN: 0-8050-6541-5
Length: 480 pages including notes, maps, and index
Illustrations: maps
Quote: “In 1768, when [James] Cook embarked on the first [voyage], roughly a third of the world’s map remained blank...Cook sailed into this void in a small wooden ship and returned, three years later, with charts so accurate that some of them stayed in use until the 1990s.”
This explains why, on his travels around the Pacific Ocean (with a detour to northern England), Horwitz meets serious fans of the eighteenth-century sailor—even a “Captain Cook Society.” His companion on most of this adventure is a snarky, hard-drinking Australian called Roger, but he also meets serious Christians who insist that he and Roger attend services at churches Captain Cook might have attended. Though they also encounter people who blame Captain Cook for spreading diseases and boosting colonialism, the captain is still widely admired...especially by people who like sailing, islands, and historical reenactments.
The trips are organized in imperfectly chronological order. First there’s a week on a replica of a sailing ship that offers readers a glimpse of Captain Cook’s and his sailors’ everyday lives. The captain might have been considered modern, enlightened, and humanitarian in his day, ordering relatively little torture and pleased to report a low incidence of scurvy; the lifestyle would fit many modern people’s definition of torture anyway.
Then, using safer means of transportation, Horwitz and Roger visit the places Captain Cook explored. Horwitz’s descriptions of these places are interspersed with Cook’s and the sailors’. Chapter by chapter, we visit Tahiti, Bora Bora, New Zealand, Australia, Niue (“Savage Island”), Tonga, England, Alaska, and Hawaii. Horwitz mentions that Roger also followed the Captain to Antarctica, but he skipped that trip and doesn’t share anything Roger wrote about it. They meet interesting people—frequently in bars; this is a liquor-soaked book—and see interesting sights...what else would you expect in a travel book?
Captain Cook’s voyages were widely read and well funded because the Captain was making real and useful discoveries, but it didn’t hurt anything that his discoveries included more than one religious sect who welcomed strangers to the island with ritual orgies. Enough quotes make it into the published book to fascinate adolescent readers. As one of Horwitz’s contacts puts it, even today Tahitian culture is full of eroticism, preening, flirtation, suggestive dances, and smutty jokes. The translations of place names would, fifty years earlier, have been unprintable. I read the name of a smaller island, Huahine, and wonder if this is the same word Hawaiians spell wahine and translate as “woman.” Not exactly, says the local resident. And the languages are so closely related that after reading the islander’s explanation you’ll wonder whether Hawaiians understand wahine that way, too.
However, even in Captain Cook’s day, not all islanders belonged to the sex cults. The place where web sites ending in “” are based may disappoint people who like to visit those sites; although Cook named the place “Savage Island,” local people call it Niue, which they translate as “behold coconut,” and they lure visitors into church services by offering them virtually nothing else to do. When the local people aren’t in church, Horwitz finds just a few tourist-type things to do on Niue. Captain Cook mentioned islanders’ making a hostile display with red-stained teeth—a shade closer to blood than the reddish stains people might get from chewing areca nuts. Residents allow that this stain would have come from the red sap of a plant in the banana family, the “red banana.” Horwitz and Roger spend much of their time on Niue looking for a surviving red banana plant. Yes, the plant exists.
Then there’s a cooler-bin race: “We’ve lost wheels, we’ve lost people! And, tragically, we’ve lost beer!” and a British historical free-for-all in which a variety of events, some not even local, are all celebrated in the same time and place by the kind of people the informants of Confederates in the Attic would call farbs. “[We] asked him what was going on. ‘Plains of Abraham,’ he replied, pointing at a five-foot-high wall of plywood, topped with castlelike crenellations. ‘That’s Quebec City.’”
If you are the type of reader Dave Barry would describe, with fellow-feeling, as a “guy,” Blue Latitudes should appeal to you.
More scholarly questions are taken up here and there. Did “kangaroo” originally mean “I don’t know” or “Leave me alone”? Horwitz consults a native Australian who thinks that, in one dialect, it meant one or two species of kangaroo. (There are several.) However, other Australians Cook’s crew asked about other creatures apparently didn’t know that “kangaroo” meant anything and did use it to mean something like “some sort of animal,” or “I don’t know.” There were lots of misunderstandings. Horwitz’s local informants document a few other mistranslations, equally funny if less famous.
There are serious moments, though, when the fans consider the problems the Age of Exploration really did spread around the world. Captain Cook didn’t corrupt, pollute, or infect all the places he visited. Sometimes other Europeans had done that first. The captain did even venture to suggest that, after they knew they’d been infected with what were then deadly, incurable, contagious diseases, the sailors not participate in orgies. The men sworn to obey Captain Cook’s orders left no doubt that this was one order they felt free to ignore.
Then there’s the grim end of Captain Cook’s story. The captain’s personality changed on his last voyage. He wasn’t very old, but he was apparently very ill. With only eighteenth-century medicine to rely on, he probably wouldn’t have lived long past 1779 if he hadn’t been killed in Hawaii. And why, exactly, was he killed in Hawaii? The traditional short version of the story is that one of those religious cults practiced human sacrifice. Horwitz cites scholars who doubt this, and suggests that a quarrel, or even a conspiracy, may have taken place. Captain Cook was after all the master, and can easily be read as the precursor, to Captain Bligh.
Blue Latitudes is recommended to broadminded adults and stable adolescents (the ones who won’t burst out giggling, or worse, upon reading the Society Islands’ explanation of Huahine). I’m not recommending it to the nephews, here, for another ten or twenty years...but if they feel more interested in the book for that reason, they probably have read jokes of a similar degree of smuttiness in daily newspapers, not to mention some books I’ve recommended. It’s the number and frequency, not the gross-out level, of “blue” (or blue-pencil-bait) references that make parental guidance particularly suggested for Blue Latitudes, more than for Horwitz’s One for the Road or Dave Barry’s Guide to Guys or for that matter Hillary Rodham Clinton’s It Takes a Village.  

As a Fair Trade Book, Blue Latitudes will cost $5 + $5 shipping, from which Tony Horwitz or the charity of his choice get $1. (You may find it cheaper on Amazon but, so far as I know, none of the other booksellers pays living authors when they sell secondhand books. We do. At least we try.)