The Battle Over Captain Cook’s Corpse Part 1

Artistic representation of Cook's final moments

Artistic representation of Cook’s final moments

When the famous British explorer Captain James Cook was killed on a Hawaiian island in 1779 the Hawaiian tribesmen responsible removed his body from the beach, disemboweled it, baked it and then distributed the bones across a variety of their villages. These actions are not disputed by historians and were also not motivated by spite. They were, in fact, the traditional mortuary rites performed on the island for those of high status.

Unsurprisingly, these actions were interpreted by Cook’s crew as something entirely different. Rather than seeing the actions as displaying respect for a revered leader they regarded them as a hideous attempt to desecrate the remains of a fallen enemy. This difference of perception very nearly caused more bloodshed as, in the face of growing tension and a barely contained fury, Cook’s crew attempted to negotiate with the islanders for the return of his body, so that he could receive a traditional naval burial. The volatility of the situation is evident in the accounts written at the time, which contain reports describing how a number of the crew favoured attacking the islander’s villages and taking the body back by force and accounts of islanders performing a range of provocative acts on the shore directed towards the crew.

A large scale and bloody battle was avoided however as, after a few days and a number of minor skirmishes, the Hawaiians relented and returned enough of Cook’s remains to satisfy his furious crew (although there remains some doubt as to whether the remains returned were actually authentic). With the return of Cook’s remains to his crew the first (very literal) battle for Captain Cook’s corpse came to an end. After performing a Christian burial for Cook’s recovered remains his crew finally departed the Hawaiian islands to return to England and report their captain’s death.

Cook’s physical remains were now lost to the sea (or preserved in Hawaiian villages), yet this not be the final battle that his corpse was involved in.

Over 200 years later, during the 1990s a much less bloody battle, centering on Captain Cook and the circumstances surrounding his death, ignited between two eminent anthropologists- Gananath Obeyesekere and Marshall Sahlins. The battle these two fought was waged, not on a tropical beach but across a number of academic articles, conferences and books and while it was certainly less dramatic than the original battle, it was still a contentious and passionate affair involving a fair amount of character assassinations and racial politics.

Sahlins is an expert specialising in the Pacific Islands region and holds a deep abiding interest in historical research and how it can be applied in anthropology. One of his most famous illustrations of how historical anthropology could be performed was an article in which he explored the reasons behind Cook’s death. In this article, he claimed to have solved the mystery of why Cook was killed by a people who, only a matter of weeks earlier, had recognised him as a God, welcoming him to their island with lavish ceremonies.

Sahlins’ solution to this mystery was that Cook’s original arrival on the island, due to the timing and a number of unintended coincidences, fitted precisely into the Hawaiian annual mythical cycle and resulted in him being identified by the islanders as an avatar of the Hawaiian god ‘Lono’. His departure from the island coincidentally also fitted within this mythical cycle and thus it passed without incident, what did not fit the cycle however was his return shortly after. Lono’s departure in the mythical cycle was supposed to signify the beginning of another god’s reign, which was ‘structurally required’ and so Cook/Lono’s return resulted in a ‘cosmological crisis’, which the Hawaiians eventually ‘solved’ via a ritual murder. So that’s a brief summary of the views of the first player in the battle, what about the second?

Obeyeskere, in contrast to Sahlins, prior to his involvement in this debate was not a specialist of the Pacific Islands region and instead, his previous studies had focused primarily on India and, his place of birth, Sri Lanka. He was also a leading exponent of postmodern thinking in anthropological circles and an advocate for the use of psychoanalysis in anthropology (incidentally, he denies being a postmodernist, but then so does practically every other postmodern thinker).

Obeyesekere contended that Sahlins’ account of Cook’s death reflected an uncritical acceptance of a European myth; namely, that Cook was regarded as a God by the natives. He wrote a book-length criticism of Sahlins’ theories and argued that the real reason behind Cook’s death was simply that he had been exploiting the Hawaiian people, had tried to kidnap one of their chiefs and was thus seen as a threat and duly dispatched. Obeysekere contended that the contemporary accounts that describe him being worshipped as a God were either inventions /later additions or were simply European’s misinterpretation ofeveryday Hawaiian customs.

The debate between these two researchers took place during the 1990s at the height of the ‘culture wars’ and is illustrative of the kind of debates that the rise of postmodern thought has engendered throughout both arts and humanities and the social sciences. It is also one of those rare academic disputes which managed to (sort of) escape from academia, making its way out of the dusty pages of academic journals and footnote riddled ethnographies, and into mainstream coverage (in the New York Review of Books for example). Engendering some amount of non-academic comment and discussion along the way.

Nevertheless, today it remains a rather obscure dispute that most people, including many who study anthropology, will not ever come across and so my intention is to present a summary of it and some of the main points it raised, in the hope that some more folks can get a taste of what it was all about and I can discuss some of the points in the debate, that I found most interesting. From my perspective, the content of the debate also serves as an indicative illustration of the kinds of problems that frequently beset popular postmodern critiques of pre-existing research in anthropology.

The above discussion should make it clear that I am by no means neutral about this dispute and I make no apologies for that. I encountered the debate with no pre-existing knowledge of Sahlins or Obeyesekere or the events and circumstances of Captain Cook’s voyage and death and my ‘bias’ as it exists now is simply based on the fact that I found Marshall Sahlins’ arguments to be better researched, more compelling and to be better supported by the evidence. Obeyesekere’s arguments in contrast seemed to involve buying into his idiosyncratic psychoanalysis of a historical figure, accepting his cherry picked sources and ignoring his glaring lack of familiarity with the culture and history of the region.

With that said, I do not think that Marshall Sahlins is entirely right in every point he made and, likewise, I do not think that all of Obeyesekere’s arguments were invalid. However, this post is already long enough now so I will lay out the main arguments and accusations that both Sahlins and Obeyesekere presented and levelled at each other in the next post and I’ll explain why I find the ones that I do more persuasive. I’d love to hear any other opinions on the matter so any points you disagree with please let me know in the comments section.

10 comments

  1. Hey Milica glad you liked them, your comment inspired me to go back and re-edit the article. I think it reads much better now. I also recently read a new article that discusses the issue from the perspective of cognitive anthropology so I might do a follow up soon.

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  2. Who wrote a book about what really happened to Captain Cook on the day of his death? What is the history of that ritual performed on his corpse?

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  3. Captain Cook deserved it to get killed. He himself also killed many hawaian and polynesian people. He was a bad person. So for me he is not a hero. A hero is somebody who respect and accept the people of the countries he visits.

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