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Book Review: Hampton Sides revisits Captain James Cook, a divisive figure in the South Pacific

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Captain James Cook’s voyages in the South Pacific in the late 1700s exemplify the law of unintended consequences. He set out to find a westward ocean passage from Europe to Asia but instead, with the maps he created and his reports, Cook revealed the Pacific islands and their people to the world.

In recent decades, Cook has been vilified by some scholars and cultural revisionists for bringing European diseases, guns and colonization. But Hampton Sides’ new book, “The Wide Wide Sea: Imperial Ambition, First Contact and the Fateful Final Voyage of Captain James Cook,” details that Polynesian island life and cultures were not always idyllic.

Priests sometimes made human sacrifices. Warriors mutilated enemy corpses. People defeated in battle sometimes were enslaved. King Kamehameha, a revered figure in Hawaii, unified the Hawaiian Islands in 1810 at a cost of thousands of warriors’ lives.

Sides’ book is sure to rile some Indigenous groups in Hawaii and elsewhere in the Pacific Islands, who contend Cook ushered in the destruction of Pacific Island cultures.

An obelisk in Hawaii marking where Cook was killed in 1779 had been doused with red paint when Sides visited as part of his research for this book. Over Cook’s name was written “You are on native land.”

But Cook, Sides argues, didn’t come to conquer.

Sides draws deeply from Cook’s and other crew members’ diaries and supplements that with his own reporting in the South Pacific.

Cook emerges from the book as an excellent mariner and decent human being, inspiring the crew to want to sail with him. However, on the voyage of the late 1770s, crew members noted that Cook seemed agitated, not his usual self.

What may have ailed Cook on that final voyage we probably never will know, but we do know that his voyages opened the Pacific islands to the world, and as new arrivals always do, life is changed forever.

Was Cook a villain for his explorations?

Sides make a persuasive case in 387 pages of diligent, riveting reporting that Cook came as a navigator and mapmaker and in dramatically opening what was known about our world, made us all richer in knowledge.

When his journals and maps reached England after his death, it was electrifying news. No, an ocean passage across North America to the Pacific did not exist, but Europeans now knew that islands in the Pacific were populated by myriad cultures; Sides’ reporting is clear that Cook treated them all with respect.

He and his fellow British mariners, though, did lack one skill that would seem vital for sailors and would have better connected the British sailors to the peoples of the Pacific, whose cultures and livelihoods were closely connected to the ocean: Neither Cook nor any of his fellow officers could swim.

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