Captain Cook

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.


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.