(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

On November 26, 1778, two British naval vessels, HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery, appeared off the coast of Maui in the Hawaiian Islands. James Cook, commander of the small squadron, had returned on his second voyage of exploration. After some time of sailing about the islands, the British ships came to anchor at Kealakekua Bay, where they received an exceptionally joyous welcome. Hundreds of canoes filled the water, and gifts were showered upon the squadron, especially its commander. It almost seemed as if the local inhabitants regarded Cook as a god.

After exploring the islands, repairing his vessels, and provisioning, Cook and his two ships departed on February 3, only to sail into a storm that severely damaged their rigging, forcing them to return to Hawaii on February 11. This time, the Hawaiian reception was distinctly cool, especially among the nobility; incidents of theft increased. Finally, the cutter (or longboat) of the Discoverywas stolen, and on February 14, Cook came ashore, determined to seize the king as hostage to ensure his people’s good behavior. As he advanced inland, there was some sort of incident: Blows were struck, weapons were used, and Cook was killed.

What events exactly happened that day and during the weeks preceding, and what meaning they possess, have intrigued anthropologists, ethnographers, and historians ever since. From statements and reports of British officers and sailors, and from testimony gathered from native informants, there is evidence that Cook was indeed regarded by the Hawaiians as a god, or a manifestation of a god. Marshall Sahlins, noted anthropologist and respected authority on Hawaiian culture, has presented the clearest and most convincing of these interpretations, most notably in essays such as “Captain Cook at Hawaii” (1989) and in his books Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities (1981) and Islands of History (1985). Sahlins’ 1982 presentation of “Captain Cook, or the Dying God” in the Sir James Frazer lecture series at Princeton University set in motion the events that led to this volume.

Apparently in the audience for the 1982 Frazer lecture was one Gananath Obeyesekere, a native of Sri Lanka and himself an academic. “Completely taken aback at [Sahlins’] assertion that when Cook arrived in Hawaii the natives believed that he was their god Lono,” Obeyesekere wrote a blistering attacking on Sahlins and his research; this was published as The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific (1992). How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, for Example is Sahlins’ response to that book, and it takes a rightful place in the long and honorable tradition of academic polemics, attacks, and counterattacks. It is also a deeply cautionary tale against the misuse of serious and lasting intellectual study on behalf of tender-minded and momentarily popular, or at least acceptable, political correctness.

Obeyesekere argued that although Europeans obviously wish to believe that “natives” everywhere revere them as gods, the truth is that the Hawaiians were too full of common sense and empirical wisdom to mistake Cook for one of their gods. He was too different in appearance, too unfamiliar in attitude, and too ignorant of their language for them to identify him even momentarily as their god Lono. It was the British who wished this identification into being, and their evidence was later reinforced by that of Christian missionaries, who misinterpreted or misrepresented the testimony of Hawaiians about Cook and how he was regarded. As for Obeyesekere’s expertise in this matter, he seriously argued that as a native of Sri Lanka he possessed a special advantage over “outsider-anthropologists” (specifically Europeans or European descendants), who, by virtue of their cultural background, cannot possibly understand “how natives think.”

Sahlins’ first thought was that Obeyesekere’s “flimsy historical case” would be savaged by knowledgeable reviewers. When, instead, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook was critically praised and even awarded the Louis Gottschalk Prize for 1992 by the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies, Sahlins realized that he was obliged to respond, not so much to protect his own reputation (although that was always important) as to respond to certain theoretical yet important issues: “how in speaking for ‘native’ others, one could deprive them of their own voice; how giving them our ‘practical rationality’ left them with a pidgin anthropology; how spinning their history out of our morality ends up doing no one a favor.”

Sahlins responds to Obeyesekere on two fronts. The first is to marshal and present detailed and well-documented information about Cook’s expedition, the Hawaiian reception of and reaction to Cook’s presence during the winter months of...

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