The Wide Wide Sea

About the Book

From New York Times bestselling author Hampton Sides, an epic 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.

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.

Captain Cook’s First Contact with Hawaii – Herbert K. Kane, LLC

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.

Praise for The Wide Wide Sea

Diligent, riveting . . . Sides draws deeply from Cook’s and other crew members diaries and supplements that with his own reporting in the South Pacific. The Wide Wide Sea makes a persuasive case that . . . in dramatically opening what was known about our world, Cook made us all richer in knowledge.

Hampton Sides revisits Captain James Cook
Associated Press, April 8, 2024

“Whatever you think about Cook, he’s certainly in the pantheon of the greatest explorers of all time,” said writer Hampton Sides. “He gave us the contours of the Pacific Ocean.”

Sides is author of the new book, “The Wide Wide Sea,” documenting Cook’s final and fateful voyage. “He had three voyages around the world; each one was monumental,” said Sides.

Captain James Cook and the controversial legacy of Western exploration
CBS News, Sunday Morning, April 7, 2024

“The Wide Wide Sea portrays Cook as a complicated figure driven by instincts and motives that often seem to have been opaque even to him… [A]s Cook himself seemed to have realized, and at times lamented, he was but an instrument in a much, much larger scheme.”

The New Yorker, April 1, 2024

“A lot of things started going wrong from the very beginning,” historian Hampton Sides says of Cook’s last voyage, which ended in the British explorer’s violent death on the island of Hawaii in 1779. His book is The Wide Wide Sea: Imperial Ambition, First Contact, and the Fateful Final Voyage of Captain James Cook.

– NPR’s Fresh Air, April 3, 2024

“Hampton Sides, an acclaimed master of the nonfiction narrative, has taken on Cook’s story and retells it for the 21st century… A work that will enthrall Cook’s admirers, inform his critics and entertain everyone in between. The Wide Wide Sea has all the elements of a Greek tragedy—hubris, good intentions gone awry, fatal error. Sides examines every aspect of Cook’s superhuman accomplishments [and] recreates the largely untouched world he witnessed. Captain Cook’s story is the apotheosis of the adventure stories Sides tells so well. We know Cook’s fate, but we cannot look away.”

— Mary Ann Gwinn
Los Angeles Times

“Propulsive and vivid… offers a fuller picture of the British explorer’s final voyage to the Pacific islands. The Wide Wide Sea fits neatly into a growing genre that includes David Grann’s The Wager and Candice Millard’s River of the Gods… Sides does [an] incredible job in bringing to life Cook’s journey.”

— Doug Bock Clark
The New York Times

“Enthralling… Hampton Sides takes on the complex legacy of the British explorer… [This] excellent new book draws on Cook’s letters and notebooks to tell the story of his third and final trip. Sides strikes a balance between justified admiration for Cook’s seamanship and a legitimate resentment of the colonialism that followed Indigenous peoples’ first contact with Europeans.”

The Economist

“With gripping prose, Sides details Cook’s increasingly erratic behavior as he explored vast swaths of the Pacific and scrambled to find the fabled Northwest Passage along the ice-choked coast of Alaska. His account lays bare the Age of Exploration’s moral perils, which continue to reverberate today.”

Outside Magazine

“Beautifully written and impeccably researched, The Wide Wide Sea will delight readers new to the topic as well as those versed in earlier looks at James Cook and his milieu.”

Booklist

“This exquisitely crafted and novelistic portrait of the mercurial captain enthralls.”

Publishers Weekly, (starred)

“So much is made of Western ‘civilized’ explorers heading out on grand adventures, but seldom is anything said of Indigenous people on their own journeys of exploration into the heart of whiteness. In The Wide Wide Sea, Hampton Sides does just that. Alongside the narrative of Cook’s voyage, Sides tells the gripping story of a young Pacific Islander named Mai, plucked from his home in Tahiti in the late 18th century and brought to England as a curiosity only to return to the South Pacific four years later. With quietly forceful and meticulous research, Sides gives us a tale that is fascinating, important, and inexplicably sad.”

—David Treuer
New York Times bestselling author of
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee and Rez Life

“An acclaimed historian takes to the sea in this rousing tale of exploration … Sides draws on numerous contemporaneous sources to create a fascinating, immersive adventure story featuring just the right amount of historical context … Lusciously detailed and insightful history, masterfully told.”

Kirkus Reviews, (starred)

The Wide Wide Sea transports the reader to one of the most thrilling eras of human exploration. With deft use of the words of Cook’s own men and the oral traditions of the Indigenous people whose lands they visited, Hampton Sides has conjured Cook’s fatal voyage in all its extraordinary and tragic magnificence.”

— Caroline Alexander
New York Times bestselling author of
The Endurance and The Bounty

“An instant classic. . . this majestic account reminds us just how deep runs our desire to know the shape and limits of our world. Dispatched from England to seek the Northwest Passage, Captain Cook braved violent storms and unknown shores while coping with his own growing demons. Drawing on a wealth of detail from the crew’s diarists and judiciously applying modern interpretation, Sides brings Cook’s glorious and tragic final act to shimmering life.”

—Dean King
New York Times bestselling author of
A Sea of Words, Skeletons on the Zahara, and
Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed

“Hampton Sides has a gift for taking stories you thought you knew and making them feel fresh and revelatory. Along the way, he has also mastered the art of you-are-there historical narrative. In The Wide Wide Sea, this combination is irresistible: fascinating and horrifying by turns, Sides puts us on deck with Captain Cook, one of the world’s greatest and most disciplined explorers, as he comes undone in real time, in ways that make comparisons to our current planetary moment inescapable. This is a thrilling and necessary update to one of history’s most consequential cultural collisions.”

—John Vaillant
New York Times bestselling author of
Fire Weather and The Tiger

“Here is an adventure so strange and epic it rivals the greatest tales of myth. The cast of characters includes a restless Captain Cook, an anxious King George III on the verge of losing his American colonies, a London high society newly infatuated with the romance of the “noble savage,” and a good-natured young Polynesian man heartily bent on an inter-island massacre. Sides turns this riveting narrative into a cautionary tale about the heedless cruelty of colonialism and the collateral damage that can result from even the best-intentioned first contact.”

—Peter Heller
New York Times bestselling author of
The Dog Stars, The River, and The Guide

“In all the annals of exploration, Cook’s last journey around the world stands out for its fascination, tragedy, and sheer epic scope. Hampton Sides does justice to this extraordinary history, vividly capturing its splendor, violence, and madness. Here are stories within stories, deeply researched and woven into a tapestry that brings to life Captain Cook, his times, and the oceans he explored. More than that, it portrays in a nuanced and respectful way those peoples impacted by his final voyage—including the Aboriginal Tasmanians, the Māori, the Tahitians, the Hawaiians, and Native Alaskans. I highly recommend this fantastic book.”

— Douglas Preston
#1 bestselling author of
The Lost City of the Monkey God and Cities of Gold

“There is no finer writer than Hampton Sides to pilot a narrative so densely packed with adventure, drama, and moral complexity. The Wide Wide Sea braids the sweeping flair of a Patrick O’Brian novel with Nathaniel Philbrick’s boundless love for the world’s wild oceans. Here is a saga as tautly tuned as an eighteenth-century sailing ship, told by a master storyteller at the height of his powers.”

—Kevin Fedarko
New York Times bestselling author of
The Emerald Mile

“James Cook was the paragon of eighteenth-century navigators and the master of Pacific exploration. With The Wide Wide Sea, Hampton Sides has crafted an enthralling new account of Cook’s last voyage and death, based upon careful research that sensitively balances European attitudes and Indigenous reactions.”

—John B. Hattendorf
professor emeritus of the U.S. Naval War College and editor-in-chief of
the Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History