The Wide Wide Sea: Imperial Ambition, First Contact and the Fateful Final Voyage of Captain James Cook

The epic final voyage of Captain James Cook was historic but also catastrophic, as historian Hampton Sides (In the Kingdom of Ice) masterfully recounts in The Wide Wide Sea. On July 12, 1776, Cook left England aboard the HMS Resolution, which was soon joined by the HMS Discovery, on a projected two-year exploratory expedition to the Pacific. Cook's "secret instructions" from the British Admiralty were large in scope: reach the Pacific Ocean via the Cape of Good Hope and return Mai, a beloved Tahitian crewmember, back to his home; sail to the Pacific coast of North America and claim any new lands for England; and seek the fabled Northwest Passage.

Sides is a superb storyteller with an eye for the physical beauty within "the blue void" of the Pacific, and he paints lush portraits of the islands Cook visited and their diverse cultures. Sides also examines Cook's unusual behavior, which included "uncharacteristic surliness" and "flights of temper," and suggests that Cook's "saturnine moods" may have been the result of acute sciatica. Whatever the cause, Sides reveals a man who, by this voyage, had become "a despot... with a mean streak" who "was slowly losing faith in the supposed benefits of cross-cultural contact." Sides's minute-by-minute account of Cook's last moments on the Big Island of Hawaii in 1779--the outcome of his intemperate decision making, Sides argues--is simply riveting. Populated with a panoply of colorful personalities and places, The Wide Wide Sea thrills as it also plumbs the problematic depths of "discovery." --Peggy Kurkowski, book reviewer and copywriter in Denver

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