“Book Review: ‘The Wide Wide Sea,’ by Hampton Sides.”

Photo of author

By journalsofus.com


THE BROAD SEA: Imperial ambition, first contact and the fateful final voyage of Captain James Cook, by Hampton Sides


In January 1779, when British explorer James Cook sailed toward a volcanic bay known to Hawaiians as “the Way of the Gods,” he saw thousands of people apparently waiting for him on the shore. Once he reached land, the people prostrated themselves and chanted “Lono,” the name of a Hawaiian deity. Cook was puzzled.

It was as if the European sailor “had entered an ancient script for a cosmic spectacle of which he knew nothing,” Hampton Sides writes in “The Wide Wide Sea,” his propulsive and vivid story of Cook’s third and final voyage across the ocean. world..

As Sides describes the encounter, Cook arrived during a festival honoring Lono, sailing around the island in the same clockwise direction that the god prefers, possibly causing him to be mistaken for divinity.

Sides, the author of several books on war and exploration, makes his own symbolic spectacle of Cook’s final voyage, finding in it “a morally complicated story that has left modern sensibilities much to unravel and critique,” ​​including the “history historical.” seeds” of debates about “Eurocentrism”, “toxic masculinity” and “cultural appropriation”.

Cook’s two previous global expeditions focused on scientific goals: first observing the transit of Venus from the Pacific Ocean and then making sure there were no additional continents in the middle of it. His final voyage, however, was inextricably linked to colonialism: during the explorer’s second expedition, a young Polynesian named Mai had persuaded the captain of one of Cook’s ships to bring him to London in the hope of acquiring weapons to kill. to your Pacific islander. enemies.

A few years later, George III commissioned Cook to return Mai to Polynesia while he searched for an Arctic passage to connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Mai brought with her a collection of plants and livestock given to her by the king, who hoped that Mai would turn his native islands into a simulacrum of the English countryside.

“The Wide Wide Sea” is not so much a story of “first contact” as it is of Cook considering the consequences of what he and others had wrought in expanding the map of Europe’s power. By retracing parts of his earlier travels while driving Mai, Cook is forced to confront the fact that his influence on the groups he helped “discover” has not been universally positive. Sexually transmitted diseases introduced by his sailors on previous expeditions have spread. Some indigenous groups that once welcomed it have become tough negotiators and seem primarily interested in Europeans for their iron and trinkets.

Sides writes that Cook “saw himself as a scientific explorer,” who “sought to follow an ethic of impartial observation born of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution,” and whose “descriptions of indigenous peoples were tolerant and often quite sympathetic.” by “the standards of his time.”

In Hawaii, he had been circling the island in a vain attempt to prevent his crew from coming ashore, finding lovers, and spreading more gonorrhea. And even though he was transporting Mai and her weapons back to the Pacific, Cook also thought it was generally best to avoid “political disputes” between the civilizations he encountered.

But Cook’s actions on this final voyage raised questions about his adherence to impartial observation. He responded to the theft of a single goat by sending his sailors on a days-long rampage to burn entire villages and force his return. His men were concerned that his captain’s “judgment (and his legendary equanimity) had begun to falter,” Sides writes. As the voyage progressed, Cook became surprisingly loose with the disciplinary whip on his crew.

“The Wide Wide Sea” presents Cook’s moral collapse as an enigma. Sides cites arguments by other historians that lingering physical ailments (one suggests that he contracted a parasite from a bad fish) might have darkened Cook’s mood. But his logbooks and logbooks, which devote hundreds of thousands of words to ocean data, offer little to solve the mystery. “In all those pages we rarely get a glimpse of Cook’s emotional world,” Sides notes, describing the explorer as “a technician, a cyborg, a navigation machine.”

The gaps in Cook’s inner journey are highlighted by the incredible job Sides does in bringing Cook’s physical journey to life. New Zealand, Tahiti, Kamchatka, Hawaii and London come to life with descriptions of gales, crushing ice packs and gun smoke, the scenes of exploration and endurance that made these tales so mesmerizing when they first appeared. The first major account of Cook’s first expedition to the Pacific was one of the most popular publications of the 18th century.

But Sides is not only interested in retelling an adventure story. He also wants to present it from a 21st century point of view. “The Wide Wide Sea” fits neatly into a growing genre that includes David Grann’s “The Wide Wide Sea.”The bet“and Candice Millard”river of the gods”, in which famous expeditions, once told as tales of adventure and adventure, are recast within the tragic history of colonialism.. Sides weaves in oral histories to show how Cook was perceived by Hawaiians and other indigenous groups, and strives to bring to life ancient Polynesian cultures as much as Imperial England.

And yet, these modern versions also force us to question how different they really are from their predecessors, especially if much of their appeal lies in the exact same feats that captivated earlier audiences. Parts of “The Wide Wide Sea” inevitably echo the telling of previous stories, even if Sides timidly criticizes them. Just as Cook, in retracing his previous voyages, became entangled in the dubious consequences of his previous expeditions, so too does this retracing of his history become entangled in the historical ironies that he seeks to transcend.

In the end, Mai took his weapons home and shot his enemies, and the Hawaiians finally realized that Cook was no god. After exhausting his resources to equip his ships, Cook attempted to kidnap the king of Hawaii to force the return of a stolen ship. A confrontation ensued and the explorer was beaten and stabbed to death, perhaps with a dagger made from the beak of a swordfish.

The British massacred many Hawaiians with guns, put heads on poles, and burned houses. Once accounts of these exploits reached England, printing presses multiplied them and spread them throughout their global empire. Hawaiians memorized their losses. And although the most recent version of Cook’s story includes theirs, it is still Cook’s story that we retell with each new era.


THE WIDE WIDE SEA: Imperial ambition, first contact and the fateful final voyage of Captain James Cook, | By Hampton Sides | double day | 408 pages | $35

Leave a comment