Saturday, June 15, 2024

The Wide Wide Sea by Hampton Sides

The Wide Wide Sea by Hampton Sides is a solid book subtitled Imperial Ambition, First Contact and the Fateful Final Voyage of Captain James Cook. The book jacket notes how it an examination of the complexities and consequences of the Age of Exploration and Sides covers the trip Cook started in London on July 12, 1776, then his death two and a half years later on Hawaii.

The main point of the voyage was for Cook, leading the Resolution and the Discovery, captained by Charles Clerke, in a search for a Northwest Passage, something that would enable ships to sail from London to the Pacific over the pole, a hypothetical route much shorter than going around Africa. The expedition went around the Cape of Good Hope, then stopped in the Kerguelen Islands in the Southern Indian Ocean, Tasmania, New Zealand, and Tahiti (where a Tahitian, Mai, who had gone to England, was dropped off). The two ships than happened across Hawaii, and after reaching the Pacific coast, went up through the northwest, not going into the Columbia River Bar, then British Columbia, and Alaska, where Cook in 1778 explored Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet as he searched for a way over the top of North America back to England. He continued north around Alaska and was stymied by the ice pack, and chose to return to Hawaii for the winter, rather than stay in Russia.

Cook's plan was to return to Alaska early the following year and continue searching for the elusive, and nonexistent, Northwest Passage. Returning to Hawaii culminated in his death, though, and it was fascinating reading how his arrival there fulfilled a prophecy, with how he arrived in the middle of an extended period of ceremony locals were having to welcome their God, Lono, including Cook coming into the harbor in the exact direction Lono was foretold to come from. The story of his death is an interesting one as while he was first feted as a perceived God, the locals began to realize he likely wasn't Lono. They expected him to not be there after the duration of the ceremony ended, and then when Cook and his men left for Alaska, they ran into trouble with the ship and returned, not something expected of an infallible God. A small boat from one of the vessels was taken by locals, and Cook formed a plan to kidnap the local chief until it was returned, leading to his murder. 

The ships returned to Russia and left word of Cook's death to travel across the continent to England. Then the two vessels arrived in London October 7, 1780, 1,548 days after departure. It's a good book from Sides, an interesting travelogue with great history told well.