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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.