The Battle Over Captain Cook’s Corpse Part 2

Death of Cook

Having introduced the main players in the Sahlins-Obeyesekere debate in my previous post it’s now time to turn to the main arguments, rebuttals and accusations that kept Captain Cook’s death as a hot topic in anthropology during the 90s.

A chronology of the relevant books/articles might be a good place to start:

1985– Marshall Sahlins publishes Islands of History which includes his discussion of Captain Cook’s death and how it is attributable to the mythical worldview the Hawaiian islanders subscribed to.

1992– Gananath Obeysekere publishes The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific. This contains a searing attack on Marshall Sahlins’ (and other scholars) theories relating to Captain Cook and his interaction with the Hawaiian islanders. Obeyesekere accuses Sahlins of having bought into a myth, by accepting colonial accounts at face value and failing to read the accounts critically.

1995– Sahlins publishes How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook for examplea book length point-by-point rebuttal to Obeyesekere’s attacks on Sahlins’ research. Sahlins counterattacks Obeyesekere’s alternative account, claiming that he has cherry picked sources to support his theories, invented a universal ‘native’ mindset (based on Western values) and included errors which demonstrate clearly that he lacks important contextual knowledge about the region and the historical period.

1995– Obeyesekere publishes Cannibal Talk: The Man Eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the South Seas, a work that further promotes his theory that most colonial stories about foreign cultures are myths, which have been uncritically accepted by scholars and the public in the modern age.

1995– The famous American Anthropologist Clifford Geertz writes an account of the debate, describing it as part of the ‘Culture Wars’, in the New York Review of Books.

1997– A new edition of The Apotheosis of Captain Cook is published with an extended afterword in which, Obeyesekere offers some rebuttals to criticisms from Sahlins but primarily contends that Sahlins criticisms indicate that he has misunderstood his arguments.

1997– Robert Borofsky writes an excellent article in Current Anthropology summarising the debate and the issues surrounding it, which is followed by a number of short responses from various other anthropologists, including Obeyesekere and Sahlins.

These are the bare bones of the sources I’m drawing from and I would recommend that anyone really interested in the debate should really think about having a read through at least some of them. However, in case you can’t be bothered, what follows is a summary of some of the juicy bits and my thoughts about them.

Since Obeyesekere was the one who kicked the whole debate off when he published The Apotheosis of Captain Cook in 1992 probably the best way to start is by presenting his major points of contention and then moving on to look at the rebuttals and counter rebuttals that these have lead to. Also, to make certain I do not end up writing a 10,000 word epic I’m going to set myself an arbitrary limit and deal with six of the main points of contention. Three will be dealt with now in Part 2 and three in a seperate post (Part 3), as I will inevitably end up waffling more than I intend to, but now let’s turn to the actual debate.

1. ‘Natives’ are not idiots, they would not mistake a human for a God no matter how bizarre the man appeared.

Obeyesekere argued that, due to possessing a shared biology, there was a common ‘mode of thinking’  underlying all human actions and thoughts, which enabled us to empathise and gain an understanding of other cultures regardless of any outward cultural differences. He termed this common mode of thinking ‘practical rationality’ and argued that it had been proven to exist by “our contemporary knowledge of neurophysiology and cognitive thought processes”.  ‘Practical rationality’, Obeyesekere explained, would have prevented the native Hawaiians from mistaking a British naval captain, who spoke no Hawaiian and did not look Hawaiian, as a Hawaiian God.

My own thoughts here are that, while Obeyesekere is undoubtedly correct that there are certain aspects of human experience and thought which are universal due to the fact that all humans share a common physiology, he errs greatly when he concludes from this that the common feature is a kind of ‘practical rationality’. History, and even our modern world, is replete with examples of people believing things that fly in the face of logic and evidence and as regards to foreigners being recognised as divine figures, what about the infamous Yaohnanen tribe who still, to this day, and despite meeting him in person, venerate Prince Phillip as the son of a native God?

Sahlins was less impressed by Obeyesekere’s argument than I was, particularly because he had spent almost his entire career arguing that different cultures interpret the world in drastically different ways and that anthropologists err when they try to interpret other societies in their own cultural framework. Consequently, his response was to contend that invoking ‘practical rationality’ as a means of understanding 18th Century Hawaiians equated to a “pseudo politics of anthropological interpretation”, which replaced native thought with “the highest Western bourgeois values”, in order to express solidarity with indigenous peoples. So in in essence, Sahlins reversed Obeyesekre accusation of ethnocentric projection by pointing out that, while he was perfectly willing to recognise that “different cultures mean different rationalities”, Obeyesekere on the other hand, was denying that Hawaiians could do anything, if it conflicted with Western rationality.

2. All the written accounts are from Europeans and are therefore likely to be biased and unreliable. The only way to get at the truth in such accounts is to read them critically and when you do this they don’t support the story that Captain Cook was recognised as a God.

Since a common them is emerging I feel it’s important to address why exactly Obeyesekere spent so much of his time attacking the idea that the Hawaiian natives recognised Captain Cook as a God. Remember that Sahlins explanation of why Cook was killed ultimately relied on the fact that the native Hawaiians regarded him as an avatar of the Hawaiian God Lono. Hence, a lot of what Obeyesekere wrote about Cook was aimed at attacking this conclusion. If Cook was not recognised as a God then Sahlins account did not make sense and there must be an alternative explanation… say, like the alternative Obeyesekere supplied… but we’ll get to that shortly.

Returning to this particular point Obeyesekere argued that Sahlins presentation and interpretation of events relied far too heavily on prejudiced sources and that he had failed to read them “against the grain” or to “probe into the hidden agendas underlying… the texts”. Obeyesekere explained that he had alternatively spent due time considering the validity of each text, remaining suspicious of some and treating others more seriously. He also explained that he employed his experience in pyschoanalysis to help him interpret the accounts more accurately and that this had led him to conclude a variety of things about Captain Cook and his crew which gave him further doubts about the veracity of certain sources.

Obeyesekere’s conclusion was that all of the sources that clearly stated that Captain Cook had been hailed as a God by the Hawaiians were either false, fraudulent or mistaken. Cook had been treated like an honoured guest and his crew had misinterpreted that was all.

Now before getting to Sahlins’ response I think it’s worth mentioning that practically all of the commentators on this debate, even those that generally agreed with Obeyesekere, recognised that Sahlins was a first class researcher who was meticulous in his historical research. Nicholas Thomas, an anthropologist who wrote a book on reading historical sources critically, even singled out Sahlins work as an example of how critical historical research “is adequately done” and a Hawaiian academic reviewing one of Sahlins books commented that “Sahlins does better history than most trained historians have done”.

Obeyesekere, by contrast, was harshly criticised, again even by supporters, for various glaring inaccuracies relating to the historical and regional context that peppered his analysis. This does not mean that Obeyesekere’s analysis concerning the sources relating to Cook’s death was incorrect but it does suggest that he was not in a fantastic position from which to launch such a harsh attack at Sahlins research methods and indeed Sahlins response was somewhat predictable…

Aside from pointing out the glaring errors in Obeyesekere’s account, such as his lack of familarity with naval terms, he also accused Obeyesekere of cherry picking from sources any information that supported his conclusions and ignoring or dismissing any information that did not. In particular, Sahlins noted examples where Obeyesekere had quoted from a source approvingly only to dismiss it as useless and hopelessly biased a number of pages later and suggested that by only accepting passages that support his viewpoint Obeyesekere was “systematically eliminating Hawaiians from their own history”. Sahlins also contended that despite Obeyesekere’s criticism he had always taken care in his research to consider the power structures and agendas underlying the different sources he referred to.

3. Obeyesekere, as a Sri Lankan, could empathise with those suffering colonial impositions and was in a sense immunised against Western self-deceptions. This meant he was better situated than ‘the outsider anthropologist’ (aka Sahlins) to understand the difference between spiritual concepts and practical realities in Hawaiian society.

That’s right, Obeyesekere argued that as a modern day Sri Lankan he had a much better chance of understanding the mindset of 18th Century Hawaiian islanders than Marshall Sahlins who was after all a Westerner.

This was a point that got Obeyesekere into all kinds of problems. So much so that later he would argue that his words had been entirely misinterprted and he had never meant to suggest that he was better placed than Sahlins because of his background to understand 18th Century Hawaiians. However, I recommend that anyone who thinks I may be doing the man an injustice by attributing to him an argument which he has since disowned, go back, read the original introduction to The Apotheosis of Captain Cook and draw their own conclusions. Every single commentator on the debate and reviewer of the book also got the same impression from what Obeyesekere wrote so, it’s kind of hard to swallow Obeyesekere’s claim that everyone just got it completely wrong.

Sahlins was unreserved in his criticism of this point and claimed that Obeyesekere had essentially posited that there was a ‘universal native’ and that as a ‘native Sri Lankan’ he had priviledged insight into Hawaiian culture. Obeyesekere’s reply to this was that he found the thought of an anthropologist telling native people how they think as “utterly presumptuous” and that had never been his intention. One must wonder then though what about ‘practical rationality’? Isn’t that supposed to tell us about how EVERYONE, including natives, really think?

Well Obeyesekere has an answer prepared for that. You see, as I mentioned in the first article on this topic, Obeyesekere is a postmodern writer and so he is happy to recognise that all ethnographic writing based as they are on “imposing Western epistemological concepts on the other culture” are essentially “a makeshift construction of another culture, a fiction”. This gives him the handy ‘out’ that he can basically distance himself from any claims that what he is saying is ultimately ‘true’ while at the same time allowing him to continue asserting that it is in fact… true.

This is the paradox faced by almost every postmodern writer and personally I find it be rather unconvincing stuff but I realise others mileage may vary… though since I’m a contentious sort I will say that if you are impressed by such epistemological tap dancing then you need to think about it a bit more.

Something that tilts things slightly back in Obeyesekere’s favour however is that his account, with its focus on European colonialism and dismissal of anthropological authority, has been generally better received by native Hawaiian scholars than Sahlins work. Borofsky commenting on this pointed out that while various Hawaiian scholars side with Sahlins in regards to specific details, they tend to find Obeyesekere’s overall perspective more appealing. From my perspective, this response is rather unfortunate however, as what we find more appealing, generally has little relevance to what is actually true.

Part of the negative response to Sahlins can be attributed to the fact that he has faith in the anthropological endeavours ability to produce comparative and objectively true information. This is an unpopular position in a discipline which is heavily influenced by postmodern thought (though it’s a stance I personally am happy to see). However, this is not the only contributing factor and it is all but certain that a significant political influence is creeping in here.

More precisely, in 1992 Sahlins co-authored a study which revealed the extent to which 19th Century Hawaiian chiefs abused their power, exploited their subjects and contributed to the loss of Hawaiian independence. This was backed up with extensive research but was quite predictably received badly by certain Hawaiian activists, several of whom were also scholars and as a result he was labelled by many as having “misunderstood Hawaiian culture”. Which is rather unfortunate given that many of the exact same scholars had praised his earlier work for its deep level of cultural understanding.

It’s hard to dismiss the views of descendents as irrelevant but yet at the same time when I think about it from my own situation I think the notion that I would have any privileged insight into what was going on in Belfast (my hometown) 200 years ago because I was raised there does seem a little far fetched. This point was raised by Borofsky when he discussed the problem but I think the most honest and astute comment on the whole issue was from the Hawaiian scholar Kane who wrote that:

All peoples feel propriety about their histories and resent outsiders, who, uninvited, would search secret closets and strip away veils of cherished tradition, despite the possibility that such veils may obscure historic truth.

Ironically, this is likey what Obeyesekere believes he was doing to Europeans however my personal opinion is that rather than stripping cherished myths, he was instead inventing myths of his own which happened to fit with the popular academic trends of the time. Sahlins in comparsion seems to have been fighting to prove that there is in fact a historical reality which can be, at least partially, uncovered and which is not simply one of many textual interpretations. On that point I think he was right and as all of the above discussion  likely indicates, I was not too impressed by Obeyesekere’s arguments. This is in spite of the fact that my Irish background and general inclination towards skepticism actually had me ready and willing to support his arguments if the evidence was there when I first read his book.

Well, I think that’s certainly enough about the Cook debate for tonight. There’s one more post to go and then it’s time to let Cook rest again!

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  1. aloha,

    Obeyesekere was probably a Marxist humanist, who knew he could find enlightened academian’s in the Hawaiian community willing to accept his conclusion about universalism especially if it challenged or obscured the role Christianity would play on the narrative. Hawaiians teaching this history on College campuses and Universities are not only secular humanists (statist) politically, but they are pagan, willing and ready to defend certain academic trends that assist them in rejecting Christianity. This means revising history when ever and where ever possible. One of the results of this thinking has been internal confusion over the Akaka Bill. The bill being co-authored by these same enlightened educators (aka academians), encourages a stalemate on the legal front!! This means that the U.S. has and is still attempting to skew the facts and that Hawaiians are willing accomplices in this. The Akaka bill protects the status quo since it deems native Hawaiians to be native to the American continent and justifies the current arrangement (statehood) as lawful. This however remains the greatest fraud ever committed by the U.S. Congress, who in the face of countless legal problems not to mention protest from both Hawaiian nationals and Americans, continues to defy the law of the land. Sure the Apology Resolution of 1993 listed the unlawful acts with great detail, but in the end the stalemate was welcomed as inevitable by MOST HAWAIIANS! I suspect this is what happened with the story about Cook’s death. The false story was embraced as true while the true story was buried for political reasons (pardon the pun).


  2. Obeyesekere’s basic point of the source material primarily coming through an 18th century European lens stands, and alone should make his argument – at least upto discounting Sahlin’s proposed hypothesis. Unfortunately since Pacific history was not Gananath’s ‘home turf’ academically so to speak, Sahlins could provide enough material to counter the accuracy of Obeyesekere’s scholarship. To put it simply, I’d say Obeyesekere’s argument is mostly correct, but he was not in a good scholarly position to make a book length case for it.


  3. Having looked back at the issue, apparently more recent Hawai’ian scholarship puts things in favor of Obeyesekere: that the European notion of a ‘god’ (as would have been understood by English speakers) is very distant from what the Hawai’ian would have implied.


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