First Contact: The Death of Captain Cook
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First Contact: The Death of Captain Cook A case study in ethnohistory
• Ethnohistory is the study of historical situations through the lens of anthropology • It provides a way to understand history from the perspective of those who did not write the historical accounts.
• Part of ethnohistory involves understanding the culture of the people who wrote the accounts. These were often also of a very different mindset than our own.
• Part of ethnohistory involves inferring from what we know about a particular culture from anthropological sources or analogies. • Often, historical encounters have been heavily mythologized
Case study: the death of Captain Cook • James Cook was the most famous 18th century British Naval explorer. • He made three voyages to Polynesia, for a total of 10 years’ experience
In 1778, he sailed past the Hawaiian Islands and returned in November , 1779 to make astronomical observations at Kealakekua Bay on the east of the Big Island.
• The Hawaiians living at Kealakekua Bay greeted Cook and his crew enthusiastically. • Cook’s ships were resupplied and the Hawaiians traded freely with the British
• Cook was identified by the priests with the Hawaiian god Lono. Ceremonies were done in his honor and he and the King of the island of Hawai`i, Kalaniopu`u, even exchanged names.
• As in Tahiti, native women were more than happy to have sexual relationships with British sailors, in many cases, this was accompanied by trade. • Cook disapproved of this. He was concerned about spreading venereal disease as well as the lax effect on discipline.
• In early 1779, Cook leaves to return to England, but returns when one of his ships breaks a mast in a storm. • The return of the British is viewed with concern and suspicion on the part of the Hawaiians.
• Widespread theft of objects from the British ships take place, including a large row-boat used to ferry supplies from shore. • Some Hawaiians, including a chief are flogged. • Cook takes a party of marines to intimidate Kalaniopu`u into returning the boat or giving up the person responsible for stealing it.
• Cook asks Kalaniopu`u to accompany him, the King agrees. • Reports come in to Cook’s second in command, that Hawaiians are “massing” on the shore. • On the way back, reports come in that another British shore party has shot and killed one of the ali`i.
• Kalaniopu`u’s wife and two chiefs beg the King not to continue.
• Kalaniopu`u sits down on the beach “stricken with terror”. • A riot breaks out. Cook is struck down, the marines open fire and the crowd charges. • Cook dies in the melee along with 5 marines, 13 Hawaiian commoners and 4 chiefs.
• British accounts emphasize the “schizophrenia” of the Hawaiians. How could they greet someone as a god and then kill them afterwards?
• To make sense of this encounter, we need to consider the Hawaiian perspective. • Consider: • What kind of man was Cook in Polynesian terms? • Hawaiian notions of divinity • Kapu and mana • Relationships in Hawaiian society • The relationship between politics and religion in Polynesian thinking.
What kind of man was Cook? • Cook had a large following of warriors and servants. • He arrived in large canoes carrying abundant wealth • He was marked by clothing and the deference paid to him by others as the leader.
• Therefore in Polynesian terms, he must be a powerful chief
Notions of divinity • In Polynesian societies, all beings possess mana. Some possess a great deal. These are the gods. Others possess little or none. These are slaves and things that are polluting. • There is a continuum with gods at the top, followed by chiefs, priests, ordinary people and finally slaves. Natural phenomena and human creations also possess mana and are sometimes related to humans through kinship.
• As a powerful chief, Cook therefore has great mana, this places him alongside Kalaniopu`u and in a close relationship with the god Lono.
Lono was invoked since Cook arrived during the Makahiki, the time of the year associated with Lono in the traditional calendar. Since his ships carried long white sails, similar to the banners carried in Makahiki processions, people assumed that he was also a representative of the god.
• Cook therefore was an associate of the god and carried some of the god’s mana in addition to his own. He was not literally “a god” but a man with some of the attributes of the god by virtue of his own mana as well as that of the god himself.
• The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins argues that Cook was killed because he came back right after the Makahiki finished (early February 1779), and the time of Lono’s ascendancy was over.
Why did the Hawaiians steal stuff? • There are a number of possible explanations: • 1) Hawaiians were exacting fines from the British for violating kapu. A number of sailors had violated the bans placed on sacred sites and people, these violations could be restored only through ceremonies and by restitution from the violater’s kin-group. • 2) Hawaiians were “borrowing” materials from their British kinsmen. Sleeping with someone is one way of establishing a kinship relation with someone. British sailors may have become unwitting members of Hawaiian ohana, and in doing so, their resources became the resources of their Hawaiian kin.
Why did Cook care about the row-boat? • Royal Navy ships in the 18th century were absolute monarchies, ruled by the captain. • Cook may have felt that the “natives” were flouting his authority by stealing. • Theft itself was a capital offence in England at this time. You could be hung for stealing bread or a sheep. • Moreover, the ship was the property of the King of England, not simply private property, so Cook was bound by his own culture to deal with the situation harshly.
In addition, Cook’s actions could be interpreted, in a Hawaiian context, as an attempt to take control of the Big Island by taking Kalaniopu`u prisoner and sacrificing him.
Cook’s men bound the King’s arms behind his back, which in Hawaiian custom is reserved for people about to be sacrificed. His men had also signaled their readiness to kill local people.
• In Hawaiian terms perhaps, a high-ranking chief had appeared in the time of Lono, made associations between himself and the god, returned with an armed war-party, captured the King and prepared him for sacrifice. This was clearly an attempt at a coup, and was resisted by Kalaniopu`u’s own followers, fatally as it turned out, for Cook and 22 others.
• Cook then, was killed not by irrational natives, but by a fatal series of misreadings by both Hawaiians and British. • In a sense, he died because he over-stepped his mana in both Polynesian and British terms.