Hampton Sides.  The Wide Wide Sea. 2024

Hampton Sides. The Wide Wide Sea. 2024

Sides, Hampton.  
The Wide Wide Sea: Imperial Ambition, First Contact and the Fateful Final Voyage of Captain James Cook.  
ISBN 9780385544764. 
432 pages. 

On my bookshelves stand a dozen or more accounts of Cook’s last voyage—there was one more, but it was so badly flawed that I actually threw it away!  In addition, I have J.C. Beaglehole’s seminal works, so my first thought was whether a further Third Voyage account is really necessary.  Of course, any modern re-telling that might shed a different light on what is to members of the CCS a well-known episode, is welcome, especially when it might reach a new or wider audience.

I must first mention that the book I had for review was a galley copy, i.e., not a fully finalised version, and as such did not have an index.  This caused me problems, though I believe there will be one in the final publication.  Also, though there were notes at the back of the book, there were no inset numbers in the text to refer to those notes.  This latter point is not necessarily a bad thing as it left the text clear and very readable, but it was more difficult for me to check references.  I have not quoted page numbers for the quotes I have used from the book because they may not relate to the final published copies—certain passages had been faded out, indicating they may be removed.  I am aware that other changes have already been made to the text for the final print run.   And, only the US edition will have the “Imperial Ambition” strapline to the title.

The Wide Wide Sea starts with a well formulated author’s note pointing out that the book contains a narrative history written at a time when there is a real antipathy towards Cook.  He states

Wherever it has seemed relevant and interesting, I’ve let present day controversies infuse and inform this book.  I’ve tried to present the captain, and the goals and assumptions behind his third voyage, in all their flawed complexity.  I neither lionize, demonize, nor defend him.  I’ve simply tried to describe what happened during his consequential, ambitious, and ultimately tragic final voyage.

The author has integrated some of the Pacific native people’s oral history which, with all the work done by anthropologists since Beaglehole’s time, is good, helpful and appropriate.  In this aspect, the book is probably more extensive than most Third Voyage accounts—except for the omission of six months of the voyage, as described below.

The lead up to the voyage, pen-pictures of Cook and Mai (Omai), and the rest of Mai’s life are well covered.  Surprisingly, not all of the voyage is so well delineated.  The six-month period from the ships leaving New Zealand to arriving at Tahiti is omitted, despite the Cook Islands, Tonga and the Austral islands being visited.  There were numerous interactions, good and bad, between the Europeans and the native Islanders during this time.  Incidents of Cook’s cruelty, such as the cropping of ears, are mentioned elsewhere in the text, but the interaction with the Tongan Finau, and the abortive plot to kill the visitors are missed.  Also omitted is the episode when Cook stripped to the waist to join in a ritual, which left many of his men believing he had demeaned himself, a subject both illuminating and well worth discussing.  I am told that Sides included it in his draft version, but it was excised due to his publisher’s restrictions on the book’s length.

The pen pictures of the various officers and supernumeraries aboard are rather brief, but prob­ably as much as someone new to Cook’s world will require.  Sides comments about Lieutenant James King that “he would become one of the captain’s closest friends and a confidant”.  Later he states, “Cook had placed more and more faith in the fair-haired young man.  Now he was Cook’s honoured assistant, his amanuensis and sounding board”.  I am sure King would be very happy with this description but I do not accept it.  King was no amanuensis, but after the voyage was employed to write up the latter parts of the voyage for the official publication.  The Hawaiians seem to have consider­ed King as an honoured assistant or better, but I can see no evidence that Cook treated him as more than his Second officer and Astronomer.  My view, as King’s biographer,1 is that he was generally kept in the dark by Cook, like the other officers and members of the ship’s company.  In writing up the voyage as he later did, it seems to me that he struggled to understand Cook’s intentions every bit as much everyone else.

The August 1776 incident off Bonavista, Cape Verde Islands, where Resolution came close to driving onto rocks, is usually given as one of the first examples of Cook “taking his eye off the ball’.  Sides states Cook was “belatedly spotting the hazard” before manoeuvring away from danger, and that “this seems a glaring mistake”.  This incident has always interested me.  To my knowledge it is only William Anderson, Surgeon, who writes about it at any length, and he does not specifically state it was Cook’s fault.  Rather, he says that “It would be absurd to impute it to willfullness and almost as bad if we describe it to ignorance”.2  While a captain always has to take ultimate responsibility for the safety of the ship, if Cook was not the Officer of the Watch, then maybe that person, or the lookout, should bear some blame.  The event occurred some time after midnight, and Cook may have been below, just coming on deck from time to time to check progress as they were nearing land—standard practice for most captains, then and now.  Certainly, Anderson states that Cook was there, spotted breakers, and headed the ship away.  Cook had previously changed course to avoid these dangers but, even with his awesome talents, it was not easy to be exactly on point with your position.  I merely point this out to illustrate that we need to be careful to examine all of the evidence before making a judgement because, as Sides says later in the book, Cook “had a refined sense for judging gradations of imminent calamity”.  Sides quotes “one able sea­man”—Heinrich Zimmerman.

When no-one else had a suspicion of danger he often came up on deck and changed the course because land was near.  This was so pronounced that every one believed he had some secret source of foreknowing.3

The ships’ visit to Tasmania is detailed, and that to New Zealand.  The problem of Kahura and the Grass Cove massacre of some of Adventure’s men during the Second Voyage is finely described.  In fact, the description is the most compelling version of this part of the voyage that I have ever read.

As the ships left New Zealand the author writes, “In reading his journals, one detects that he was slowly losing faith in the supposed benefits of cross-cultural contact.  He was starting to realise that visiting these islanders wasn’t good for them”.  I contend that this had started way back during the Endeavour voyage, notably in connection with the Aboriginal people in Australia.

Let me skip on to Alaska and the Bering Strait.  Sides states that Cook “soon advanced the ground-breaking theory that the ancestor’s of these people (the Alaskans) had migrated across what we now call the Bering Sea from Asia”.  I have previously looked into this theory, and it is reported that it had been put forward as long ago as 1590, by the Spanish missionary Fray Jose de Acosta, and widely debated since then.

Now to the Hawaiian Islands.  The analysis of Cook’s mindset as he approached the islands of Maui and then Hawai`i has given historians much difficulty.  Regarding the length of time (more than a month) that Cook sailed round the islands without landing, Sides writes, “He had devised a quite unusual plan”.  Sides cites King on Cook’s unwill­ingness to spread further disease, and desire to minimise theft and to control trade.4  However, this does not seem to be the full story.  The men were kept on short rations, even when food was being brought from shore by the Hawaiians.  The men were at the end of their tether, and even wrote a “very mutinous letter” to Cook at this time, according to King’s journal and other sources.  As Frank McLynn wrote, “It is hardly surprising that the non-stop stress, coupled with the conflict with the captain over grog, sex and landing rights, should have driven the men close to mutiny”.5  One might try to rationalise Cook’s behaviour, but it flies against his traditional care of his men.

Now we move on to Kealakekua Bay.  While Sides’s descriptions are generally excellent, I think he underplays the significance of the temple Hikiau Heiau and its surrounding sacred area, describing it as “paved with basalt rocks, much like the marae temples Cook had seen elsewhere”.  Having seen the truncated remains of this heiau, and several of the marae in Polynesia that Cook visited, I feel this is a significant downplaying of the place.  It stood between three and six metres high and, with its so-called Oracle Tower, dominated the huge sacred area at the south-east end of the bay.  It was, in part, a ruin at the time of Cook’s visit, as was the fence that was removed at Cook’s request, because no repair or re-building was allowed during Makahiki.  The taking of the heiau’s fence is often quoted, as Sides does here, as a desecration by Cook, but this might arguably be a simplistic view.

Sides states that, before leaving for the Arctic, Cook needed to “locate better water than the brackish, sandy stuff they’d siphoned from Keala­kekua’s ponds”.  I found this comment confusing.  The watering place at the far end of the sacred area, where the Pali comes down close to sea level, has good potable water, as I found during a visit in 2009.  The pond adjacent to Hikiau Heiau and part of the sacred area is brackish, and now unpalatable, but was not the ship’s water source.

The description of events at and near Ka`awaloa leading up to Cook’s death are gripping, lively and written with a novelist’s eye.  I remember Cliff Thornton, in a talk at a CCS meeting some years ago, analysing the actions of the marines and how they used their muskets.  Sides does a similar job here.

I will make just one comment regarding whether Cook was considered by the Hawaiians to actually be Lono.  Not only is it discussed at length in this book, but it has also been considered to be the main reason behind the native people’s actions and reactions.  Kalani`opu`u was considered divine, and at the time of Makahiki, he assumed the name of Lono, giving more weight to his own divinity.  After Makahiki, he assumed the name of Ku.  By Cook being addressed and honoured with the name of Lono when he arrived, it could be assumed that Cook was being treated as more divine than Kalani`opu`u without actually being the God.  However, we are told that some Hawaiians came to the ships after Cook’s death asking when Cook would return.  I think we must conclude that many of the natives did think he was a god.  For more information on the status of the King in Hawaiian culture, see the seminal work Kingship and Sacrifice by Valeri.6 

The view of Cook given in this book is, overall, a well-balanced one.  We can only conjecture what drove him to the several episodes of violence on this voyage.  It has to be weighed against the overall benevolence with which our captain treated the native peoples with whom he came in contact. 

The near eradication of various Pacific cultures by the people who came after Cook is a tragedy, and is rightly deplored, but how much of the blame should attach to him is debatable.  This book continues the debate.  It is interesting that Cook the ethnographer and the collector of artifacts, along with the work of his official artist, has also given the remnants of those island cultures a help towards understanding their own heritage, a point that is often overlooked.

Overall, this book, as an account of Cook’s last voyage, is very readable, and I hope it sells well.  It draws together a number of strands, though possibly few that CCS members are not aware of, and will hopefully open the eyes of many who are new to the full story of Captain James Cook.  It is to be hoped that some of Cook’s uninformed detractors read it.

Steve Ragnall


  1. Ragnall, Steve.  Better Conceiv’d than Describ’d: The Life and Times of Captain James King (1750-84).  Matador.  2013.
  2. Beaglehole, J.C.  The Journals of Captain James Cook.  Volume III.  Hakluyt Society.  1967.  Page 736.
  3. Barrow, Terence.  Captain Cook in Hawaii.  Island Heritage Collection.  1978.
  4. Beaglehole.  op, cit.  Page 503.
  5. McLynn, Frank.  Captain Cook: Master of the seas.  Yale University Press.  2011.  Page 372. 
  6. Valeri, Valerio.  Kingship and Sacrifice: Ritual and Society in Ancient Hawaii.  University of Chicago Press.  1985.

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 24, volume 47, number 2 (2024).

Leave a comment

your email address will not be published

Thank you for your response. It will be evaluated by a moderator and published.
Previous Comments:
Ian Boreham (Webmaster)
Rob, There are many to choose from. I suggest you look at our webpage about books, and read the introduction before clicking on some of the links within it. Visit https://www.captaincooksociety.com/remembering-cook/books
Rob minna
The wide wide sea is my first capt cook book. What are some others I should read?