The Wide Wide Sea

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

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Pub Date Apr 09 2024 | Archive Date Apr 16 2024

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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR SO FAR FOR 2024 BY THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW • A “thrilling and superbly crafted” (The Wall Street Journal) 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.

“Hampton Sides, an acclaimed master of the nonfiction narrative, has taken on Cook’s story and retells it for the 21st century.”—Los Angeles Times

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.
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR SO FAR FOR 2024 BY THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW • A “thrilling and superbly crafted” (The Wall Street Journal) account of the most...

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From July 1776 to October 1780, James Cook’s third voyage on the HMS Resolution was believed to be at the time the longest exploratory voyage in terms of miles and duration (1548 days). Sides follows not only the route, but also Cook’s crew and the islanders encountered along the way, enriching the historical record and adding dimension and authenticity of the narrative of Cook’s expedition.

In contrast to his first and second voyages, his third would be less about natural science, botany and biology and more about the straightforward navigational quest to find a waterway through North America (Bering Strait), while slowly drawing respectable geographical maps of the area using his marine K1 Chronometer to measure longitude with great precision. Sailing from Plymouth on 12 July 1776, he stopped in Tenerife, Cape Town, Tasmania, New Zealand, Tahiti, reaching the Hawaiian Islands in January 1778, the first European to do so. From Hawaii, he went to explore the west coast of North America, from Cape Foulweather in Oregon to Alaska, and finally to the Bering Strait where he was unable to pass, returning to Hawaii in November 1778. At Kealakekua Bay, a number of quarrels broke out between the Europeans and Hawaiians culminating in Cook’s death in a violent exchange on 14 February 1779. 

Sides also meticulously describes the perilous situations faced by crew members such as William Anderson (surgeon) and Charles Clerke (Captain of the Discovery, and following Cook’s death, the Resolution), William Bligh (who eleven years later would serve as the captain of HMS Bounty), and James King (took important astronomical readings helping the ships on the remainder of their course completing Cook's account of the voyage after his death), going beyond the typical portrayal of a shadow crew serving a formidable captain that one often encounters in historical accounts. He grants considerable attention to figures like Mai, a young man from Raiatrea and the first Polynesian to set foot in England in 1774, and his return to Tahiti. He presents Cook’s descriptions of Indigenous peoples as tolerant and often quite sympathetic, with whom he tried to have meaningful exchanges. Throughout the book, Sides underscores the ongoing debates surrounding Cook and his voyage, his differing perspectives clearly and impartially, avoiding a presumption of a definitive verdict.

Based on personal and detailed diaries of the captains and seamen, as well as interviews with islanders, this book has elements of true crime and history, an essential addition to the library of any maritime history enthusiast!

Thanks to NetGalley for an advance copy of this book.

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