Tony Horwitz needs no introduction. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, the author of seven books, and – most importantly – an all-round nice person. His fantastic travelogue, ‘Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before’, is a must-read for every Pasifika aficionado. Do you want to learn more about Tony’s journey across the Blue Continent? You can do so from this interview.
Pasifika Tales: What was first – the idea to write a book about retracing Captain Cook’s voyages or a desire to set sail?
Tony Horwitz: If you mean ‘set sail’ in the sense of embark on a global adventure, then that was my prime impetus and Cook’s travels provided a historical path to follow. However, I’m a woeful sailor and was much happier every time I could explore on land rather than by sea.
PT: Why did you choose Captain James Cook? Was it because of all the incredible places he travelled to?
TH: Initially, I was struck by the places he went and wanted to see them for myself. But as the journey went on, I became fascinated by Cook the man, so what started as a travel adventure grew into a biography as well.
PT: It is not a secret that for Pacific Islanders James Cook was no hero. What do people in the Blue Continent think of the famous British navigator?
TH: Is Blue Continent shorthand for the Pacific? It depends where you are. Cook has admirers in Australia and New Zealand but not many elsewhere in the Pacific. He’s generally seen as an advance man of empire and colonization and all the ills that ultimately resulted.
PT: Do you agree with their opinions? Do you view Cook as a villain or a hero?
TH: It’s undeniable that Cook’s voyages opened the door to colonization, disease, the dispossession of native peoples and other damage to their cultures. But Cook didn’t intend this harm. He was a product of the Enlightenment, on a scientific mission of discovery and, for the most part, expressed sympathy and respect for those he encountered. I don’t think he should be lumped with conquistadors and other Europeans who set out to conquer, kill, convert, and enslave.
PT: You visited various Pacific Island countries after you had read about them in Cook’s journals. To what extent did your impressions coincide with those of Cook?
TH: Obviously, the Pacific has changed tremendously since Cook’s voyages in the late 1700s. After colonization and other transformations came mass tourism, and sadly we’ve loved some parts of Polynesia’s fragile environment to death. But off the beaten track, there were many places where I felt the views and landscapes were very close to what Cook described. I also caught glimpses of the traditional cultures and characteristics Cook wrote about, such as the warrior heart of Maori society, the sensuality of Tahitians, and the deeply non-Western and non-materialistic nature of Aboriginal peoples in Australia.
PT: How much was your journey a journey of self-discovery? What did you learn?
TH: To be honest, I find self-discovery an overrated aspect of travel adventures. I’m more interested in discovering others. But I did learn many things, particularly during my time as a sailor aboard a museum-quality replica of Cook’s first ship, the Endeavour. I realized just how soft we are compared to sailors and explorers in the 18th century; few of us could endure a month of the physical and mental strains they put up with for years at a time. I also realized I can’t tie knots to save my life, and that its best not to look down when you’re near the top of a hundred-foot mast.
PT: ‘Blue Latitudes’ is an interesting book. It’s part travelogue and part James Cook’s biography. Was that your intention from the beginning?
TH: My original intent was to write a historically themed travelogue. But as I read and traveled more deeply, I really wanted to understand this extraordinary man who rose from lowly origins to the upper reaches of the British Navy and kept hurling himself off the edge of the known world. So the biographical component grew to roughly half of the book’s content.
PT: I do consider ‘Blue Latitudes’ a terrific piece of travel literature and one of the best books regarding the Pacific Islands. If you could give one reason why people should read it, what would it be?
TH: The book, I hope, allows readers to grasp what true adventure means. Sailing off the map, and having first contact with remote societies untouched by the West, is an experience we simply can’t have today outside of science fiction. I also hope readers will laugh at my own misadventures in Cook’s wake. I really wanted the book to be as entertaining as my travels were for me.