What Happened When Captain Cook Went Crazy

THE WIDE WIDE SEA: Imperial Ambition, First Contact and the Fateful Final Voyage of Captain James Cook, by Hampton Sides

In January 1779, when the British explorer James Cook sailed into a volcanic bay known by Hawaiians as “the Pathway of the Gods,” he beheld thousands of people seemingly waiting for him on shore. Once he came on land, people prostrated themselves and chanted “Lono,” the name of a Hawaiian deity. Cook was bewildered.

It was as though the European mariner “had stepped into an ancient script for a cosmic pageant he knew nothing about,” Hampton Sides writes in “The Wide Wide Sea,” his propulsive and vivid history of Cook’s third and final voyage across the globe.

As Sides describes the encounter, Cook happened to arrive during a festival honoring Lono, sailing around the island in the same clockwise fashion favored by the god, possibly causing him to be mistaken as the divinity.

Sides, the author of several books on war and exploration, makes a symbolic pageant of his own of Cook’s last voyage, finding in it “a morally complicated tale that has left a lot for modern sensibilities to unravel and critique,” including the “historical seeds” of debates about “Eurocentrism,” “toxic masculinity” and “cultural appropriation.”

Cook’s two earlier global expeditions focused on scientific goals — first to observe the transit of Venus from the Pacific Ocean and then to make sure there was no extra continent in the middle of it. His final voyage, however, was inextricably bound up in colonialism: During the explorer’s second expedition, a young Polynesian man named Mai had persuaded the captain of one of Cook’s ships to bring him to London in the hope of acquiring guns to kill his Pacific islander enemies.

A few years later, George III commissioned Cook to return Mai to Polynesia on the way to searching for an Arctic passage to connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Mai brought along a menagerie of plants and livestock given to him by the king, who hoped that Mai would convert his native islands into a simulacra of the English countryside.

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