Tony Horwitz Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Tony Horwitz
© Gerrit Fokkema

Tony Horwitz

An interview with Tony Horwitz

Tony Horwitz discusses the journeys he took retracing Cook's voyages across the Pacific, how Cook is regarded by native peoples and what his voyages mean to us today.

Blue Latitudes focuses on the voyages of the eighteenth-century navigator James Cook. What drew you to Captain Cook?
Initially, I was drawn more to Cook's voyages than to Cook himself. The man went everywhere: he touched every continent except Antarctica, and he only missed that by a hundred or so miles. In the past, writers have focused on Cook's considerable maritime achievements as a navigator and mapmaker. But to me, the most compelling part of his story is what happened on land: the drama of 'first contact' between Europeans and native peoples. Island after island, Cook and his men stepped off their ship with no idea whether they'd be greeted with embraces or arrows. They knew little or nothing of the cultures they were about to encounter, and islanders knew even less of them. Yet somehow they had to find a way to communicate, trade, and get along -- and remarkably, for the most part they did.

This is an experience we simply can't have today, no matter how far we travel. The only remotely similar experience would be if a spaceship landed in our backyard and aliens stepped out to greet us -- except that Hollywood has prepared us even for that. Cook experienced 'first contact' dozens of times, and left a vivid record of what it was like. His journals are very reminiscent of Lewis and Clark's. To me, these are the best adventure stories in history.

But as I began to research the captain's voyages, I became just as entranced by Cook the man. He was born in a mud hut in rural Yorkshire, the son of an illiterate day laborer: the very bottom of Britain's class-bound, 18th-century society. Yet he broke free from this cramped world and went on to explore more of the earth's surface than any person in history. He's a British Abe Lincoln: a once-in-a-generation figure who comes out of nowhere to transform his world and ours. You have to wonder what drives a man like that, and much of my book is an attempt to understand Cook's character.

What kind of research did you do?
I spent about 18 months retracing Cook's voyages across the Pacific. I traveled to Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Tonga, Hawaii, the Aleutian Islands and other places in between. I also toured Cook's childhood haunts in Yorkshire, to understand the world he came from. In each locale, I compared what Cook saw in the 1700s with what I encountered in the Twenty-first century and explored how Cook is regarded by native peoples and what his voyages mean to us today.

In between trips, I delved into the archives in Sydney, London, Honolulu, and other cities, to research the historical story of Cook and his voyages. For the most part, I turned to the journals and art of Cook and his men, and supplemented this with the work of historians, anthropologists, and indigenous writers. I discovered that most of those who have written about Cook are old-school British or colonial scholars of a nautical bent. They tend to avoid or gloss over the racy and controversial aspects of the story, such as sex, cannibalism, and Cook's eventual breakdown. As a landsman, and as an American who doesn't bring any particular ideological baggage to Cook's story, I feel I was able to explore areas that have been neglected, and bring some balance to my portrait of the navigator. Blue Latitudes isn't a work of academic history -- I wanted to make Cook's story accessible to everyone -- but I hope I've contributed new insights.

You worked for many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts in the Persian Gulf, Sudan, Lebanon, Bosnia, and Northern Ireland, and you won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for your series on low-wage work in America. Your previous books One for the Road, Baghdad Without a Map, Confederates in the Attic, and now Blue Latitudes combine humor, adventure travel, and history. Why did you make this transition?
I love journalism, but at times it feels confining: 'He said, she said,' 'On the other hand,' 'Unavailable for comment.' Books give me a chance to break out of that box: to dwell on a topic for more than a few days or weeks, write and rewrite my sentences until I'm really happy with them, express a strong opinion. It's liberating. Also, the books I've written tend to be more free-form than journalism allows, cutting across genres and disciplines. But I still think like a journalist. I walk around with a spiral reporter's notebook in my pocket, drink too much coffee, and keep asking myself, 'What's the headline for this story?' The difference is that my deadline is a matter of years rather than hours.

Your books tackle very different topics: hitchhiking across the Australian outback, the Middle East, the Civil War in the contemporary South, and the journeys and legacies of Captain Cook. Is there an underlying thread to your books?
I like to write about places that are strange to me -- places that are a bit extreme and uncomfortable. I wouldn't know what to say about a resort: it's too comfortable, too nice. When I'm in a roughneck pub in outback Australia, or a battlefield in Iraq, or Savage Island in the Pacific, my antennae are up, I'm on edge and I'm sure to meet unusual characters. If there's another thread, it's history. I'm fascinated by the ways the past leaches into the present, and how we're still influenced and haunted by events that occurred decades or centuries ago.

In the United States we're taught very little about Captain Cook. Is his memory still strong in the places he 'discovered?'
Memory of Cook varies a great deal from country to country. In Tahiti, where the French seized control from the British seventy years after Cook's voyages, he's conveniently forgotten. In New Zealand and Australia, he's seen as a 'founding father' by some whites, while being reviled as an imperialist by many Maori and Aborigines. In Tonga, which has modeled itself on monarchial England, he's remembered fondly: a turtle he gave to a Tongan king roamed the palace grounds until a few decades ago. In Hawaii, he's widely despised, because American missionaries spread disparaging tales about his behavior on the islands. One Hawaiian activist has termed Cook a "syphilitic, tubercular racist" and declared it a point of pride that the captain didn't leave Hawaiian shores alive. So I had plenty of controversy to work with in writing this book.

During your travels you take on crew. Can you explain?
Generally, I like to travel on my own. But soon after I embarked on my journey, an Australian mate, Roger Williamson, announced that he wanted to come along. Roger, like Cook, is Yorkshire born and bred, and a talented sailor. He's also a hard-drinking, wise-cracking adventurer. So I said, "what the hell, come with me to Tahiti," which was my first stop. Then Roger stuck around, so he's in most of the book. I didn't plan it that way, but I'm glad he came along. Roger provides comic relief, and also a running commentary on nautical matters, the subtleties of the British class system, and other subjects on which I'm not expert.

In Confederates in the Attic you try your hand at being a Civil War reenactor. In Blue Latitudes you sign on as a working crewman aboard a replica of Cook's ship, attend a Maori tribal meeting in New Zealand, participate in a beer-sodden reenactment of Cook's landing in Cooktown, Australia, and find yourself braving Bora Bora reef in the darkness of night. What inspires you to immerse yourself in your subject this way?
Journalists spend a lot of time standing outside events, observing and solemnly recording the opinions of participants. Journalists are very detached. But I like to get inside the heads of those I'm writing about by sharing their experiences. The same goes for history: while I wouldn't pretend that I can know what it was to be a Civil War soldier or a sailor aboard one of Cook's ships, I can try to get a better understanding of it. As a Civil War reenactor, I sensed what it was like to march for ten hours in summer heat, in ill-fitting shoes, toting a musket and a haversack. The same was true for my adventures in Cook's wake. Sailing at night through the treacherous reef in Bora Bora gave me some insight into the astonishing courage and skill of Cook and his men. I sailed aboard a boat equipped with a global-positioning system and other high-tech gear, and still almost came to grief. Cook didn't have so much as a map or a life raft.

Tell us about your experience on the replica of the Endeavour.
The Endeavour was the first vessel Cook sailed around the world: a lumbering, hundred-foot coal ship with a very shallow keel that made it exceptionally rocky in heavy seas. As a volunteer sailor aboard a museum-quality replica of the Endeavour, I lived and worked like an eighteenth-century seaman: sleeping in a narrow hammock in the ship's hold alongside forty others, climbing the 127-foot main mast to furl sails in rolling seas, manning the helm in a hard blow. I thought Civil War reenacting was the most wretched thing I'd ever do for the sake of a good story. But I'd rather eat hard tack and salt pork and spoon with smelly Confederates in freezing weather than brave another stint on the topmost yard of Cook's ship, trying to tie knots around flapping sails with the sea frothing far below. It was like putting in a twelve-hour work day aboard a roller coaster at sea, with the only 'rest' being a few minutes of fitful sleep in a stifling, rocking chamber that felt like a meat locker.

Do people really do this for fun?
Incredibly, yes. I think people feel very coddled today so they seek out challenge and adventure. Some people climb mountains or hang-glide. Others sign on for a stint aboard Cook's ship (in many cases, because they've read too many Patrick O'Brian novels.) While it was terrifying and wretched, it was also one of the most memorable things I've ever done. The people I worked and slept beside are still friends. And I'll never complain about jet travel again. We're wimps compared to Cook and his men, who did this for three years at a time in conditions that made my brief time aboard the Endeavour seem like child's pirate play.

In your book, you juxtapose the exotic scenes and pristine lands the captain encountered in his travels to the loss of native culture and environment that has taken place since. Did you find positive elements of Cook's legacy?
Yes. The sad truth is that Cook's discoveries paved the way for whalers, traders, colonialists, missionaries and others who dispossessed native peoples, destroyed their cultures and belief systems, and despoiled the environment. We have to recognize this, and do what we can to repair the damage done. But I don't think we should dismiss and vilify Cook in the process. He didn't set out to ravage the Pacific: his mission was to explore and understand, not exploit. And much of what he wrote was strikingly sensitive. Most explorers before him were brutal men: gold-mad conquistadors and buccaneers who regarded natives as heathen savages and thought nothing of slaughtering them. Cook was open and tolerant, and willing to learn from unfamiliar cultures -- he admired their non-materialism and their respect for the environment. I think this is instructive at a moment in time when we tend to regard foreign societies with fear, and in many cases, hostility.

Also, the writing and artwork of Cook and his crew give us the best snapshot we have of what life was like in the Pacific at the moment of European contact. Many native peoples are now using this as a resource to reclaim what was lost. Hawaiians are turning to Cook to understand the design of their canoes, Maori in New Zealand use Cook's journals as evidence in their land claims, Australian Aborigines study their language and customs in the records of the Endeavour, Tahitians copy the tattoos described by Eighteenth century explorers. So there's still a great deal to learn from what Cook and his men saw and recorded over two centuries ago.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Spying on the South jacket Midnight Rising jacket Blue Latitudes jacket
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