Thursday, 27 February 2003
Just finished reading Blue Latitudes, which follows the trail of Captain Cook, both in history as well as geography; Horowitz follows (roughly) the path of cook, sailing and flying to destinations such as New Zealand, Australia, Tonga, the Aleutians and Hawaii, as well as Cook’s native Yorkshire.
I think I was first interested because of the Australian angle, but reading about this remarkable man and his untimely end was engaging and thought-provoking on many more levels.
For example, Cook covered 140 degrees of latitude - stopped only by the ice pack at both the north and south poles - without the benefit of things like charts, GPS, weather reports, diesel engines, or safe ports nearby. There’s a memorable passage where the captain of a ferry in the Aleutian Islands (a place where the weather is truely dreadful) thoughtfully states that doing it now with the benefit of these things is dangerous; he finds Cook’s doing so literally half a world away from help ‘inconceivable.’
Despite his good intentions, Cook left a path of destruction. Not, mind you, by his actions (as many claim); instead, contact with the West and subsequent missionaries, traders and governments has led to the degradation of societies that were in balance for centuries or even millenia.
This is particularly evident in Horowitz’s visit to Tahiti; what Cook described as a virtual paradise had been noticably degraded by his second trip, and has since fallen into the worst sort of ugly tourist trap. This phenomenon is not limited to polynesian islands, either; he noted evidence of the same chain of events in Alaska, and that, combined with sickness and other unfortunate events, may have contributed to his untimely end on a beach in Hawaii.
All very much food for thought the next time we visit the Tonga Room.