Five Star review, originally posted here on July 13, 2016.
Well, I did that think again where I start a book without paying attention to what it’s going to be about. For whatever reason I confused famous 17th century English explorer Captain John Smith with famous 18th century English explorer Captain James Cook. Doh! Egg on my face! The silver lining is that I got to learn all about something I never even thought to be interested in. So that’s pretty cool.
Horwitz, who I think I can now safely say is my all-time favorite non-fiction writer, follows his usual formula of retracing the steps of his subject (be it a person such as Cook or John Brown, a historical event such as the Civil War, or a physical object such as an oil pipeline) to draw beautifully argued connections: between the past and the present, abstract concept with real human beings, noble intentions with disastrous results. He manages to make every person he encounters (whether in person or in history) a nuanced character, and succeeds in examining them objectively and fairly, yet always politely. Horwitz is a true master of his craft, and he exemplifies everything I would like to be as a writer.
In this particular case, by focusing on one guy,(just one guy!) Horwitz winds up examining half the planet over two centuries. Along the way we deal with colonialism, racism, disease, honor, pride, science, classism, alcoholism, religion, prostitution, violence, materialism, conservation, medicine, sex-tourism, isolationism, offshore banking, corporal punishment, mental illness, etc. The list goes on and on. That’s a lot to chew on. But Horwitz cuts it all up into manageable pieces. Each chapter brings us to a new Cook destination, where we simultaneously learn both about Cook and his visit, and about the eventual fate of this location and how Cook may have affected this outcome.
The most impactful moments, in my mind, came from locations where Cook’s intentions resulted in polar opposite results. Places that he touted as being paradise on earth soon were overrun by Europeans who trashed the natural resources and spread venereal diseases. Yet places he declared unworthy remained somewhat unscathed by this invasion and therefore are pleasant today. Cook’s attempts at respecting local populations are often historically overshadowed by the aftermath of his visit, giving the man himself a poor rep. While his blind belief that some European values (for example, property rights) are universal resulted in violence that likely seemed unavoidable to Cook at the time but in hindsight seems excessive to modern readers. The book is an excellent reminder that each one of our actions has consequences regardless of intent, and that, conversely, we should consider original intent when observing resultant circumstances.
A masterpiece as always. Highly recommend. Now I just wish that Horwitz would write a book about Captain John Smith, cuz I bet it would be hella awesome.