- What ‘Natives’ Think: About Captain Cook, For Example by Marshall Sahlins
Chicago, 316 pp, £19.95, July 1995, ISBN 0 226 73368 8
This is a splendid work of refutation and revenge, judicious but remorseless, urbane yet gritty. It is germane to the American culture wars but vastly more interesting. It is an adventure story in itself, and a stepping-stone to better ones. My only regret is that this book – you can think of it as the third of a trilogy – will be more widely read than Sahlins’s Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities (1981) and Islands of History (1985). What ‘Natives’ Think is entirely focused on the question of whether the Hawaiians, on their first prolonged encounter with Europeans, not only regarded the white men as superior beings, but also took Captain Cook to be their god Lono, a very important one in their world, which was tilled with gods. Or, is that story a European myth in itself, subsequently foisted on Hawaiian self-memory by British and other foreign chroniclers? The latter is the thesis of Gananath Obeyesekere’s The Apotheosis of Captain Cook (1992), an angry and powerful attack on what Sahlins wrote in his first two books about Captain Cook being taken for a god. What ‘Natives’ Think is Sahlins’s response.
This impassioned debate appears deceptively simple: either Hawaiians recognised Cook as a god, almost on arrival (Sahlins); or, they were not plain stupid and, after killing Cook, found it politically convenient, given local power struggles, to deify him (Obeyesekere). The choice of answers is important but not central to Sahlins’s earlier books. It is critical only to Chapter Four of Islands. Most of Sahlins’s work is in the tradition of Lévi-Strauss, but instead of the doctrinaire structuralism of some of Lévi-Strauss’s followers that takes structures of autochthonous societies to be instantaneous and out of time, Sahlins studies how they change, and in particular, how the conceptual scheme and practices of one people change with a new encounter, especially the arrival of a colonial power. The title Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities is just right. Sahlins argues there that we ought not to make an issue of the differences between Hawaiian myths and the historical reality of the first salient encounter with Europeans: Cook’s arrival and subsequent events, he says, jibe perfectly with prior Hawaiian beliefs, although the English vision of what is happening is very different from the Hawaiian one. What we call the history becomes a metaphor for Hawaiian expectations, and what we call the reality is decoded in terms of established (what we call) myth. Sahlins then uses this analysis to explain amazing goings-on during Cook’s presence at the islands, and subsequent transformations in Hawaiian culture. In 1993, in the Journal of Modern History, Sahlins extended his argument: the glory days of ethnographic field work with an ‘unspoiled’ people are over. They were mostly fantasy anyway, a dream of the purity of primitive man in isolation. Everybody is contaminated by the capitalist world order (or for Sahlins, ‘World System’) and, besides, people have always interacted with strangers. But that does not mean there is nothing left to understand, or that subsequent cultural revivals, resisting or collaborating with the World System, are just phoney. Sahlins insists on this no matter how much what is ‘revived’ has been transformed. Not even the hula-dancing flower girls who greet tourists at the airport in Honolulu are to be dismissed from historical ethnography. The task is to understand precisely how an earlier web of ideas and practices adapts, internalises, exploits or re-sees the interaction with what was once alien and more powerful.
Right or wrong, Sahlins’s ideas are deeply challenging and make the question of the apotheosis of Captain Cook relatively small potatoes. Not small potatoes for the culture wars, however. Enter a brown man, Obeyesekere, who is a professor at Princeton but who grew up on a colonised island – Sri Lanka – saying that a white man, a professor at Chicago, is foisting white myths onto islanders and perpetuating the fantasy that natives first see Europeans as gods – a delightful thought for the white man, but one which quite ignores the good sense of the natives. If the Hawaiians ever deified Cook, Obeyesekere argues, they did so after he was dead, and then only for rational, pragmatic and intelligible political reasons. Sahlins, holier than Obeyesekere, retorts that Obeyesekere is the imperialist. By treating Hawaiians as political players not so far off from rational choice theory, the Sri Lankan denies the islanders (as one used to say in connection with gender) ‘their own voice’ and allows American pragmatism to silence Hawaiian culture for ever.
For all the heat about the apotheosis of Captain Cook, I’d like to think that What ‘Natives’ Think will lead its readers either to Sahlins’s earlier books, or to J.C. Beaglehole’s edition of the journals of Cook’s three voyages. It did that for me. Let me say at the start that this is a review by a complete outsider. I don’t think I’ve read a careful word about the South Seas since a nautically-minded uncle gave me the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy when I was 11. Since then there has arisen an entire ethnographic industry whose labourers are called ‘oceanists’. I am sure that such experts take issue with assertions made by either Obeyesekere or Sahlins or both that an outsider will not even notice. A caveat, though: I suspect that all these adventures, including the confrontation between Sahlins and Obeyesekere itself, will appeal more to the grown-up boys who wallowed in Treasure Island at the age of seven (in my case, a birthday present from the same nautical uncle) than to those grown-up girls who did not. And even a Treasure Island boy (or girl) may tire of Sahlins’s fecund pun-machine. The fact is that Treasure Island is a pale pastiche of the real, wonderful journals of our navigators and their crews. Take the ‘Private Signals’ for the final voyage, which lasted four years, for use in the event that Cook’s two ships were parted and met again. There were complicated signals if they met on the horizon to guard against privateers and enemies. When they were within hailing distance (which means you could recognise a man you’d been sailing with for years, at least through a spyglass): ‘he who hails first shall ask, What ship’s that? then he that is hailed shall answer King George then he who hailed first shall answer Queen Charlotte, and the other shall answer God Preserve.’ If the crews really got out of touch they were to leave messages in bottles at pre-assigned beaches or map readings.
It helps also, in reading not Cook but our two polemicists, to have a taste for the modes of argument of the Augustan age in England, the structure of which (a Sahlinist might contend) is exemplified here, modified and adapted by the historical events of a couple of centuries, just as the earlier age acted out what it saw of Rome through 18th-century culture. It is very nice, in the culture wars, to have arguments for a change: powerful, cogent old-fashioned arguments, premises, evidence, deductions, inductions, qualified probabilities, hypotheses, tests, refutations – on both sides. To be reminded that arguments work. I went in biased towards Obeyesekere’s thesis, because, like him, I have a set of fairly strong ‘Enlightenment’ universalist prejudices about humans the world over. I came out with the conviction that despite retaining a preference for the principles that govern my prejudices, and despite a lot of side issues on which I align with Obeyesekere, Sahlins is right about the so-called apotheosis of Captain Cook. Or strictly: that is where I think the balance of probability lies, based on the evidence presented.
There are two sets of data, British and Hawaiian. The British are written down and numerous. Cook’s previous voyages had been sensational, the toast of Europe and the American colonies. These expeditions, equipped with supernumeraries of artists, astronomers and Kew gardeners, brought back the first vision of the Pacific. Bernard Smith, the Australian historian of art and exploration, argues that these voyages were the first to flood Europe with, literally, images of new lands, new peoples, new worlds. Perhaps thanks to the fashionable enthusiasm at the time for anything to do with Cook, many narratives of the third voyage, including cameo reports of the captain’s death, have been preserved. Cook’s own journal is meticulous, faithful to its task as the commander’s record, and an unusual number of the men kept journals.
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