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Anthropological and historical perspectives on the death of Captain Cook

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  1. Introduction.
  2. Sahlins critical view of Obeyesekere's argument.
  3. Obeyesekere's analysis of events.
  4. The Hawaiian creation myth that underlies the Makahiki festival.
  5. Conclusion.

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. [...]


[...] Sahlins is able to construct a context for the historical events surrounding Cook's death through the study of present- day Hawaiian rituals and culture. In fact, it is only from within this context that the events surrounding Cook's death are made clear. To state that the fact that Cook was deified is merely an assumption is to ignore the evidence. Why Edwards ignores the evidence is not clear, but I suspect that he is unwilling to take seriously what is essentially an anthropological account of the events. [...]

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