Today’s the anniversary of the death of Captain Cook, the 18th British explorer and navigator who charted and named more places in the world than any other explorer in history.
But this man, who explored more of the earth’s surface than any other explorer, remains a relatively obscure figure. He was not rewarded with a strait, sea, or river named after him like the explorers Magellan, Bering, and Hudson. No cities used his name, unlike Christopher Columbus who is the namesake of 10 American cities. And his achievements are not celebrated with a national holiday.
Anyone interested in why this is so should have a read of Tony Horwitz’s excellent book Blue Latitudes (Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before). Part travelogue, part history book, Blue Latitudes relieves on Captain Cook’s journals and those of naturalist Joseph Banks to re-traces Cook’s path around the world. Along the way, he has opportunity to analyse the man and his values and determine Cook’s influence in today’s world.
Horwitz discovers that for all of Captain Cook’s feats, he remains a man mostly misunderstood or, worse, simply unknown. For example, when Horwitz asks a vendor in Tahiti “Connaissez-vous Capitaine Cook?”, he receives on a blank stare (and a Coke). In New Zealand, a discussion with some Maori, the indigenous population, revealed that Cook is not seen as an explorer but as a murderer.
Obviously, the ‘romantic’, unspoiled South Pacific islands of Cook’s day no longer exists. There have been too many changes over the past two hundred years, driven by colonialization and commercialisation, to allow for things to stay the same. But Horwitz, aided by his friend, an Aussie free spirit dedicated to wine, women, and fun, does his best to find traces of Cook. It’s just that there doesn’t seem to be many traces of Captain Cook left.