Posts Tagged ‘captain cook’

On my recent trip to New York, I picked up two more Pacific Art books. I have yet to have the chance to read them through, cover-to-cover, so this post is not part of my series of response essays on books read for my exams, but rather, a book review post like those I have done more typically, previously, sharing general impressions based on a thorough skim.

The first, Hawaiʻi: The Royal Isles, was a particularly exciting find. A 1980 exhibit catalog from Bishop Museum Press, I found it at the Strand, one of New York’s greatest bookstores. This is not an exhibit I had ever heard of before, and it was a very different exhibit from just about any other Pacific art exhibition I have ever heard of.

In Pacific art books, courses, and exhibits, including in Pacific Art in Detail, the second book I’ll be discussing in this post, the focus is typically on objects of traditional use: fish hooks, baskets, tapa/kapa cloth, oars/paddles, religious icons, ritual garments, and so forth. And that’s fine. That’s great. These objects are beautiful, fascinating, and the cultural beliefs & practices to which they are related are of great value and interest and importance. From a historian’s or anthropologist’s point of view, they constitute the material culture of that society, and are valuable tools for examining, investigating, understanding, and envisioning that society, and from the art historian’s point of view, too, these constitute the artistic production of that society, products of that society’s aesthetic sense or interests, and are valuable tools for encouraging appreciation of those aesthetics, appreciation of that society, appreciation of the great diversity of our world, and that everyone makes art worthy of appreciation.

But, Hawaiʻi has a history, too, of a cohesive, complex, and in many ways “modern”/Westernized polity, as many other places in the Pacific do as well. Hawaiʻi: The Royal Isles was an exhibition of that history. It did not only include koa wooden bowls, feather cloaks, wooden idols, and other objects of “traditional” culture, such as we would expect to typically see in any Pacific art exhibit; rather, it included numerous paintings and photos of the kings and queens of Hawaiʻi, of Honolulu and other parts of Hawaiʻi itself, and of haole and other influential figures in Hawaiian history from Captain Cook all the way up through the overthrow, as well as “modern” or “Western” objects1 related to the kingdom, such as the scepter, sword, and ring used at Kalākaua’s coronation, the royal throne of Kamehameha III, examples of the Order of Kalākaua and Order of Kamehameha, the gown worn by Liliʻuokalani for her coronation, and the suit worn by Curtis ʻIaukea at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, along with traditional items directly associated with the royals, such as a feather lei worn by Princess Kaʻiulani. Unlike the fishhooks and so forth which are wonderfully evocative of a culture, but which alone convey to a Western museumgoer, or reader, little sense of a historical narrative, these objects convey to that Western observer a clear sense of a line of kings and queens with a real history, developing over time through different personalities, different times, different events and influences and obstacles.2 The exhibit contained at least one formal portrait of every monarch of the united Hawaiian Kingdom, from Kamehameha I (r. 1782-1819) to Queen Liliʻuokalani (r. 1891-1893), and through these portraits, a variety of objects directly associated with the monarchs, and other paintings, photos, and objects, the exhibit suggested, if not actually narrating directly, the complex and real history of the kingdom, as it confronted Westernization, dynastic change, pressure from imperialist powers, and eventually, overthrow.

King Kamehameha III (r. 1825-1854), and his sister Nāhiʻenaʻena, ages 12 and 10 respectively, in 1825 works by Robert Dampier, which were included in the exhibition in 1980. I was fortunate to see these on display at the Honolulu Museum of Art, last year, where I believe they are now on regular or permanent display. As the HMA gallery labels note, both the king and his sister normally wore Western clothing for both formal and everyday occasions, and dressed in this fashion merely for the portrait.

I do not know what gallery text accompanied the exhibit, as it was mounted, at the time, but the catalog entries include short sections which run through themes pertaining to the history of Hawaiʻi, from earliest mythical origins, through the reigns of the various kings and queens, including themes such as “symbols of sovereignty,” hula, pre-contact Hawaiian religion, and the arrival & influence of missionaries. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to present an apolitical account of this history, and in order to say quite where this book lies, what sort of narrative it is presenting, I would have to read it more closely, and really analyze what is and is not being said. But upon a brief skim I think it’s fair to say that while these brief sections do not level any boldfaced criticism of the US, or of the other imperialist powers, nor of the haole influence within the islands, neither is the book particularly laudatory or celebratory of haole/US influence either, presenting what it presents in a fairly matter-of-fact manner. As such, this is not a powerfully progressive book, like Osorio’s Dismembering Lāhui or Dougherty’s To Steal a Kingdom, but neither is it a regressive text, presenting the Hawaiians as backwards, or the US takeover as a great and wonderful thing. As for the history, it is at least a good source for the most basic outlines of the history of the kingdom – names & dates & events, from Captain Cook, through each of the kings and queens, to Liliʻuokalani.

The one lengthy essay in the catalog, entitled “The Persistence of Tradition,” and written by Adrienne Kaeppler, builds upon this basic framework in a very valuable way. Having not read it through word for word, I cannot say precisely how good this essay is, or whether it is wholly unproblematic, but, I can say that it contains a number of important ideas that I think may have been radical (in a good way) for the museumgoer, or catalog reader, of 35 years ago. Kaeppler writes positively of the value and validity of oral tradition, and negatively of how Western media has, for the most part, ever since Captain Cook all the way up through the present, “largely built upon the original erroneous conceptions, and have done little to dispel the myths” (53). Perhaps more pleasantly surprising for a book of this age, and also of great importance, is her foregrounding the idea that

traditional Hawaiian world views, philosophies, arts, and crafts still flourish in Hawaiʻi in spite of the overlay of 19th and 20th century European and American value systems, a competitive money economy, and an introduced Christian God. Even before the recent resurgence of Hawaiian tradition, there were many visible elements of Hawaiian culture that had never died. The persistence of tradition is a more appropriate vision of Hawaiʻi … Hawaiian values have not fossilized; they are living forces for inspiration and creation that form a continuous link between the Hawaiʻi of today and of yesterday. (53-54, emphasis added)

Perhaps it should not be surprising that we should see such ideas in 1980, as the Hawaiian Renaissance was well underway already since sometime in the 1970s, nor should it be surprising that the Bishop Museum – the museum founded in the name of Hawaiian royal Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, and housing the collection of the Kamehameha Dynasty, including the largest collection of Hawaiian artifacts of any institution in the world – should be saying these rather progressive, pro-indigenous, anti-Eurocentric, things, even a full 35 years ago, and taking the bother to include the ʻokina where appropriate throughout. But, still, given that issues of how to appropriately and respectfully represent indigenous cultures in museums remains very much an ongoing debated issue today, something museums are still very much struggling to do properly, it was for me really something to see these kinds of attitudes and approaches represented in this fashion in a 35-year-old book. In particular, the attitude, or conventional wisdom, that indigenous peoples or at least their distinctive culture, have all but died out, and belong only to the past, remains quite strong today in the United States, if not elsewhere in the world, and it is only in the last few years, or maybe the last decade or two at most, that many museums in the country have begun to more actively include contemporary Native American works alongside the traditional ones, in their galleries, in order to more directly and actively confront this myth, and to assert instead the “persistence of tradition.” To give some examples, the National Museum of the American Indian only first opened its doors in 2004, and at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, though I do not recall how they represented Native American art/history/culture previously, it is in the new American Wing, which only just opened in 2010 or 2011, that contemporary Native American artworks are placed front and center amidst older objects. Even the Bishop Museum itself, though I don’t know precisely how things were represented in the past, only very recently did an overhaul of its permanent galleries, re-opening Hawaiian Hall in 2009, and Pacific Hall in 2013, with a renewed focus on Native, rather than Western/anthropological, perspectives. In any case, Kaeppler’s essay goes on to discuss at some length Hawaiian origin myths, beliefs about mana and kapu (taboos), and so forth, hopefully informing the 1980 visitor about Hawaiian traditional values and their vitality still today, and perhaps even inspiring that visitor, or reader, to rethink their attitudes, as to the validity and appeal of these non-Western perspectives. I certainly think this essay, along with the rest of the catalog, will be of value and usefulness to me, as I continue my education in Hawaiian & Pacific historical matters.

Replica of the 1886 Convention on Immigration signed between Meiji Japan and the Hawaiian Kingdom, with photograph of Hawaiʻi’s Permanent Minister in Japan, Robert Walker Irwin, and his Japanese wife Iki. On display at Bishop Museum, 2011.

But, to return to what really impressed and amazed me about this catalog, is that such an exhibit could be held, was held, traveling to museums in Denver, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Washington DC. As I said at the beginning of this post, every other Pacific art exhibit I have seen on the US mainland, or for example at the British Museum in London, has focused on utilitarian and ritual objects of traditional culture, and only very rarely do I recall seeing such an exhibit that extended beyond the permanent galleries, into being a special exhibition. For a place like the Metropolitan or the MFA to devote such space, money, efforts, and so forth to a show of Pacific art is, at least in my experience, all but unheard of. And for them to do so with an exhibit that brings forth the greatest “national”/royal treasures of the Hawaiian Kingdom, to tell a story not about a culture in vague “traditional” “past” times, but rather a story about a complex and modern kingdom, with a chronology of monarchs with specific names, appearances (portraits), and so forth, who possess a real narrative of the rise and fall, trials and tribulations, of their kingdom just like any other Western or non-Western country, is truly something I never suspected ever took place. Not at this level. Not on this scale. Half the objects in this exhibition I have not even seen at the Bishop Museum or ʻIolani Palace themselves, in Hawaiʻi, let alone ever dreaming of seeing them at a mainland museum. My point, simply is this: if mainland museums won’t even show enough interest to devote time, money, effort, to bringing over an incredible show of Hawaiian Art Deco, how can we hope to ever see such an exhibit as this? Or, a different way around, I am honestly floored by the idea that this exhibit ever took place. Can it, will it, ever take place again? Why do we not have more exhibits like this one? The American people could really benefit to learn more about this history, and given the general appeal of Hawaiʻi, and the flashiness of thrones, royal scepters, and monarchy in general, I think this really could be a rather successful blockbuster exhibit. I don’t think it would fall flat. Tonga or Samoa, Fiji or Guam, sadly, might be just a little too distant to attract the crowds; but Hawaiʻi, for better or for worse, is a part of our country, and very much a part of our popular consciousness – I think people would be interested to see such an exhibit as this. Plus, if the immense popularity of the Met’s Alexander McQueen and “China Through the Looking Glass” shows are any indication, fashion has some serious popular attraction – so, an exhibit such as this, including Liliʻuokalani’s coronation gown and ʻIaukea’s formal Victorian-style official suit, should fall at least partially within that market, right?

Well, at least we have the catalog, which is available used on Amazon, as well as elsewhere on the Internet, for rather reasonable prices.


The second book I’d like to touch upon today is Pacific Art in Detail, one of a series on artistic traditions from different parts of the world, put out by the British Museum in 2011. The book, aimed at a fairly general museumgoing / arts-interested audience, incorporates on a fundamental level many wonderful progressive ideas about approaching Pacific art, including some of those I have already mentioned above: e.g. that post-Contact objects including Western influences and/or imported materials can still be authentically “traditional,” that these traditions do survive, and that contemporary art is also very much a part of the bounds of “Pacific art” – that there is a such thing as contemporary Pacific art, and that it addresses important themes of identity and politics in interesting, powerful, and artistically high-quality, post-modern ways. I suppose no one is going to be reading this book who is not already inclined towards interest in Pacific art, in non-Western cultures, and in non-Western perspectives, but, still, for any reader, from the beginner with a passing interest to someone like myself, the book helps instill in the reader a broad-ranging and fundamentally progressive (read: post-colonial, anti-Eurocentric) perspective on a variety of matters important to understanding and appreciating Pacific Island cultures and history.

I suppose there are two things which I most appreciate and enjoy about this book. One is the essays and thematic content, as touched upon in the previous paragraph, and the excellent quotes which can be pulled out from them. The second is the treatment of the British Museum’s collection. Just as Hawaiʻi: The Royal Isles serves as an excellent source for at least a portion of the Bishop Museum’s collection – a source for knowing about portraits of the monarchs, royal costumes & objects, photos, and a variety of other objects that exist in that collection – this is a good source for some of the chief treasures of the British Museum’s collection. And, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that despite not having any dedicated Pacific gallery, the British Museum does have many of these objects on display, in thematic galleries on the Enlightenment, “Collecting the World,” and “Living and Dying.”

A hei tiki given to Captain Cook by a Maori chief in 1769. Carved of jade (nephrite), it is meant to absorb the mana of those who wear it, and continue to accumulate mana down through the ages, becoming ever a more and more powerful object. Given by Cook to King George III, and thence to the British Museum, and having become one of the canonical objects of Pacific art history due to its inclusion in British Museum displays and publications, I would say it has certainly acquired considerable power of a sort, albeit if not exactly within the Polynesian context.

Whereas the Bishop Museum’s collection is largely that of the Kamehameha Dynasty itself (or, more cynically, as appropriated by Charles Reed Bishop, top banker in Hawaiʻi in the 1890s, on par with Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan in his fat-cat-ness), and whereas the collections of most American museums, such as the Metropolitan, come largely from individual collectors and donors, the British Museum’s collection of Pacific artifacts comes largely from nationally-sponsored voyages of exploration, and from the imperial/colonial project. While this introduces considerable controversy, and very rightfully so, for obvious reasons, at the same time, it means that the Museum does possess a great many objects of great historical significance, which a place like the Metropolitan does not. Thus, we are able, at the Museum and in Pacific Art in Detail, to look not just at various general fishhooks but at, for example, a particular set of shark-fishing fishhooks made for the exclusive use of high chiefs – the only ones permitted to fish to catch sharks – and possibly given as gifts directly to Captain Cook himself, or his crew. Not only are these objects directly associated with some truly famous, prominent, significant historical events (the voyages of Captain Cook and his “discovery” of Hawaiʻi), but they are also significant and powerful within a Native Hawaiian context, as they are imbued with the mana of these chiefs.

Left: A wedding dress designed by New Zealand-based Samoan designer Paula Chan Cheuk, in 2014, incorporating traditional designs and material – siapo (barkcloth, known as tapa or kapa in other regions) – into a rather postmodern garment.

Pacific Art in Detail talks about a wonderful range of “traditional” objects from across the Pacific, but also extends into discussing contemporary art. We are told that one of nine Pacific Islanders lives elsewhere in the world, and yet “Oceanic artists can feel more closely defined – whether they would like to be or not – by their cultural background” (16).

Personally, this has long been a particularly fascinating aspect or element of contemporary art. I have no doubt that there are artists of Pacific Islander ancestry who are producing works having little or no relation to that heritage, and many of them may be great artworks in their own ways. But, what really intrigues me, and which this book delves into as well, is the various ways in which contemporary artists draw upon their own heritage and traditions, and wrestle with their identity & that of their people more broadly, and with colonial & post-colonial politics. As Anne D’Alleva is quoted as writing, “the past is as multi-faceted and open to interpretation as the present, and tradition is not fixed but contested” (17). And, further, not only are people today drawing upon the traditions of the past, but also expressing, practicing, and influencing the traditions of the present – present traditions which are real and ongoing. All cultural identities draw upon a past for their foundations, their histories and identities, but cultural identities also exist in the present, and the people of today are no less Polynesian, no less Pacific Islander, for living today, rather than in the past. And, the artworks they produce, similarly, are no less authentic, no less genuine, for having been made in the 21st century rather than the 18th.

Pacific Art in Detail links past and present beautifully, and introduces readers to the power, meaning, and aesthetics of Pacific art, in order to help readers know how to appreciate Pacific art – not only for its style, design and aesthetic qualities, but also for its cultural and historical meaning, for its association with great people and events, or with spirits, deities, or cultures. It also serves as a great introduction to the highlights of the British Museum’s Pacific collections.

All photos are my own.

1) Of course, we shouldn’t really draw such stark categories between “traditional” and “modern” or “Western,” since, as Stacy Kamehiro reminds us, a great many things about the Hawaiian Kingdom incorporated Hawaiian traditional symbols and practices on a fundamental level, into a distinctively Hawaiian modernity – just as Meiji Japan (1868-1912) was no less Japanese for being modern, as well.

2) Objects such as fishhooks and feather cloaks can very much be the vehicles for history and memory within indigenous traditions. The malo ura of the Tahitian high chiefs serves as a great examples of this, as it was passed down from one chief to another, maintained in a sacred storehouse, and worn for various special occasions, incorporating the mana of those great people and great events within it. Pacific Art in Detail also talks about a variety of other objects which were used in various ways, if not to “record” history as we might understand it in the West, then at least to serve as mnemonic aids, for a chief or priest to recite the genealogies using the carved bumps in a rod, for example, to help him remember the generations. While this approach to history and memory may seem rather foreign to us at first, in truth, it is not so foreign, is it? After all, we Westerners, too, can look at a fishhook given as a gift to Captain Cook, and feel it is a greater object, somehow, imbued with the significance of that association and that event. Even if we do not think of it as containing “mana,” it is certainly much more than just a piece of ivory – it is a very specific piece of ivory, that passed through Cook’s hands, that was given to him in conjunction with a very prominent historical event, and that very same fishhook is now sitting in a glass case before you, as symbol of that event, and because of that object, you are thinking about that event again. So, I just want to be clear that I do not mean to ignore or disparage indigenous ways of knowing; and, indeed, an exhibition truly dedicated to indigenous ways of knowing could be fascinating. But, for the Western museum visitor, or Western catalog reader, I think there is something very valuable in showing too – just as Kalākaua himself wished to show the world back in the 1870s-80s – that Hawaiʻi had a vibrant, complex, and meaningful history as can be understood in a Western mode, too, in order to recognize and respect Hawaiʻi as a kingdom, and as one quite similar to Western countries in a lot of ways.

Read Full Post »

Eugene Savage (1883-1978, American), A God Appears, 1940, oils on canvas. Seen at Art Deco Hawaii exhibition, Honolulu Museum of Art. Photo my own.

Adding to the heated debate between Sahlins and Obeyesekere are a number of interpretations and responses to that debate, to which I have now added my own.

For the most part, I think I come down in between Sahlins and Obeyesekere; as I said in my previous post, I quite like Dening’s interpretation of the encounter between the HMS Dolphin and the people of Tahiti, and am much more inclined towards imagining a Hawaiian rationality within a distinctive (non-Western) worldview, and structuring of knowledge, of their own. Sahlins is far too strict within his structures, asserting that since the symbols line up, that must be the explanation, straightforwardly and definitively. He leaves no room for interpretive nuance, and suggests the Hawaiians believed, perfectly, Cook to be the god Lono. Obeyesekere, to the contrary, argues against any distinctive Hawaiian sensibility, and attributes Western Enlightenment rationality to all peoples. But, where Western rationality draws a hard line and dichotomy between the secular and the spiritual, or the rational and the superstitious, I think the Polynesian peoples can offer us an example of how to incorporate the two, an example of how to think differently, yet not irrationally. I think there is a possibility for the Hawaiians having seen Captain Cook as possessing of great mana, and thus as being semi-divine, and having seen the momentous event as imbued in some way either with the spirit of Lono, or with the mood of the Makahiki, because of its timing, all while at the same time, simultaneously without it being a contradiction, recognizing Cook as a living, breathing, mortal human being from another land, with plain, practical, intentions and desires.

Crash Course World History does a nice job on the subject. John Green does not merely repeat the standard story – as Sahlins does, and as I might have expected from a basic intro survey YouTube series sort of approach – but explains both Sahlins’ and Obeyesekere’s arguments, and the difficulties with both, ending with a few questions as to the far broader, more profound implications.

Here are some other voices:

*Scott MacLeod of the World University and School offers a brief but in-depth defense of Obeyesekere’s position, asserting a universal human rationality, and attacking cultural relativism. To be sure, there are elements of Sahlins’ narrative where the Hawaiians seem decidedly trapped by their guiding cultural structures, behaving purely according to obligation to act out the myth, rather than freely and pragmatically. Where Sahlins writes that “The killing of Captain Cook was … the Makahiki in an historical form,” and that “Cook’s death at Hawaiian hands just [after the Makahiki could] . . . . be described as [a] . . . ritual sequel: the historical metaphor of a mythical reality,” MacLeod summarizes Obeyesekere as arguing that the Hawaiians may have deified Cook after his death, retroactively inventing the myth, for practical, pragmatic, political purposes related to the assertion of legitimacy of one political faction over another.

*Clifford Geertz offered his own thoughts on the debate, in a 1995 article in the New York Review of Books, which I am still trying to get my hands on, since my university apparently can’t be bothered to subscribe to online access.

*Anthropologist Chris Kavanagh gives a lengthy summary and analysis of the debate on his blog, God Knows What…. In two parts: The Battle Over Captain Cook’s Corpse, Part 1, and Part 2.

With apologies for getting a bit silly, I think the Drunk History segment on Captain Cook is one of my favorites ever. Keep an eye (ear?) out for my favorite line. Can you guess which it is?

Read Full Post »

Following up on my review of Stacy Kamehiro’s The Arts of Kingship, the next of my reviews written in the course of studying for comprehensive exams.

Gananath Obeyesekere, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook (1992; revised ed. 1997)

Marshall Sahlins, How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, For Example, 1995

The debate between Obeyesekere and Sahlins over whether the Hawaiians saw Captain Cook as a “god” is described by Borofsky as one of the greatest recent disputes among scholars of the Pacific. At issue is the question of how “natives” think, with each scholar launching virulent attacks on one another for their approaches.

Obeyesekere’s book The Apotheosis of Captain Cook comes as a harsh response and critique of Sahlins’ Islands of History, published several years earlier, and which I have admittedly not yet read. Sahlins then responded to Obeyesekere’s critique in How “Natives” Think.

In a nutshell, Obeyesekere alleges that all humanity is united in its ability for commonsense “practical rationality,” arguing that the Hawaiians could not have been so foolish as to genuinely mistake Captain Cook for being a “god,” that the myth of Cook being taken to be a god was constructed and perpetuated by Europeans (and later adopted by Hawaiians, though it was not originally their idea), and that to suggest otherwise is terribly Eurocentric and does discursive violence of an imperialistic nature. Sahlins responds that treating Western conceptions of rationality as universal and ignoring cultural particularities is a Eurocentric, Orientalist, and anti-anthropological approach. Further, that not all non-whites think alike, or possess the same culture, and so Obeyesekere’s assertions from the position of “authority” as a fellow “native,” a fellow non-white, despite his lack of expertise in Pacific (let alone Hawaiian) history, is a deeply flawed and damaging claim of “authority.”

I have not been to the Big Island, let alone to Kealakekua Bay, so I’m including some of my photos of Oʻahu here. This one, a view from Makapuʻu

Both accuse the other of misinterpreting or misusing the sources – chiefly journals and the like written by members of Cook’s crew, and histories written by Hawaiians beginning in the 1820s (thirty years after the events). Obeyesekere accuses Sahlins of being insufficiently critical of these Hawaiian sources, the most prominent of which were written by students at the Lāhainā missionary school, and present the events of Cook’s coming through a powerfully Christian and anti-pagan lens. Further, he alleges that these writers have adopted the European-created myth of Cook’s apotheosis (deification), and are merely repeating the myth, not recording what “actually” happened (or how those events were actually perceived at the time, in 1779). He also argues that much of the sequence of the ritual protocols of the Makahiki rite were not formalized until the reign of Kamehameha I (r. 1810-1819), and that Sahlins is anachronistically applying these sequences and dating backwards to an earlier time when such things were not yet systematized in such a form. Sahlins counters that, in countless places, Obeyesekere’s account simply does not accord with the documentary sources, or with what is known of Hawaiian beliefs and practices. He writes that Obeyesekere invents much of what he asserts whole cloth, “interpret[ing] the historical events by notions concocted out of commonsense realism and a kind of pop nativism” (Sahlins, 60). Obeyesekere’s narrative has Captain Cook being installed as a high chief, not welcomed as a god, and offers interpretations for the meaning of each step of the ritual within the context of this “installation ritual,” which he claims was invented on the spot in order to deal with this unprecedented event. He also claims that Sahlins is unconvincing in pressing that each episode of Cook’s time at Kealakekua so perfectly aligns with the ritual sequences of the Makahiki. Why should the Hawaiians take the British Cook, who neither speaks their language nor demonstrates knowledge of the proper ritual protocols, to be a Hawaiian god? Obeyesekere asserts that Cook and his men were not (accidentally) performing the sequence of the rituals of the Makahiki, but rather quite to the contrary, they were violating the kapu (taboos) the entire time (Ob. 101).

Sahlins counters that Obeyesekere’s interpretation shows little understanding or appreciation for Hawaiian cosmologies, politics, or customs. To begin, it is typical throughout Polynesia that the “gods” are regarded as foreign, as coming from across the sea (and specifically from the heavenly place / distant island known as Kahiki), and their forms, language, and thoughts as unknown or unknowable. Thus, Cook coming in ships with white banners, like the white banners associated with Lono, circling the islands before landing at Kealakekua as the Lono image does in ritual procession, and saying he is coming from Tahiti (H: Kahiki), matches quite well with Hawaiian conceptions – as do his foreign appearance and language.

The view from the Pali Lookout.

There is a lot more that could be said by way of summarizing or analyzing the various aspects or elements of these two scholars’ arguments, but the most important is what has already been said, above. The debate has resonances and importance far beyond our interpretation of Cook, however, and even beyond Hawaiian or Pacific Studies alone. I think if I ever teach a grad seminar in Historiography, I will assign this debate. Robert Borofsky has a nice summary of it, so that one does not actually have to read entire books; his summary is available on Scribd here, as well as on JSTOR.

The most fundamental of these broader issues is the very fact that this is a debate over the validity of sources, and of interpretations. This makes it particularly difficult as a reader to determine what to believe. All told, I am much more inclined to believe Sahlins, as he is an experienced and prominent expert in the field, intimately familiar not only with these sources in particular, but with Hawaiian cosmologies and cultural practices more broadly. Obeyesekere is, of course, a very experienced and intelligent scholar in his own right, but Hawaiʻi/Polynesia is not his field of expertise. As Sahlins points out in his point-by-point dismantling of Obeyesekere’s book, there are numerous places in which Obeyesekere makes assertions about ritual significances or practices, or about “native” conceptions of divinity, that simply do not mesh with what the scholarly consensus – or with Hawaiian traditional practitioners both today and writing in the past – indicate. Further, Sahlins points out numerous places where Obeyesekere contradicts himself, or where his arguments otherwise fail to hold water.

However, Sahlins’ own account is disappointingly standard, and to my mind insufficiently nuanced, and insufficiently critical of itself. I had hoped to see Sahlins more explicitly reject the standard interpretation of Cook as Lono, Cook as god, replacing it with a more nuanced or more culturally specific account. I would have much preferred to see Sahlins declaring boldly that the standard story of Cook’s apotheosis is a myth, deriving from a misunderstanding, a misinterpretation, of traditional Hawaiian modes of historical understandings, and then presenting us instead with a new and different interpretation. Something along the lines of saying that of course the Hawaiians did not think that Cook was Lono, but perhaps thought that his coming was somehow blessed by Lono, that Cook’s coming was seen as occurring in concert with the Makahiki “coming of Lono,” rather than being the coming of Lono. I don’t know nearly enough about Hawaiian mythology and traditional beliefs to know what explanation precisely would or would not fit in to those beliefs – I’m basically just spitballing, as Obeyesekere was. But, still, I would have liked to see Sahlins give a more nuanced and revisionist interpretation, rather than simply reiterating exactly the myth that we all learned in elementary school (or wherever), the same myth that Obeyesekere is so critical of, asserting so straightforwardly that Cook was seen as the god Lono, and that just about everything Cook did coincided with the ritual schedule of the Makahiki.

Plaque in honor of Capt. Cook, at Westminster Abbey.

We are left believing Sahlins’ account based solely on one of two possible bases, both of which are potentially quite problematic. We can believe Sahlins on the basis of his experience and prominence in the field, taking his assertions more or less at face value because of his presumed expertise, which is essentially an argument from authority, one of the classic logical fallacies. Or, we can believe (or disbelieve) Sahlins based on whether we find ourselves convinced, by whatever combination of logic (reason) and intuition. Yet, this judgment based on Western rationality and on intuition based on Western cultural assumptions, is very much what Sahlins lambasts Obeyesekere for doing; he points out that Obeyesekere’s argument relies heavily on what “seems strange” or “hard to believe,” versus what seems “more natural to suppose,” inserting Western rationality for an understanding of Hawaiian beliefs (Sahlins 9). As a result, I am left with no idea what to believe.

Returning to the question, or the issue, of practical rationality versus culturally particular understandings, I think Greg Dening, in his article “Possessing Tahiti,” does a far better job of balancing and nuancing the two, than either Obeyesekere or Sahlins. Where Sahlins simply takes the standard narrative, reifying it wholesale and explaining out how this works according to certain frameworks or structures of traditional beliefs, Dening explores the interaction between “literal” (rational, practical) and “metaphoric” (cultural, cosmological) understandings, asserting that they can be overlapping or concurrent, and not contradictory. He notes that Europeans perform “rituals,” too, and understand actions as having metaphorical or symbolic efficacy, pointing to the example of the planting of a flag as a means of claiming possession of a land. Further, Dening speaks of the ways in which the Tahitians could view the coming of the HMS Dolphin as a sacred event simply because of its momentousness, its unprecedented nature, without thinking the captain, crew, or ship to be, explicitly, “a god,” and without thinking the events, at that time, to have been prophesied or to fit into expectations. Rather, by contrast, he suggests that the mythic associations surrounding the coming of the Dolphin were created in consequence of the event, with that approach to the marae (temple/treasure house) coming to be considered a particularly sacred path – or merely of historic significance – because the Dolphin entered via that path, and not the other way around.

Right: A statue of Capt. James Cook at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich (England).

Certainly, I am no expert in Hawaiian cosmologies, and for all I know, Sahlins may be perfectly correct. We may never know. However, given the scarcity and unreliability of the sources available on this subject, the fact that Sahlins does not wrestle with multiple possible interpretations, nor entertain the possibility of alternative notions, not even in order to refute them, seems suspect. Perhaps rather than Cook being Lono, he was merely accompanied by Lono in an abstract, incorporeal form, the momentousness, the historic nature of the event in and of itself making it “sacred.” Or perhaps there is some more concrete way to explain more precisely what kind of manifestation or instantiation of Lono Cook was believed to be, and how exactly that particular manifestation relates to “the” Lono. Obeyesekere’s attitude and approach are deeply problematic in a number of ways, and I find Sahlins’ dismantling of Obeyesekere’s narrative quite convincing. Yet, neither am I convinced that Sahlins’ narrative is definitively, and flawlessly, “accurate” or “true.” Even if for nothing else, Obeyesekere’s efforts to cast doubt on Sahlins’ interpretation, and to call for the possibility of “plausible alternatives,” is therefore quite valuable.

Read Full Post »