Hampton Sides relishes the feel of paper. He likes to pore over historical documents, smell ink and read books. He understands that’s old fashioned and he’s fine with it.
So, his new release published today in the form of an e-book explores undiscovered territory for the Santa Fe-based author in more ways than one: Its depiction of a participant in Captain James Cook’s third voyage is likely also a new story to most readers. The Exotic highlights the tale of a man named Mai who stepped aboard Cook’s vessel from the waters off a Polynesian island and became the first visitor from his region to arrive in England in 1774.
“It’s sort of a sign of the times that we are kind of creating these hybrid publications. I really didn’t even know what you call it. It’s like a miniature book, a nonfiction novella,” Sides tells SFR. “My friend Mark Bryant, who used to be the editor in chief of Outside magazine, my old boss, started this thing called Scribd Originals, which is a very interesting kind of publishing idea of doing these kind of mid-length, small books, digital books and this seemed like the perfect vehicle.”
The e-book also previews a larger project due out next year—a full-length book called The Resolution that centers on Cook’s globe-spanning voyage that returned Mai close to home and led Sides to travel to destinations such as New Zealand, the Arctic and French Polynesia, the latter of which became an extended visit when COVID-19 temporarily marooned him.
Focusing on an Indigenous character in The Exotic gave the author a welcome opportunity to flip the script on classic Cook stories, he says, even if Mai’s own sense of revenge casts him as a flawed character, too. He spoke with SFR ahead of publication, including reflections on his Kit Carson book Blood and Thunder with 15 years in hindsight.
The Sides family has called the city home since 1994 and lives in a neighborhood they describe as “the Harry foothills”—as the ones that rise behind the roadhouse. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
SFR: The last couple books you’ve published have been about cold places and cold times—On Desperate Ground, about the end of the Korean War and Kingdom of Ice, on a different Arctic exploration. This new work is mostly focused on warmer climates. Has that shift affected your language or your process in a perceptible way?
Hampton Sides: The ultimate objective of Cook’s third voyage was to go over Alaska, or through Alaska and find a waterway, a passageway to the Atlantic Ocean; in other words, the northwest passage. So, no need to worry, there is plenty of ice and there is plenty of Arctic suffering coming down the pike here a little later on in the book. It does start with all this warm water tropical stuff and early on, when I was trying to find a book topic, my wife only half facetiously said to me at one point, ‘You ought to find a book topic that involves research travel to places that I would want to go to with you, you know like instead of North Korea and Siberia and remote places in the Philippines, why don’t we go somewhere nice?’
I thought about it and a couple weeks later, I said, ‘What about Captain Cook? Where did he go? Tonga, New Zealand, French Polynesia, Hawaii.’ She said, ‘Bingo. that’s what you need to do.’
I decided to focus on Cook’s third voyage because it’s the most American of his three voyages. It happened during the American Revolution, it began in July of 1776 and it was a voyage that rediscovered Hawaii and it was also a voyage in which he mapped the entire coast of Alaska, looking for this northwest passage. So it just made the most sense, as an American writer, for me to focus on.
Going back to your original question about process. I don’t know if a warm weather story, sort of set in the tropics, if it changes your process...I always love to travel to the places I am writing about, whether they are nice places or not. And I did spend about three weeks in French Polynesia tooling around all over the place doing some research and doing some just soaking it up in a more general way. Having gone there, now that I have been there, I can’t imagine actually having written about it not going there.
You do pick up all kinds of nuances that you just would never get through any guidebooks and travel books or the accounts from Cook’s voyage itself because you just kind of have to feel the environment and those lagoons and all those little nuances of blue and green that you see down there. It is similar to the way I felt about going to the Arctic. I did not have to go but when I did go, it gave me so much more of an understanding of the diversity of ice. There are so many different kinds of ice and sounds that ice makes: sea ice versus ice from rivers and ice from icebergs, all of those kinds of little subtleties are always important to try to get, and I think that is true even when you are writing about the tropics.
How did the pandemic affect your plans for researching?
Before the pandemic, I did get to England and I did get to parts of Canada where Cook went and also we spent a month in New Zealand. But I was in French Polynesia when COVID descended upon the world and you know, we thought for a little while that we might not even get out of there, and we kind of welcomed that, thinking this is a nice place to be marooned for a while. But it was very strange because at one point, with some friends, we rented a catamaran and sailed around the archipelago, and we’d go to these places like Bora Bora and it was just empty. There was no one there. All the flights had been canceled and all the honeymooners had given up on their plans and so it was like a neutron bomb had gone off or something. It was beautiful and quiet and not a soul was there. It was kind of nice at first but then it started to feel like we were at the end of the earth. We were in this beautiful place but the world was changing before our eyes.
We did get a flight back. Why we ever left that paradise, I really don’t know. But it was a great trip. I had trips planned to Alaska and to the Cook Islands and I was hoping to get to Tasmania and two or three other places and I just had to cancel all the trips and hunker down and just start writing with what I already had...and I still have all this other travel that I am trying to do.
How did the shorter work, The Exotic, come to be?
It’s part adaptation from my book, it’s part travelogue of mine, of traveling in England, New Zealand and French Polynesia and it’s part a reported essay about colonialism and about this one man and his adventures. Early on, when I started reading about Captain Cook, all of the accounts of his third voyage mention this guy Mai, but he’s kind of a bit player, an also-ran. And I decided, no, this is an amazing story. I want to elevate him. I want to turn him into a major character in the book and then I began to realize that it could stand alone as a separate piece on its own...All of these Cook stories, they invariably focus on the white guys, they focus on Cook himself and his officers. It’s always about white folks encountering Indigenous people and interpreting their culture. It’s never about what the Indigenous people think of white culture so here was an opportunity to kind of flip the perspective and follow this Polynesian as he was thrust into the middle of the empire and try as best we can to see it from his point of view.
The story of Mai seems like one of those unknown bits of history that should make its way further into our cultural canon. That Pocahontas traveled to Europe in the 1600s and died there is somewhat well known, but the first Polynesian on a ship landing in England more than 100 years later, and a few years before the American Revolution? Do people know that?
The story of Mai is not that well known. I guess it is somewhat known in Polynesia and it is somewhat known in parts of England, but it’s always been this curiosity kind thing that Mai went to England and he was taken home on Cook’s third voyage, but it’s always mentioned in passing as if the real story is Cook and the real story is their encounters.
We live in interesting times now in history and literature and in cinema even. A higher premium is being put on telling the stories of marginalized people, you know, it’s not always about the ‘victors’ or the ‘winners.’ It’s trying to understand other points of view and it’s a big correction that’s going on in society and I think it’s welcome. So I was looking for that. This story desperately needs an Indigenous character who is not just a minor character but an important part of the story.
Really the first half of the voyage, the whole purpose of that voyage is to get Mai home—just get him home with all this stuff, and drop him off on his home island. So, really the first half of the book is the story of Mai. And then [Cook] goes on to Hawaii and Alaska and all the other places.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler for people that Cook did not make it home from that third voyage. You touch on the idea that perhaps he suffered from mental illness. What did you learn about that?
I don’t know that anyone knows for sure what he had but there is no doubt about it. In so many of the accounts from the other officers who wrote about the third voyage, many of them had served with Cook on his first and/or second voyage so they knew Cook well and they could clearly see a change in his personality and he was just unspeakably cruel at times to his own men and to native populations on some of these islands. He applied the lash in ways that maybe were more typical of other English captains. During his first and second voyage, he was really known as a fairly enlightened and solicitous captain who really cared about his crew. And the third voyage, something else is going on. He’s distracted. He’s peremptory, he’s cruel, he is just constantly frustrated. He can’t seem to focus and he’s in pain a lot of the time. And all of these sort of armchair physicians and armchair psychologists have tried to figure out what it could have been. Was he just getting old? Was he getting tired and jaded as an explorer? He had clearly been through a lot. Or did he have an infection of some sort or a vitamin deficiency sort of thing? They generally ate just atrocious stuff on these voyages and it was not uncommon for them to suffer some kind of vitamin deficiency or get a parasite of some sort. And those are some of the more likely scenarios that have been put out there. There is just an unbelievable number of Cook nerds out there who study this stuff and obsess over it and before COVID would have annual meetings. And these are some of the theories that have been put forward by some of those folks.
How is the story of Captain Cook related to the story of the American Southwest?
On the surface they are not related at all, but many of the same themes are there. First comes the explorers, who ‘discover’ these places. Well, obviously there were already people there who discovered it a long time ago. The Polynesians were some of the greatest navigators of all time and had populated all of these islands thousands of miles apart.
And then the next wave after the explorer is the various tentacles of colonialism and occupation and conquest. And Cook has been roundly—as I delve into that a little bit in the story—criticized and reassessed much like the Anglo Americans and the conquistadors here in the Southwest. People like Kit Carson and Coronado and De Vargas are being reassessed—the statues are coming down. The same is true with Cook, all over Polynesia.
Perhaps you could say unfairly, really, because he was an explorer almost entirely. He was not an occupier, he was not leading an army or a navy. He was not interested in military conquest. He was a scientist in a way, and a mapmaker, but...the first wave of conquest is that exploration, so I suppose there is that same theme in the Southwest with Kit Carson. In some ways, Captain Cook is a very similar character for me to deal with as Kit Carson in that they were viewed as great heroes in their day and for subsequent generations but have come under a lot of attack and criticism, some of it justified, in recent years.
That controversy is something that I kind of had to embrace in this book. I have to try to understand the Polynesian point of view and try to understand why he’s so controversial. They are changing the name of the Cook Islands, for example, and all of Cook’s statues have either been vandalized or removed or yanked down in Australia and New Zealand, all over Polynesia...
I guess the other thing that has to be said is that Cook ushered in a world that in many ways devastated these islands and changed forever the lives of these people and the same happened here in the American Southwest to Native American tribes. Modernity came and with it came a lot of disease and a lot of dislocation and a lot of heartache, so there are a lot of similarities along those lines.
How has the conversation about your 2006 Kit Carson book Blood and Thunder changed in this time you describe where there’s a demand for another perspective?
I don’t know exactly, but that book is a product of its times and of who I was then and I do think there has been, since that book came out, a lot more scholarship about, let’s say the Navajo, written by Navajo scholars. There has been more attention, just in the culture, paid to really trying to understand the Indigenous point of view. And probably if I were to write that book now, I would have to do a much better job of capturing, let’s say, the Navajo point of view. I don’t know about the conversation, though, has changed that much. The Navajo are major protagonists in my book and I suppose if I wrote it now, it would be even more. There’s been better scholarship and better anthropology and archaeology work and better collections of the oral history that I would want to use that maybe I didn’t have access to then...I think it’s just a movement that is going on all over the place in academia, it’s happening also in Hollywood, it’s like, you gotta have a diverse writers’ room. You’ve got to have diversity both in front of the camera and behind the camera if you are going to try to tell these complicated historical tales. And I think that is a good thing.
You get described often as a “narrative historian.” Can you unpack what that means?
I prefer to just call myself a historian but when you do that you get into this problem of ‘Well, where do you teach? Where do you profess? Where did you get your PhD? What is your specialty or area of expertise?’ The assumption is that you are an academic and there seems to be, fairly or not, a dividing line between academic history and popular history. I think it’s a dividing line that doesn’t need to exist, honestly. You can be an academic and still write for a popular general audience and I think there are general interest popular historians who do every bit as good of research, every bit as meticulous as the academics. But anyway, narrative history is a term that has evolved to describe, I guess, the sort of subset of history that I do and that a lot of people do, which is that you are concerned about the story. You are concerned about the narrative—you want it to flow, you want it to have all those attributes that you commonly associate with a good novel in terms of the arc of the story and the development of the characters and using dialog when you can find it in the source material...I think that’s the main difference: a narrative historian is concerned with story and maybe an academic historian is more interested in perhaps developing an argument or a thesis that they prove over the course of their analysis and analytical writing and argumentative writing has its place but it can be deadly dull and it’s not narrative.
How would you react if this history book became a musical?
I think it would be great if there is any hope of it becoming even one one-hundredth as successful as Hamilton, I would welcome it. It would probably be pretty silly. It would be more like Captain Crunch...But then I wouldn’t have ever thought Hamilton would have been a musical, so that was a leap for everyone and I’m sure Ron Chernow was quite skeptical of it at first, but it did wonders for his career and he is a very serious historian, one of the best...He goes in deep and he leans toward the academic.
What did we not talk about yet?
The Resolution is a big sprawling story, it may be bigger and longer than Blood and Thunder. It’s going to end up being my longest book just because they went everywhere. They just traveled many, many, many, many thousands of miles and encountered so many places and cultures, from the Arctic to the Antarctic in one voyage. It’s unbelievable….And we didn’t talk about Mai. I’m curious what people, in the end, think of him. He’s kind of a complicated guy. It’s kind of a tragic story in a way. He is a very likable character in most ways, but he’s got some demons himself dealing with his past and his sense of justice. I don’t know, it’s not like he’s an unvarnished hero or anything like that. Just like Cook, he’s got his own issues.
Mai was a native of Raiatea, a ragged volcanic island about 130 miles northwest of Tahiti. Raiatea is considered the Ur of Polynesia, the cradle of this extraordinary seafaring culture. It is believed to be one of the first places where ancient navigators, coming from the west, landed several millennia ago and developed their rich civilization, which reached its apogee at Taputapuatea, a complex of marae temples that served more or less as the Vatican City of the South Seas.
Taputapuatea was a sacred pilgrimage spot, the birthplace of Oro, the god of war and fertility. Priests from across Polynesia would hold elaborate ceremonies there, sometimes performing human sacrifices.
Today Raiatea, which means “faraway heaven” in the Tahitian language, still feels like a deeply spiritual place. In 2017 the Taputapuatea ruins were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and archaeologists have been working to both study and restore the marae. I visited there in early 2020, hoping to get some sense of Mai’s upbringing. Raiatea, the largest in the Society Islands’ leeward chain, is famous for its vanilla plantations and pearl farming. In the distance to the northwest, the great slab of Bora Bora’s Mount Otemanu hangs above the glossy blue sea. On Raiatea, there is a certain rare flower, the tiare apetahi, that grows only in one specific place, high along the volcanic slopes of Mount Temehani. Mysteriously, all attempts to transplant the flower to other islands, or even to other spots on Raiatea, have failed. The plant observes a definitive and delicate sense of place; it won’t take root anywhere else.
The same could be said for Mai. Raiatea was his home, and though he spent much of his life moving around the islands, and then traveling the world, he was never entirely at peace anywhere else.
Mai’s family owned land and enjoyed some measure of status on the island, and his early boyhood seems to have been happy. But then one day in about 1763, when Mai would have been ten or so, invaders from Bora Bora, under the command of the great chief Puni, came in their long canoes. After a three-year campaign, Puni succeeded in conquering Raiatea. His warriors killed Mai’s father and seized his family’s land. The Bora Borans ransacked much of the island and demolished the god houses at Taputapuatea, dismantling the platforms and other sacred structures. The impressionable Mai likely witnessed many traumatizing horrors. Though the Society Islands culture was typically peaceful, interisland warfare was characterized by brutal violence.
Much of the Raiatean population they did not kill the Bora Borans enslaved, including Mai. Somehow he escaped, and fled to Tahiti, where he lived in poverty as a refugee, vowing to return to Raiatea someday to restore his family’s honor and reclaim his property.
In 1767, when the English navigator Samuel Wallis became the first European to land in Tahiti, the teenaged Mai was there to witness the arrival. Wallis declared the tropical paradise King George III Island and claimed it for Great Britain. Predictably, hostilities soon erupted between the English and the Tahitians. Wallis fired his guns at a promontory overlooking Matavai Bay, raining shrapnel and grapeshot on a crowd of angry onlookers. Mai was one of the many injured. A piece of metal sliced through his side, causing a nasty wound that left a jagged scar; for the rest of his life, his body gave literal testimony to first contact between the British and Tahitians. But the awesome power of the cannons made an equally significant impression on Mai’s imagination, and he began to fantasize that English guns, if he could obtain them, would provide the means to vanquish the Bora Borans and take back his land.
Access The Exotic with a trial subscription to Scribd Originals: try.scribd.com/sides30
Hear this excerpt read by Simon Vance: