116667.jpg

Courtesy photo

Hampton Sides is the author of "Ghost Soldiers," "Americana," "On Desperate Ground" and many more works of different times and cultures.

Santa Fe-based historian Hampton Sides is the author of "Ghost Soldiers," "Americana," "On Desperate Ground" and many more works of different times and cultures. In Northern New Mexico, he is perhaps best known for his epic study of Kit Carson and the history of this region, "Blood and Thunder."

His latest work, "The Exotic: Intrigue and Cultural Ruin in the Age of Imperialism," was just released by Scribd Originals on Sept.15, partly adapted from Sides' upcoming longer book from Doubleday about the final voyage of Captain James Cook. It is the true story of a young man named Mai, who hitched a ride from Tahiti with Captain Cook and became the first South Seas islander to set foot on English soil in the 1770s. He was taken up into English high society as a kind of fad, studied by academics, painted by famous painters, trotted out to parties as a type of novelty and finally returned to his home. We spoke with Sides about this fascinating tale and its complicated cultural implications.

How have you been, and how has quarantine affected your life, work and travels?

I've been fine, and healthy, and so has everyone in my immediate family. So I feel very fortunate. Unfortunately, COVID scuttled much of the research travel I had planned. It forced me to hunker down and just write with what I had. I always like to travel to the places I write about in these historical narratives, but that just wasn't possible this time around. I did get to New Zealand and to the UK, early on. I was in French Polynesia when the virus descended on the world, and it seemed to be a good place to be marooned for a while. Why we ever left that paradise, I'll never know.

Is "The Exotic" related to a larger work about Captain Cook?

Yes, 'The Exotic' is a stand-alone piece, but it's also an early peek at a larger work. It's kind of a hybrid -- part book adaptation, part travelogue, and part reported essay. I realized that the life and adventures of Mai was a perfect 'story within the story,' one that could be crafted into a tidy little drama. The larger book is about Captain Cook's third voyage, his final voyage, in which he ends up murdered on the shores of Hawaii. Cook is indeed controversial. Just like confederate generals and conquistadors, just like Kit Carson here in New Mexico, his statues are coming down. He's being reevaluated. He's being 'cancelled.' But I welcome the controversy. I lean into it. I think that's what makes history have a pulse. I don't defend or celebrate Captain Cook, I just try to paint him warts and all. He was arguably the world's greatest navigator and explorer. But his voyages ushered in a world of devastation and cultural ruin for so many of the peoples he encountered.

How did you come to learn about Mai?

Mai crops up in all the accounts of Cook's second and third voyages, so I heard about him very early on in my research. But in those accounts he is usually a bit player, an also-ran. I decided to elevate him to the status of a major character -- after Cook, he is probably the most developed character of the book I am writing. I realized my project desperately needed a person of color, an indigenous person. We have so many accounts that focus on Europeans encountering -- and interpreting -- the Polynesian world. Here was an opportunity to completely flip the perspective, and follow a Polynesian thrust into the imperial world of Great Britain.

Part of the paradox in this tale is that there are no unvarnished heroes -- Mai's English "benefactors," however kind, are all exploiting him for one reason or another; he himself, though "innocent," is motivated by revenge against the Bora-Borans; the islanders are motivated by greed, theft, and power. We're always hoping to find some truly innocent tribe of humans, but this sort of human thing is certainly found in the Old Testament and long before. You've studied this across more cultures and time periods than most of us have done. Do you think there's any hope for our species?

Yes there's hope, but gray is the human condition, I'm afraid. I seem to be drawn to stories from history in which moral ambiguity is loudly on display. If there are any wholly good, or wholly bad people, any wholly good or wholly bad societies, I have yet to find them. And if I did, I doubt that particular narrative would be very interesting to read. A century ago, we seemed to need uplifting stories from our past populated by those unvarnished heroes you speak of. Luckily, there's been a trend in history, both popular and academic, to locate and expound upon more complex facets, unpopular and inconvenient facets, of the larger tale. All in all, that's a good thing, I think, because we're getting closer to the truth.

In summary, you say: "One thing is conspicuously absent from the record: Mai's own voice." This is always a primary problem for historians, anthropologists and writers. As a historian, what ways around this problem have you found?

We're living in an interesting time within the worlds of academia, literature, stage drama, and even cinema. There's a high premium being placed on telling stories about marginalized people, people whom history has often ignored. It's part of a larger correction that's going on, a reassessment. We're hitting the reset button and saying, let's go back and think about those old stories from multiple points-of-view, not just the POV of the so-called 'winners.' It's long overdue and I welcome it. But there's a tricky sort of Catch-22 that traditional, document-loving historians face, particularly white, Anglo-American historians like me. If I did not try to convey the indigenous perspective, I would get a lot of criticism, and deservedly so. But when I do try to convey it, I sometimes get grief for having the temerity to delve into other people's traditions. You know, 'Who the hell are YOU to tell my people's stories?' In the end, I just try to be as rigorous and fair-minded as I can be. To use the oral history and the passed-down traditions as respectfully as I can, and to make sure the reader knows what the source material is.

And finally, how did you find your way to Santa Fe and how do you like it?

I grew up in Memphis, studied history at Yale, where I graduated in 1984. I was a magazine and newspaper journalist in Washington for a decade, then I got a job as an editor at Outside magazine, based here in Santa Fe, and that's what brought me to the so-called Land of Entrapment. I love this place and can't imagine living anywhere else.

Visit hamptonsides.com for more information.

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

All comment authors MUST use their real names. Posts that cannot be ascribed to a real person
will not be moderated.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.