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Reviews of The Wide Wide Sea by Hampton Sides

The Wide Wide Sea

Imperial Ambition, First Contact and the Fateful Final Voyage of Captain James Cook

by Hampton Sides

The Wide Wide Sea by Hampton Sides X
The Wide Wide Sea by Hampton Sides
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  • Published:
    Apr 2024, 432 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

Book Summary

From New York Times bestselling author Hampton Sides, an epic account of the most momentous voyage of the Age of Exploration, which culminated in Captain James Cook's death in Hawaii, and left a complex and controversial legacy still debated to this day

On July 12th, 1776, Captain James Cook, already lionized as the greatest explorer in British history, set off on his third voyage in his ship the HMS Resolution. Two-and-a-half years later, on a beach on the island of Hawaii, Cook was killed in a conflict with native Hawaiians. How did Cook, who was unique among captains for his respect for Indigenous peoples and cultures, come to that fatal moment?

Hampton Sides' bravura account of Cook's last journey both wrestles with Cook's legacy and provides a thrilling narrative of the titanic efforts and continual danger that characterized exploration in the 1700s. Cook was renowned for his peerless seamanship, his humane leadership, and his dedication to science-–the famed naturalist Joseph Banks accompanied him on his first voyage, and Cook has been called one of the most important figures of the Age of Enlightenment. He was also deeply interested in the native people he encountered. In fact, his stated mission was to return a Tahitian man, Mai, who had become the toast of London, to his home islands. On previous expeditions, Cook mapped huge swaths of the Pacific, including the east coast of Australia, and initiated first European contact with numerous peoples. He treated his crew well, and endeavored to learn about the societies he encountered with curiosity and without judgment.

Yet something was different on this last voyage. Cook became mercurial, resorting to the lash to enforce discipline, and led his two vessels into danger time and again. Uncharacteristically, he ordered violent retaliation for perceived theft on the part of native peoples. This may have had something to do with his secret orders, which were to chart and claim lands before Britain's imperial rivals could, and to discover the fabled Northwest Passage. Whatever Cook's intentions, his scientific efforts were the sharp edge of the colonial sword, and the ultimate effects of first contact were catastrophic for Indigenous people around the world. The tensions between Cook's overt and covert missions came to a head on the shores of Hawaii. His first landing there was harmonious, but when Cook returned after mapping the coast of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, his exploitative treatment of the Hawaiians led to the fatal encounter.

At once a ferociously-paced story of adventure on the high seas and a searching examination of the complexities and consequences of the Age of Exploration, The Wide Wide Sea is a major work from one of our finest narrative nonfiction writers.

The Wide Wide Sea

In recent years, the voyages of Captain James Cook have come under increasing attack as part of a larger reassessment of the legacy of empire. Cook was an explorer and a mapmaker, not a conqueror or a colonizer. Yet throughout history, exploration and the making of maps have usually served as the first phase of conquest. In Cook's long wake came the occupiers, the guns, the pathogens, the alcohol, the problem of money, the whalers, the furriers, the seal hunters, the plantation owners, the missionaries.

And so for many Native people across the Pacific, from New Zealand to Alaska, Cook has become a symbol of colonialism and of the ravages that came with European arrival. In many corners of the world, his name has been vilified—not so much for what he did, but for all the trouble that came after him. And also because the Indigenous peoples he encountered were ignored for so long, their voices rarely heard, their perspectives and cultural significance scarcely...

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BookBrowse Review


In July 1776 Cook left England on his final—and fatal—voyage. It's this tale of exploration and tragedy that Hampton Sides relays in his nonfiction account, The Wide Wide Sea.

It's unfortunate that there are so few records of Cook's actions from the perspective of the residents of the lands he "discovered," but many of Cook's men left behind journals. Sides laboriously combed through an extensive trove of documents squirreled away across the globe, combining the many sources to paint a nuanced picture of the captain and events that transpired on the journey. He's an expert in providing enough detail to get readers hooked on a story without allowing it to bog down the book's flow, and his skill is on full display here...continued

Full Review Members Only (763 words)

(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Media Reviews

Beautifully written and impeccably researched, The Wide Wide Sea will delight readers new to the topic as well as those versed in earlier looks at James Cook and his milieu.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
An acclaimed historian takes to the sea in this rousing tale of exploration ... Sides draws on numerous contemporaneous sources to create a fascinating, immersive adventure story featuring just the right amount of historical context … Lusciously detailed and insightful history, masterfully told.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
This exquisitely crafted and novelistic portrait of the mercurial captain enthralls.

Author Blurb Caroline Alexander, New York Times bestselling author of The Endurance and The Bounty
The Wide Wide Sea transports the reader to one of the most thrilling eras of human exploration. With deft use of the words of Cook's own men and the oral traditions of the Indigenous people whose lands they visited, Hampton Sides has conjured Cook's fatal voyage in all its extraordinary and tragic magnificence."

Author Blurb Douglas Preston, #1 bestselling author of The Lost City of the Monkey God and Cities of Gold
"In all the annals of exploration, Cook's last journey around the world stands out for its fascination, tragedy, and sheer epic scope. Hampton Sides does justice to this extraordinary history, vividly capturing its splendor, violence, and madness. Here are stories within stories, deeply researched and woven into a tapestry that brings to life Captain Cook, his times, and the oceans he explored. More than that, it portrays in a nuanced and respectful way those peoples impacted by his final voyage—including the Aboriginal Tasmanians, the Māori, the Tahitians, the Hawaiians, and Native Alaskans. I highly recommend this fantastic book.

Author Blurb Peter Heller, New York Times bestselling author of The Dog Stars, The River, and The Guide
Here is an adventure so strange and epic it rivals the greatest tales of myth. The cast of characters includes a restless Captain Cook, an anxious King George III on the verge of losing his American colonies, a London high society newly infatuated with the romance of the "noble savage," and a good-natured young Polynesian man heartily bent on an inter-island massacre. Sides turns this riveting narrative into a cautionary tale about the heedless cruelty of colonialism and the collateral damage that can result from even the best-intentioned first contact.

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Beyond the Book

The History of Grog

Image showing nineteenth-century sailors smoking and drinking grogHampton Sides' book The Wide Wide Sea records the third and final voyage of Captain James Cook and relays some of the exploits of his crew aboard the HMS Resolution. One of Cook's key decisions concerned an alcoholic drink known as "grog."

During the Age of Exploration—the 15th to 18th centuries—Royal Navy ships would leave English harbors to sail to unknown lands. No one knew how long ships might be at sea before they would reach a location where they might re-stock their provisions. The food situation was quickly figured out; the vessels were outfitted with items that wouldn't spoil quickly (like hardtack, a sort of dense biscuit), supplemented with animals brought along for the purpose.

Water was ...

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