Rick Perlstein explains why the death of Captain Cook in the Pacific islands in 1779 has triggered an academic storm. It is a quintessential historian's whodunnit. It is also, says Berkeley's Stephen Greenblatt, "a struggle for the soul of anthropology". On January 17, 1779, Captain James Cook and crew, after a frustrating nine months spent combing the North American coast for the fabled North-west Passage, returned for provisions to the island they had discovered the year before - Hawaii. A month later, Cook went missing - until the Hawaiians turned his bones over to the crew. How and why Cook died remains a mystery.
In a series of publications in the 1980s, University of Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins argued that Cook was killed in an epic cosmological accident. But Princeton anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere thinks Sahlins got it all wrong, and said so in his 1992 book, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific (Princeton). Now, Sahlins has set out to put Obeyesekere straight in How "Natives" Think: About Captain Cook, for Example (Chicago).
If it were only a matter of figuring out who has the facts right, things would be dramatic enough. But it is the heat of the theoretical issues involved, notes one anthropologist who knows both men well, that makes this "much more than a pissing match". Sahlins and Obeyesekere are presenting radically opposed briefs about how we can, from compromised sources, conjure up cultural worlds different from our own. And in our age of vertigo about who speaks for whom and how, Greenblatt notes: "the stakes of this argument are very high".
Here is Sahlin's story: on their original approach to Hawaii, Cook's two ships coincidentally traced the same path that the local fertility god Lono supposedly followed during Makahiki, his annual rite of regeneration. Cook, the Hawaiians believed, was Lono - returning right on schedule. But when Cook returned to the island the next year, he did so 13 days after Makahiki, during the reign of Lono's rival god, Ku. This was a big mistake. When Lono waded ashore unseasonally, he knocked the cosmic order frightfully out of whack - so, in a fit of improvised ritual, the avatars of the god Ku had him, well, whacked.
Poppycock, says Obeyesekere. When he heard Sahlins present this version of events in a Princeton lecture, Obeyesekere took umbrage at what he saw as an embarrassing reproduction of a colonialist libel: that over-awed, myth-addled "natives" invariably take Europeans for gods. "I tended to identify with the Hawaiians as a kind of outsider group," Obeyesekere, a Sri Lankan, explains. "I was almost humiliated, you see, by that kind of thing." So humiliated, in fact, that the lifelong South Asianist did something extraordinary: he took on an entirely new ethnographic specialty, in order to take on a dean of the discipline on his home turf.
Obeyesekere went back to the primary sources and found a Captain Cook who was killed not because he was in the right place at the wrong time, but because he had descended into wanton brutality towards the Hawaiians. To make this argument, Obeyesekere painstakingly reconstructed an alternate interpretation of the events leading to the explorer's death: Cook was installed as a chief, not a god, and only because the pragmatic Hawaiians wished to enlist him as an ally in their war against their neighbours in Maui. Nothing cosmic about this. In Obeyesekere's telling, it wasn't the Hawaiians who made Cook into a god; it was whites like Sahlins.
"There's something less than meets the ire," Sahlins writes in his response, which was conceived as a pamphlet but soon grew into a 300-page manuscript, complete with 17 appendices. With the wit of one of Cook's 18th-century contemporaries, he counters what he takes to be both an attack on his integrity and a piece of historiographic hackwork. Sahlins thinks that Obeyesekere has done the Hawaiians a dishonour. Obeyesekere, he says, denigrates their myths and restricts them to a decidedly Eurocentric norm of practical rationality. And besides, in his claim to speak for the natives as a third world intellectual, Obeyesekere is dragging in historical baggage about the onward march of colonialism that erases the particularity of the encounter between Cook and the Hawaiians.
That is where things get a little sticky between the two - and why the rest of us should pay attention. For when you get beyond the acrimony and the voluminous detail this Donnybrook is generating, the two authors are painting in miniature two compelling but structurally opposed visions of how the humanities might throw off their colonial legacy. Does the West do justice to the Rest by emphasising, as Sahlins does, the mutual misunderstandings between radically different cultural worlds? Or should we, as Obeyesekere does, focus on the fraught power relations between coloniser and colonised? In trying to understand the elusive Other, should we cast aside our standards of rational behaviour? Or should we assume that some of those standards apply to all human beings?
Greenblatt, who has had both men speak to his Berkeley graduate seminar on Exploration, Discovery, and the World Outside of Europe, finds the Cook books a rare opportunity to help think through such seemingly irreconcilable differences. "There has been nothing (on the subject) at this sustained level of critique," he says. "I spend a lot of time reading these ferocious exchanges between Protestants and Catholics in the 1600s. In a way, this isn't all that different. Fortunately, we're living in an age in which people are not burning each other at the stake."
Reprinted by permission from Lingua Franca, The Review of Academic Life, published in New York. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org