Scientific and philosophical thought have been preoccupied with the problem of an objective, empirical reality whose nature is discoverable and quantifiable at least since Descartes. This theoretical trend continued and culminated in the discoveries and ideas of Isaac Newton. The Apotheosis of Captain Cook, by Gananath Obeyesekere, is similarly, though subtly, and perhaps unintentionally, concerned with such a reality. In fact, an objective, empirical reality is fundamental to Obeyesekere's argument in The Apotheosis…, which states, in part, that the Hawaiians whom Cook encountered in the winter of 1778-1779 (Cook died at the hand of the Hawaiians in 1779) were essentially “rational” beings who were able to discern such a “universal” reality (Sahlins 39).
Marshall Sahlins, on the other hand, whose early work Obeyesekere is responding to with The Apotheosis… and who wrote How Natives Think…About Captain Cook for Example as a counterargument to Obeyesekere's book, argues that the native Hawaiians interpreted Cook's arrival within the context of their own culture's belief system. They interpreted Cook's arrival as the arrival of the god “Lono,” a Hawaiian fertility god.
[...] It is my contention that historians have not paid enough attention to the anthropological literature on this subject and that a review of the literature with an emphasis on Sahlins' writings goes a long way toward explaining the events surrounding Cook's death. Amongst anthropologists, much has been written about the native Hawaiians' views of Cook and their role in his death (Obeyesekere, Sahlins). Amongst historians, however, the dominant view seems to be one that, I believe, does not adequately take into account the Hawaiian perspective. [...]
[...] Sahlins writes: first god, Kane, and the first man, Ki'i, are rivals over the means of their reproduction: their own elder sister, La'ila'i. The struggle is presented as the condition of the possibility of human existence in a world in which the life-giving powers are divine. Man wins a victory of a certain kind, although it needs to be constantly renewed Thus, the Makahiki is a series of rites through which man pays homage to the gods while simultaneously symbolically claiming and retaining power. [...]
[...] It is true that Sahlins does make statements such as: “Just as Cook's return was something like a mirror image of the Makahiki, so the scene on the morning of the 14th of February was reminiscent of the climactic ritual battle [in the contest for control of the earth between man and the gods] He also states: “Cook was transformed from the divine beneficiary of the sacrifice to its victim But Sahlins is not necessarily suggesting that Cook was killed because he was believed to be a Hawaiian fertility god, as Obeyesekere believes. [...]
[...] Several of the British journal writers recorded Hawaiian fears that Cook had come back to take their country The confrontation in which Cook lost his life took place on the 14th of February when he attempted to carry off the King and take him hostage in order to negotiate the return of a stolen boat. It was not until this point that the native Hawaiians became openly hostile, interpreting the gesture as an attempt to take over. Sahlins states: “During the passage inland to find the king, Cook is metamorphosed from a being of veneration to an object of hostility. [...]
[...] When he speaks of Cook's death as being “reminiscent of the climactic ritual battle” we must bear in mind his larger argument and note the use of the word “reminiscent.” Similarly, when he states that Cook was “transformed from the beneficiary of the sacrifice to its victim,” one should understand that he is speaking metaphorically. However, it is perhaps not enough to say that Obeyesekere has misinterpreted the evidence on this point, for it is not only a misinterpretation of Sahlins, but this specific critique is attributable to Obeyesekere's more general emphasis on an objective reality. [...]
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