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This recent article by Anna Della Subin in the Guardian, an edited extract from her book Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine, discusses how Captain James Cook was mistaken for a god, brutally murdered by Hawaiian islanders, and now regarded as a symbol of colonial violence in the South Pacific. In the Oct. 5, 2019 issue of Early Modern Times entitled ‘Captain Crook?’, I gave an overview of Cook’s life and career leading up to his arrival in New Zealand 250 years prior to the blog post date. Today, let us turn to the circumstances leading to Cook’s being both deified and defied.
By the 1770s, Captain Cook had acquired a reputation as an intrepid world explorer, humane commander, and representative of European Enlightenment ideals. He had engaged in successful voyages to such locations remote from Britain as Tahiti, Australia, and the Antarctic sea, accumulating invaluable scientific and ethnographic knowledge. Furthermore, he was known to be a benevolent sea-captain in his dealings with both Pacific islanders (with the exception of violent encounters as described in my 2019 post) and his own crews–which included ensuring the health of welfare of sailors, e.g., investigating ways to stave off scurvy, finally hitting on vegetables and especially citrus fruit to remedy Vitamin C deficiency. In other words, the British cure for scurvy on 18th-century Pacific voyages? Cook with fresh ingredients.
Cook’s final voyage in search of a Northwest Passage from Europe to Asia, however, was a significant departure–both geographically and from previous behaviour. As if Cook had sullied his own broth, he stewed in anger and resentment against both sailors and islanders alike. He was increasingly paranoid, arbitrary, and draconian to his crews, who would spark his ire and incur severe punishments at the slightest perceived offence. His treatment of Pacific islanders was worse. He ordered his crews to put entire villages to the torch and, Subin writes, ‘carv[e]crosses into natives’ flesh in revenge for petty crimes.’ His balanced Cooking had degenerated into Cooky, kooky-cutter violence.
In January 1779, his ship the HMS Resolution landed at Kealakekua Bay on what is now known as the Big Island of Hawaii. Having sailed clockwise around the island prior to casting anchor, Cook ‘had inadvertently traced the path of the effigy of Lono [a god in the ritual of Makahiki] as it was borne in a procession around the coast.’ He thus seemed to fulfill a prophecy of Lono’s taking over the king’s throne. Given the strange site of these white men on their shores at precisely the right time for Lono’s arrival, thousands of Hawaiians greeted Cook as a deity and presented offerings of fruits and pigs, traditional for the weeks-long Makahiki ritual. Cook and his crew were generously swined and dined.
Such deification was, it turns out, the beginning of Cook’s downfall. The islanders performed rituals of striking down the king in mock battles. Cook then decided to leave Hawaii at the beginning of February, but stormy conditions at sea caused the return of the Resolution to Kealakekua Bay eight days later. The islanders were perturbed by and hostile to this unexpected reappearance. Cook responded in unkind with violence, leading to the deaths of two chiefs and capture of the king. On Feb. 14, 1779, as Cook was coming ashore, the Hawaiians fatally attacked the sea-captain as depicted above in a c. 1795 painting by Johann Zoffany. In accordance with Hawaiian honours to conquered chiefs, Cook’s corpse was ritually ‘dismembered, his flesh roasted and his bones separated and portioned out, with his lower jaw going to’ the previously captured king and other parts to others. Cook prepared his own repast for the victors.
While the death of Captain Cook was seen back in Britain as the tragic end of a national hero at the ends of ‘savage’ peoples, it took on a different light in subsequent centuries. Subin points out that in the 19th century, Calvinist missionaries from New England interpreted Cook’s downfall as the result of his involvement in pagan idolatry. In the 20th and especially 21st centuries, Cook has been decried as a symbol of colonial violence in the South Pacific: his death is regarded as the comeuppance for imperial arrogance and presumption. Statues of Cook are now regularly defaced and mocked, and so his graven image is the focus of a kind of postcolonial ritual purification. In terms of his historical significance and legacy, that is how Cook crumbles.
Till next time,
Early Modern Cooking the books Studies Program