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'The Wide Wide Sea' revisits Capt. James Cook's fateful final voyage

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies.

You may remember the story of the Apollo 13 mission to the moon, when an explosion in the spacecraft of three astronauts forced them to summon the courage, focus and ingenuity to rescue the situation and return home safely. That story came to me often as I read the latest book by our guest, historian Hampton Sides. It's about an 18th-century sea voyage around the world, led by Captain James Cook, an explorer so accomplished that in the 1770s his was a household name in England.

Sides' book is an account of what it took for a ship full of men to sail for months in uncharted waters with only what they had on board to survive, how they coped with hunger, thirst, disease and weather so fierce it could snap a ship's mast in two and still found ways to keep going. It's a tale of fearless exploration, which greatly expanded our understanding of the world's geography. And it's a story of remarkable encounters with Indigenous people, some of whom had never seen Europeans before. All such encounters were unique and most friendly, but one rooted in deep cultural gaps and misunderstandings would lead to a tragic outcome remembered for centuries.

Hampton Sides is a contributing editor to Outside magazine and a historian who's written five previous books on subjects ranging from the exploration of the American West to the Korean War. His latest is "The Wide Wide Sea: Imperial Ambition, First Contact And The Fateful Final Voyage Of Captain James Cook."

Hampton Sides, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

HAMPTON SIDES: Yeah, it's a real pleasure to be back with you.

DAVIES: Let's just begin by giving you a bit of a thumbnail profile of James Cook. What was he known for back in the 1770s?

SIDES: Captain Cook was arguably one of the greatest explorers of all time - you know, the quality of his observations, the sheer number of nautical miles that he traveled, the incredible volumes that emanated from his voyages with beautiful art and descriptions of flora and fauna never before seen by Europeans. He had three voyages around the world, any one of which would have put him on the map and put him in the pantheon of great explorers like Magellan. But there was just a kind of a probity and a kind of almost scientific approach that he applied to his voyages that was unusual for his time.

And, you know, I think you would describe him as a product of the Enlightenment, someone who - yes, of course he understood he was working for the empire. He was working to advance the aims of the crown of England and the admiralty. But he also was a citizen of the world who knew that he was supposed to publish. He was supposed to describe objectively what he saw. And he was supposed to contribute to the global knowledge of the makeup of the planet - what does it look like? How does it look on a map? Who are these people that he was encountering? - and to try to describe them fairly and fully and without a lot of, you know, the typical stuff that you would see prior to his generation where it's like, they're savages. They're heathens. He was - he really approached it in a very different manner.

DAVIES: And what was his style as a commander?

SIDES: His style?

DAVIES: His personality...

SIDES: OK. So this was an age...

DAVIES: ....His approach - you know, we think of these...

SIDES: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...You know, commanding a ship - tough guys, right?

SIDES: Especially in his age. I mean, they were tyrants. They were - it was master and commander. They were absolutely in control of their ships. And so many of the British captains - and, for that matter, almost all the other European captains - were brutal tyrants. Cook, in that context, was quite - at least during his first two voyages, quite lenient, quite tolerant, quite concerned about ship conditions and hygiene and diet, very worried about scurvy and other diseases and had a kind of scientific approach to how to deal with diseases. He seemed to kind of have an almost intuitive understanding of germ theory, cleanliness, all these kinds of things.

Now, I'm not trying to say that he was a soft guy. He was stern and dour and tough and, you know, it was not - you know, he would dole out the discipline. But he was also mindful of the morale of his men. And for those first two voyages, you see a very different captain from his generation.

The third voyage, he begins to change, and you start to see a temper come out and a - just an absolute inflexibility. He starts to apply the lash to his own men and to treat some of the Native folks that he encounters along the way with increasing severity and cruelty. And so it's caused a lot of people to wonder, well, what's up with Cook in this third voyage? What - does he have a parasite? Is there some kind of mental or even spiritual problem that he's dealing with? Is he just simply exhausted from all the hundreds of thousands of miles he's traveled? It's one of the kind of forensic questions that comes up repeatedly in my book - is what's ailing the captain?

DAVIES: You mentioned scurvy. You know, scurvy was a disease, which is caused by a lack of vitamin C, I guess, which could kill up to half of - you know, a half of a crew on many voyages. He had a remarkable record on this - right? - by - I think on his last voyage, which was more than four years, not a single sailor died from scurvy.

SIDES: Yeah, and this was unheard of. Any voyage over a couple of hundred days, men started to drop like flies from scurvy. It was just kind of considered an occupational hazard of long-distance voyaging that most European navies seemed to be willing to tolerate, even though it was so horrendous, such a horrific way to die. Cook seemed to have figured it out, but he didn't really know precisely what was doing the trick. He had all kinds of weird things on board his ship that were supposed to be anti-scorbutic, meaning, you know, combating scurvy.

But what he fundamentally did understand was that eating fresh vegetables, fresh fruit and even fresh meat as opposed to just the constant typical diet of salt, pork and hardtack biscuits - that something in that was the trick, you know, that fresh stuff that he always had his men out hunting and fishing and gathering vegetables and berries and things like that. And that was a major factor. You know, it was only - you know, it was, what, a couple hundred years later before we definitively understood that it was actually vitamin C - a lack of vitamin C.

So when he comes back from his first and then his second voyage without anyone dying of scurvy, people at the admiralty - people at the Royal Society in London - think he's conquered this horrible malady. He hasn't exactly conquered it. He has figured something out. It will take generations before they absolutely figure it out. But - so he's hailed as a hero for this accomplishment.

DAVIES: There are so many writings from not just Captain Cook - he kept journals - but from other members of the crew. Some of them were quite literate. It's sort of remarkable that was - they wrote - a lot to draw on here, wasn't there?

SIDES: Yeah. You know, I think that by the time Cook went out on his third voyage, you know, so many people wanted to be a part of these voyages. They understood that this was a great captain and something interesting was going to happen. And so a lot of really interesting officers came aboard the ship, and they all kept journals. They wrote very well. Captain Cook wrote well but in a kind of stodgy, very emotionless way. But there were some other officers on board who just wrote beautiful, beautiful accounts of things, like, you know, our first detailed description of tattooing, of surfing, of a human sacrifice that was performed on Tahiti - these sorts of things. And I definitely view this story as an ensemble story, not just Cook's account but all these officers on board who wrote their own journals. Sometimes they were approved journals. Other times they were kind of done under the table and published without the approval of the admiralty. But it's a kind of an embarrassment of riches, all the different accounts that I had to draw from and to sort of triangulate them and to come up with this three-dimensional account.

DAVIES: You know, it's interesting - Cook's third voyage, which is the subject of your book, begins in July of 1776, which, you know, Americans will note coincides with another big moment on this side of the Atlantic, right? That's when the colonies declared independence from Great Britain. And a lot of attention was focused on the war in America, which, as you write it, meant that his ship didn't get quite the care it should have when they were preparing it for the voyage. The kind of caulking and reinforcing of the ship was done poorly. What impact did that have?

SIDES: It had a huge impact, because the Resolution was leaking like a sieve much of the voyage. It seemed like - this is a ship that had just returned from Cook's second voyage, so it was a tired ship, captained by a tired captain, and it seemed like a lot of things started going wrong from the very beginning because of - the shipwrights at Deptford had been focused much more on this war that's brewing in the colonies. And they leave.

And as you mentioned, in July of 1776, just as the American Revolution is getting started, it's interesting that, although this is very much a British story with a British captain, it's also very much an American tale, because so much of the action ends up in the present-day United States, whether you're talking about Hawaii or Oregon, Washington, Alaska. They're exploring the Northwest coast of North America just as the revolution is getting started. And by the time they return to England, the revolution is basically over, and it's a whole new world.

DAVIES: So Cook was a famous mapmaker and seaman. He'd done two around-the-world voyages. He didn't want to do another one, but he was kind of talked into it. King George III wanted it. And the Earl of Sandwich - the guy known for inventing the sandwich, who was...

SIDES: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...In the Admiralty, wanted him to - Cook to command another expedition. What were the goals? What did they want him to do in this round-the-world trek?

SIDES: Well, the British had been obsessed for a long time with the idea of finding the - what they called the Northwest Passage - a shortcut over North America between the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean - for trade reasons, for reasons of commerce. But at a certain point, it had become kind of a geographical obsession. And every time they poked into the pinched geography of Canada, they found ice, right?

So this time, the idea was go around to the other side, to the Pacific side, go up through the Bering Strait - which we had some very vague ideas about because of Bering's voyages - and to try to find that Northwest Passage from the Pacific side - the backside of America, as the English called it. It was one of the holy grails of British geography and exploration. And if Cook could have found this elusive Northwest Passage, it would have been the crowning achievement of his career. This was such a tantalizing voyage, with such huge ambitions and rewards behind it, that he decided, oh, I'll go back out.

DAVIES: Let's take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Hampton Sides. His book is "The Wide Wide Sea: Imperial Ambition, First Contact And The Fateful Final Voyage Of Captain James Cook." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGOL BORDELLO SONG, “NOT A CRIME”)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with historian Hampton Sides, whose new book is a gripping account of an 18th-century round-the-world sea voyage led by British Captain James Cook. You know, many of the fascinating stories in this book - and there are a lot of them - involve these two ships in Cook's expedition, you know, dropping anchor on an island and interacting with Indigenous people. You open the book with one of them. This was in January 1778, where he visits Kauai, which is in the Hawaiian Island chain. And there's some - you know, some accounts from Hawaiian historians about what the people ashore thought when these two, you know, tall, masted ships showed up. How did they react? What did they think when they saw this?

SIDES: They worried that their world was forever changed. There was a sense of exhilaration and terror and rapture. They talked about maybe these are manta rays that have emerged from the sea. Maybe they are gods. That does come up, even at Kauai, that idea that these may be manifestations of the god Lono, which will come up later in the story. They could tell instantly that these were very different people.

And what they most were fascinated by was all the metal that was on board the ship. They could see it gleaming in the sunlight. It was a substance that they had a very, very faint knowledge of only because some pieces of driftwood had landed on Kauai with - you know, sometimes with nails in it. And they understood this was a magical substance. And they wanted a piece of it and very quickly started to tear the ship apart, trying to get at the nails and any other piece of metal they could find. But they understood this was a new world. This was a new people. And it was very - the initial greeting was quite peaceful, but things escalated in a hurry. A hothead officer fired a musket and killed a Hawaiian man. And things went downhill very quickly.

DAVIES: Now, you write in that case that these were not people who had seen Europeans before, and they mistook their garments for their skin and the tricorn hats for their - for the shape of their heads.

SIDES: Yeah. They thought they had deformed heads that - you know, three-point heads. And they had never seen pockets before and thought, you know, look, they stick their hands into their bodies and they come out with treasure. And there's a lot of really bizarre and wonderful oral history that was done by some Hawaiian - Native Hawaiian historians about these reactions. They didn't understand smoking, and when they saw these white men smoking, they thought they were - they called them the volcano people because they seemed to just be constantly seething smoke.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, it's kind of as close as you could get to imagining what it would be like for Martians landing on Earth, I guess, if you see someone that - with no preparation...

SIDES: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...And no context, to see something in these vessels with those garments and all that. You know, you write that Cook's attitude towards and descriptions of the Indigenous folks he encountered was very different from other European explorers, right? More tolerant...

SIDES: I think, you know...

DAVIES: ...More curious?

SIDES: ...I call him a proto-anthropologist. He certainly had no training in that regard, but he was interested in getting it down in a very level and kind of agnostic treatment of just, like, this is what they wear. This is how they converse. This is what the rituals look like. He never tries to convert them to Christian faith, never uses the word heathen or savage, to my recollection, so yeah, he's unique in that regard, and some of that he had learned from his first voyage. A famous scientist, Joseph Banks, was on that ship, and he had learned a little of the language of, you know, science, I guess you would say, and language of the enlightenment. But he was quite fair in his assessment of these people, I think.

DAVIES: And what would be his approach when first going ashore? I mean, you know, one might think, I better bring, you know, he had a platoon of marines onboard with - who were armed with muskets. Do you bring them? Do you bring one or two? Do you go by yourself? Did he have a standard approach?

SIDES: Most of the time, he would march ashore unarmed. He liked to be the first one ashore. He had this kind of, what I call, a minuet of first contact, this sort of dance that he did with the locals, where he, you know, yes, it's probably dangerous, but if I look them in the eye and, you know, present myself in - as a peaceful person, maybe they won't kill me. And it was a dangerous and, some people thought, reckless way of going about things, but he would - yes, there would be marines waiting in the wings, but he would usually be the first one ashore. And so I guess you could say that's very brave, or you could say it's perhaps hubristic and reckless.

DAVIES: Right. And he would sometimes have someone who spoke some Polynesian languages onboard, so there might be some basis for communication. It seems, You know, and it's interesting, because there are so many of these accounts in the books, including tribes that are up in the Arctic. There's the Hawaiian islands, there's, you know, around Tahiti and Tasmania and New Zealand, and it seems that in every case, the Indigenous folks are quickly ready to engage in commerce, barter, trade. They want some things, and not always the same things.

SIDES: Not always the same things, but, there's, you know, that was always the first question was what Cook was interested in when he landed on an island was, can I get some water? Can I get some timber? Can I get some food? And so what am I going to trade with? And one of the things they would trade with, the blacksmiths would generate crude tools and chisels and knives, and they would give these as gifts. Another time, they accumulated a bunch of red feathers on Tonga, the island of Tonga, and found that in some of the islands, red feathers were like gold, considered as valuable as gold. So - but, you know, the native people were also very intrigued by Cook's instruments, partly 'cause they were made out of metal, but things like sextants and quadrants and astronomical gear, and would often be tempted to steal this stuff, not knowing precisely what it did, but perhaps thinking that it had something to do with the heavens and perhaps the gods. So every island, the economy, the barter trade was a little bit different from the next one.

DAVIES: Let's take another break here and we'll talk some more.

We are speaking with Hampton Sides. His new book is "The Wide Wide Sea: Imperial Ambition, The First Contact And The Fateful Final Voyage Of Captain James Cook" (ph). He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAVING OF LIVERPOOL")

SHANE MACGOWAN: (Singing) Fare thee well to Prince's Landing Stage. There were many fare thee wells. I am bound for California, a place I know right well. So fare thee well, my own true love. When I return, united we will be. It's not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me, but, my darling, when I think of thee. Oh, and I have shipped upon it once before. I think I know it well. The captain's name is Burgess, and I've...

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. We're speaking with historian Hampton Sides, whose new book is a gripping account of an 18th century round-the-world sea voyage led by British captain James Cook. The journey took him and his crew above the Arctic Circle north of Alaska looking for a water passage through North America, and they explored many islands in Hawaii in the South Pacific, having memorable encounters with Indigenous people, including one that would prove deadly for the explorers. Sides' book is "The Wide, Wide Sea: Imperial Ambition, First Contact And The Fateful Final Voyage Of Captain James Cook."

So let's talk a bit about what an overseas voyage was like in the, you know, 1750s or 1770s when this happened. The main ship he was on was called the Resolution. There was a companionship, the Discovery. The Resolution was 110ft long. That's 37 yards long. About, you know, a middling pass in the NFL. That's the distance. And roughly a hundred men aboard. They might go months without landfall. They had to carry all the water. I mean, well, what kinds of supplies would you have to pack to know that you could go exploring uncharted waters and stay alive?

SIDES: Yeah. It certainly wasn't a Carnival cruise. People were suffering and, you know, living in cramped quarters and swinging in hammocks and dealing with bad food, dealing with the discipline of the ship, obviously and the closeness, the claustrophobic closeness of being with the same group of guys for so long.

DAVIES: How did cook, and his sailors, for that matter, communicate with the locals?

SIDES: A lot of grunting. A lot of gesticulating. A lot of pidgin Polynesian, which many of the men did learn along the way because the language, although it varied from island to island, was largely the same throughout the South Seas, at least. And they communicated mainly through bartering and expressions on their face. It was, you know, certainly true that whatever the men were understanding was only a fraction of what was really going on. And that's a big part of when you're dealing with the documents, you're trying to sift through all this and try to realize well, only getting, you know, sort of the unreliable narrator thing. We're only getting a part of the real story. But, you know, you just try to do the best you can with the documents that you have to work with.

DAVIES: You know, there's one fascinating figure here who was on Cook's voyage, or much of it, who was not an Englishman. He was a Polynesian man named Mai, who had joined Cook's second voyage, was interested in joining the Navy, did so, became a seaman, and then goes to England, where he becomes kind of a celebrity, this Polynesian guy. Tells us something about his experience.

SIDES: Mai was amazing. He was the first Polynesian man to set foot on English soil, and he very quickly became a celebrity. He learned English. He hung out at the estates of the aristocracy. He learned to hunt and, you know, he learned to play backgammon and chess. And he met with the Royal Society. He met with King George. He met with Samuel Johnson and all the sort of intelligentsia of the times. And England just fell in love with this guy. He was the personification of, as they put it, the noble savage. He had a wonderful smile. He had a wonderful - he was a very handsome guy that - quite popular with the ladies. And he had a two-year period of London where they really rolled out the red carpet for him.

And - but then the king, King George, said, we're going to take you home. We've got to find a way to get you home. And that ended up being errand number one on Captain Cook's third voyage, which is to bring him home, bring Mai home to Tahiti with his belongings and with a bunch of animals, and ensconce him back in his home island, partly for his own good, but also because they wanted to sort of show Tahitian society how great England was and all these belongings that they had given him. They wanted to impress the Tahitian society that, you know, England was the best, better than Spain, better than France. So that's a big part of the voyage and a big part of the - really, a big part of the book.

DAVIES: Yeah. Like infusing stem cells of British culture in Tahiti.

SIDES: That's a great way to put it. Yeah.

DAVIES: You know, it is interesting because Mai spent two years in England and was a big hit and learned to speak English pretty well and met all these notables. When he left to go on the voyage, he wasn't traveling light, was he? I mean, tell us some of the stuff he brought with him to impress his Tahitian friends when he got back.

SIDES: Well, they - he had been given lots of muskets. He had been given, like, all kinds of trinkets and completely, for the most part, useless things, toys and all kinds of things that, you know, were really kind of meant to impress people but weren't exactly useful.

DAVIES: Well, and also a full suit of armor, right?

SIDES: Oh, he was given also - he was also given - yeah, a full suit of armor. What are you going to do with chainmail and a, you know, full suit of armor in a tropical Tahiti? I'm not really sure. But there was an ulterior motive going on the whole time, which was that he wanted guns. He wanted ammunition because he - his father had been murdered by the warriors from Bora Bora, and he wanted to reclaim his home island from the Bora Bora. And so he wanted - he ventured to England, really, to get guns. And he did get guns. And that's a whole nother part of after Cook leaves and deposits Mai in the Society Islands. Unfortunately, Mai's story is sad and tragic and, you know, kind of an example of what happens, I think, when you cross-pollinate cultures, you know, it was like he was a man without a country.

He wasn't really English and he wasn't really Tahitian anymore. He was something else. He had all these belongings, but he didn't really know what to do with them. And he immediately started using his guns to cook up a battle with the Bora Borans. And things do not go well for him, tragically, in the end.

DAVIES: It was interesting because they, you know, Cook wanted to integrate him into Tahitian society. But he goes and he meets with the chief and, you know, he was a little station when he left. Now he thinks he's big stuff. He goes riding on the beach on a horse in a full suit of armor. They are less than impressed. They kind of just did not ingratiate him with Tahitian culture. The British end up building him a house with a lock on it, which was a new thing. Just didn't...

SIDES: Right.

DAVIES: ...Work at all, did it?

SIDES: It's just like a completely grafted from England trying to make it work in a completely different society. The thing is, Mai came from basically nothing. He was a commoner, and apparently, no amount of possessions or guns or suit of armor could change that. You know, Tahitian society was very stratified. The kings and chiefs were all powerful. And here comes this impostor - this poser - trying to now say, oh, I'm powerful, and I'm well-connected, so you should treat me differently. Well, they didn't treat him differently. They're just like, you're still Mai.

DAVIES: We're going to take another break here.

We are speaking with Hampton Sides. His new book is "The Wide Wide Sea: Imperial Ambition, First Contact And The Fateful Final Voyage Of Captain James Cook." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH SONG, "HEARTBROKEN, IN DISREPAIR")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with historian Hampton Sides. His new book is a gripping account of an 18th-century, round-the-world sea voyage led by British Captain James Cook.

After he spent time in the South Pacific with - near islands around Tahiti, he actually "discovers," quote-unquote, I mean, the islands in the chain that includes Hawaii, that we now know as our - the state of Hawaii. I mean, I say discovered, because obviously people had been living there for centuries, but Europeans somehow didn't know about this. But then he goes on to explore the west coast of North America, looking for this long-sought water passage that would allow, you know, Europeans to go through North America to the Pacific Ocean. So he's trying to do it from the backside - plenty of encounters with local communities, plenty of times he had to stop and repair his ship, explores all kinds of inlets and rivers and estuaries, does not find this passage.

So he does try to go north up to the Arctic Circle to see if - is there a chance you can sail, you know, over the north - over the top of the world, bypass Greenland and go to Great Britain. This was in the summer. And there were some thinking that this might be possible. A guy named Daines Barrington you write about had opinions about Arctic sea travel. Tell us - what were the expectations here?

SIDES: There was a lot of weird ideas back then and pieces of kind of pseudoscience and rumor that - for example, one of the ideas was that sea ice cannot freeze. And so if you can get far enough from land, the only ice is along the shore coming from rivers. So the idea was, you know, if you can find a big, wide passage somewhere up there that's just in the broad ocean, it will not freeze, and you'll find your way over Canada. This is obviously very flawed science. And a lot of science - a lot of explorers had to suffer and die to try to disprove it. But Cook was willing to give it a try. And he also understood that this whole part of the world was - it was not known at all. It was terra incognita. Yeah, it was a mystery what was up there. The Russians had been there, but they didn't really share their information.

And we do see Cook, during this phase of the voyage, at his very best. He's back to what he does best, which is mapping and charting and exploring something entirely new and trying to understand the lay of the land. He was a brilliant cartographer. And he was an amazing captain in these kinds of dicey sailing situations. So he goes, I mean, he basically gives us the outline of the entire northwest part of the continent, you know, Oregon to Alaska. And he goes up and over Alaska. And he's heading toward what we now call Point Barrow, Alaska, when he finally encounters an impenetrable wall of ice. And he understands immediately, not only is this not going to lead to the Atlantic but we've got to get the hell out of here, because we're going to get trapped in this ice. And he nearly does get trapped. And if that had happened, we'd never hear - heard from him again.

And so most people, at that point, would have said, well, time to go home. But he decided, no, we're going to try it one more season. We're going to come back during the next summer in the hope that we'll - maybe the ice will have shifted, and we can find that way through. But in the meantime, winter's coming. I got to go somewhere to replenish the ships and let the men have some R&R. So why don't we go back to that amazing archipelago we stumbled upon, Hawaii - the Hawaiian chain. And so that's what they do. They head back to Hawaii to thaw out and relax for a short while.

DAVIES: Yeah. This is just an amazing moment in the book. Like, OK, you've, like, you've given it a shot. There is no northwest passage. The Arctic is frozen. Go home. But no, no. And he's going to extend the voyage by another full year. He's going to wait and go back the next summer. Captain Cook would not make it home from this voyage. He would be killed on the island of Hawaii. The circumstances are a little too intricate for us to cover here, and it's frankly a fascinating story that I think folks, along with other great stories, will get when they read the book.

You know, Cook is revered by many as, you know, one of the greatest explorers and sailors ever. And, you know, a man of the enlightenment who cared about expanding knowledge and being precise. He's also reviled as, you know, an agent of European imperialism. I mean, his - monuments to him in the islands have been, you know, desecrated. And I noticed that the copy in the jacket to your book says Cook's scientific efforts were the sharp edge of the colonial sword. From his writings, did he care deeply about colonial conquest and rivalries with, you know, Spain, which was really active in the Pacific?

SIDES: Yes. He - you know, he wasn't naive. He knew that he was doing the work of Empire. He certainly was a devoted, you know, follower of the Crown and was a dutiful employee, if you want to call it, of the Admiralty. And he understood that this enormous chess game that was going on between the European powers, particularly the Spanish and the French and the English and the Dutch, was happening all around, and that he was working in the service of all that. He wasn't naive. But you get the feeling when you read his journals that the places places where he's most animated, when he's most excited, when he's most interested is when he's describing something totally new, when he's playing the role of even an anthropologist or a, you know, ethnographer or when he's mapping something that's never been seen by Europeans before.

I say in the book that he's more empirical than imperial and that he's more inquisitive than acquisitive, and I think that's true. I do think that he was operating in a very, very unique time when there was still this kind of ethic of the Enlightenment. But there's no question that exploration is the first phase of colonial conquest. You know, these explorers come, they describe the bays and places where you can anchor and where the food is, and then here come the occupiers, and here comes the alcohol and the diseases and, you know, just the entire dismantling of these fragile island communities. So that's why he's hated so much, I think. He was - it's not really so much what he did. It's what came immediately after him as a consequence of his voyages.

DAVIES: Yeah. It's interesting. You know, he didn't claim lands for the crown, and he didn't conquer and subjugate and exploit the locals. I mean, he made a point of not getting into local wars with them. They would want him to kind of help them. He wouldn't get involved in that. But the interactions in some way undermined the traditional societies in ways that were not helpful.

SIDES: You know, he did claim some lands for England occasionally, especially in his first two voyages, because it was required by the admiralty, but by the third voyage, you can tell he's rolling his eyes at the whole thing. In fact, he would have his younger officers, junior officers, go out and raise the flag and, you know, have a little ceremony 'cause he thought it was absurd. But, you know, he understood that these were new lands that probably one of the European powers was going to try to take over, and he was consciously writing notes to the admiralty saying, you know, the Spanish are probably going to come here next, or, you know, what are the French going to do? So, you know, this imperial game is still going on in the background, and it still has reverberations to this day.

DAVIES: Hampton Sides, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SIDES: It's been a pleasure. Thank you so much.

DAVIES: Hampton Sides' book is "The Wide Wide Sea: Imperial Ambition, First Contact And The Fateful Final Voyage Of Captain James Cook." Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Beyonce's new album, "Cowboy Carter." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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