How "Natives" Think

by Marshall Sahlins
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1997

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.

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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 1778-1779, and the best interpretation of that response, based on solid documentary evidence of Hawaiian cultural, religious, political, and social life of the period and reinforced by Sahlins’ considerable knowledge of other relevant Polynesian cultures. The second front is Sahlins’ detailed, point-by-point refutations of Obeyesekere’s more egregious errors and blatant misrepresentations, which are accomplished through footnotes and a lengthy series of appendices, seventeen in all.

Sahlins’ examinations of Obeyesekere’s mistakes and distortions provide an outstanding example of academic polemic writing. Sahlins has a superb command of his subject and a fine regard for dry, professorial wit: At one point he sums up his opponent’s views as “Cookamamie.” Citing chapter and verse, Sahlins easily shows where Obeyesekere has omitted vital elements, distorted quotations, misidentified sources, and repeatedly and unwittingly managed to undercut his own case.

Amusing as these academic thrusts and parries are, the general reader will find much more interest, and value, in Sahlins’ first front, his careful, reasoned, and eminently persuasive argument that Captain James Cook was indeed regarded as a manifestation of Lono during his tenure on the island and that his death was, in a sense, a ritual murder that played almost perfectly into the Hawaiian religious and political system. The Cook expedition appeared during the latter part of November, a time when the Hawaiians celebrated the Makahiki festival, during which the god Lono made a circuit of the islands, receiving offerings and collecting tribute from the islanders. The Hawaiian gods, as Sahlins points out and documents, were not considered indigenous to the islands themselves but came “from beyond the sky.” Appearing from the horizon (that is, as if from “out of the sky”), clearly being a non-Hawaiian, and proceeding on a circuit of the islands, Cook fit this mold. The Makahiki period ended early in February, at which time the god Lono engaged in a ritual battle with the human chief; Lono was vanquished, and humans gained (or regained) control of the earth and their destiny. Cook’s expedition departed on February 3 and returned on February 11, and the captain was slain on February 14; with a few exceptions, the parallels fit surprisingly well. The exceptions can be explained, as Sahlins demonstrates, by knowledge of Hawaiian religion and the particular politics of the times.

Essentially the Makahiki ritual represents a transfer of power from the divine to human authority; specifically, supernatural gods are symbolically overthrown by mortal chiefs. Such a cosmic revolution, however, could well be seen as a sacrilegious act, unless it was rendered acceptable through myth and ritual. The symbolic return of Lono each year during the Makahiki, his temporary lordship, and his eventual departure were exactly such a ritual. Cook’s appearance and actions during the winter of 1778-1779 fit almost precisely into this sequence of actions; it is hardly demeaning to the Hawaiians to acknowledge that this prompted their perceiving Cook as some form of Lono.

Sahlins, it should be pointed out, contra Obeyesekere, never claims that the Hawaiians naïvely and simplistically equated Cook with Lono; rather, as he elucidates repeatedly, they made a number of intricate and often highly sophisticated connections between the stranger and their ancestral god, connections that make sense only in the light of Polynesian, specifically Hawaiian, culture. Obeyesekere’s plaintive objections to and attacks on Sahlins fail precisely because he is no such close student of the culture.

Not only does he miss the numerous religious relationships between Cook’s voyage and Lono’s but he is also either ignorant of or indifferent to the political situation of the islands at the time. This was a period of rapid change, in which the several islands were being brought under one rule by a series of chiefs, a process that would climax with the career of Kamehameha in the 1790’s. The tensions of the time were further increased by an ongoing dispute between the chiefs and the warrior class on the one hand and the priests and their adherents on the other. At Kealakekua Bay, where Cook anchored for much of his stay, the priests and the chiefs occupied different villages situated on opposing ends of the bay. After Cook’s death, the priestly party remained friendly with the British, providing provisions and information and helping negotiate the return of Cook’s remains—or some of them.

Sahlins sees this division as having played a part in Cook’s death. His untimely return following the storm was a disruption of major proportions to the Makahiki ritual: Lono had left but had immediately returned. In the eyes of the chiefs and warriors, this could well mean that Cook/Lono intended to claim the islands as his own. If that happened, the priests would displace the chiefs, and the existing political and social order would be completely disrupted. When Cook waded ashore on February 14, it must have seemed as if these dire predictions were about to be realized; in a sense, his death was both a political assassination and a ritual murder.

Obeyesekere apparently cannot fathom this scenario and seeks to dismiss it out of hand because he believes that it somehow insults the intelligence of the Hawaiian natives. To the contrary, as Sahlins cogently and persuasively argues, this interrelated and involved mixture of motives was possible only because the Hawaiians had a complex, subtle fashion of apprehending and interpreting events. Their interpretation was not based on Western empirical reasoning, where appearances and physical reality are dominant; when Obeyesekere imposes his own “rational” views on the Hawaiians, he is guilty of what Sahlins rightly terms “pidgin anthropology.” Worse, in Sahlins’ view, by so doing, Obeyesekere denies the Hawaiian people their special history and culture.

The dispute between Obeyesekere and Sahlins is more than a purely academic quarrel over minor points of scholarship. It is part of a major debate as to whether nonnatives, specifically Western scholars, can legitimately investigate, understand, and explain the lives and histories of cultures such as those of Hawaii. Obeyesekere claims that no such undertaking is possible, and its very attempt is an instance of cultural imperialism. In his view, Captain Cook and Marshall Sahlins are equal villains in despoiling and appropriating what does not, and never can, belong to them.

By contrast, Sahlins maintains that every culture deserves to be approached on its own terms, viewed in its own contexts, and appreciated for its own world-view. To set up a false class of “natives,” where Sri Lankans are breezily equated with Polynesians on the simplistic basis that neither of them are western Europeans, debases scholarship and limits learning. The identifications of Captain Cook with the god Lono were many and complex and can be properly understood only in their natural setting. To impose a false order on that setting, even or especially in the name of anti-imperialism, prevents any understanding or appreciation of a rich and varied society that is valid in its own right and for what it can teach all of us. Sahlins’ book is a bracing corrective to a mistaken and corrosive view and an enlightening example of both how “natives” think and how anthropologists should conduct their discipline.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. June 11, 1995, p. 74.

BYTE. XX, March, 1995, p. 45.

The Christian Science Monitor. October 26, 1995, p. B2.

Library Journal. CXX, April 15, 1995, p. 85.

London Review of Books. XVII, September 7, 1995, p. 6.

National Review. XLVII, May 15, 1995, p. 73.

The New York Times Book Review. C, March 12, 1995, p. 11.

The Village Voice Literary Supplement. May, 1995, p. 11.

The Washington Post. August 3, 1995, p. C3.

The Wilson Quarterly. XIX, Summer, 1995, p. 84.

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