For the lands and peoples Cook encountered, the impact of his voyages was far more profound, and far more destructive. His decade of discovery occurred on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. The steam engine and spinning jenny emerged as Cook set off on his first Pacific tour; Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776, as Cook embarked on his last. His explorations opened vast new territories to the West's burgeoning economies and empires, and all that came with them: whalers, missionaries, manufactured goods, literacy, rum, guns, syphilis, smallpox.
Cook, in sum, pioneered the voyage we are still on, for good and ill. "More than any other person," writes historian Bernard Smith, "he helped to make the world one."
Like most Americans I grew up knowing almost nothing of Captain Cook, except what I learned in fifth-grade geography class. Though I didn't realize it at the time, I also absorbed his adventures through episodes of Star Trek. As a suburban kid, growing up in a decade when even the moon had been conquered, I never ceased to feel a thrill at the TV show's opening words . "These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before!"
It wasn't until years later that I realized how much Star Trek echoed a true story. Captain James Cook/Captain James Kirk. The Endeavour/The Enterprise. Cook, the Yorkshire farm boy, writing in his journal that he'd sailed "farther than any other man has been before." Kirk, the Iowa farm boy, keeping his own log about boldly going "where no man has gone before!" Cook rowed jolly boats ashore, accompanied by his naturalist, surgeon, and musket-toting, red-jacketed marines. Kirk "beamed down" to planets with the science officer Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and phaser-wielding, red-jerseyed "expendables." Both captains also set out -- at least in theory -- to discover and describe new lands, rather than to conquer or convert.
In my twenties, I fell in love with an Australian and followed her to Sydney. Geraldine and I found a house just a few miles from the beach where Cook and his men landed in 1770, becoming the first Europeans to visit the east coast of Australia. My new surrounds seemed wondrous but disorienting: the sun blazing in the northern sky, scribbly gums shedding bark instead of leaves, fruit bats squeaking at night in the fig trees. One day at an antiquarian bookshop, I found a copy of Cook's journals and read his own impressions of this strange land over two centuries before me.
"It was of a light Mouse colour and the full size of a grey hound and shaped in every respect like one," Cook wrote of a creature he saw fleetingly near shore. "I would have taken it for a wild dog, but for its walking or running in which it jumped like a Hare or a dear." Unsure what to call this odd beast, Cook referred to it simply as "the animal." Later, he inserted the native word, which he rendered "kanguru." The Endeavour carried home a skull and skin, the first kangaroo specimen in the West. It resided in a London museum until destroyed in the Blitz during World War Two.
Even stranger to Cook and his men were Aborigines, who possessed almost nothing -- not even loincloths -- yet showed a complete disdain for European goods. Well-born gentlemen on the Endeavour regarded this as evidence of native brutishness. Cook took a much more thoughtful and humane view. "Being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniences so sought after in Europe, they are happy not knowing the use of them," he wrote. "They live in Tranquility which is not disturbed by the Inequality of Condition."
I returned to these words years later, while reading on the back porch of my house in America. After a decade of circumnavigating the globe as foreign correspondents, Geraldine and I had settled down, bought an old house, planted a garden, had a child. At forty, I'd tired of travel, of dislocation. Part of me wanted to rot, like my porch in Virginia. Then, one lazy summer's day, I picked up my neglected copy of Cook's journals. In Australia, I'd only scanned them. This time I read for days: about human sacrifice and orgiastic sex in Tahiti, charmed arrows and poison fish in Vanuatu, sailors driven mad off Antarctica by "the Melancholy Croaking of Innumerable Penguins." And, at the center of it all, a man my own age, coolly navigating his ship through the most extraordinary perils imaginable.
Copyright © 2002 Tony Horwitz
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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