Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives


SRB

SRB Archives

This review appeared in Volume 4 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Voice And Counter-Voice

by Michael Harkin

The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific. By Gananath Obeyesekere. Princeton: Princeton University Press,1992, xvii + 251 pp. ISBN 0-691-05680-3.

Obeyesekere's book is unusual in that it is intended entirely as a response to a previous book. More than any anthropological text since Derek Freeman's Margaret Mead and Samoa, it is singlemindedly concerned with debunking the theories of an eminent anthropologist. In this case that theorist is Marshall Sahlins, who has, more than any contemporary anthropologist, employed structuralism in the service of cultural anthropology, especially historical anthropology.

Obeyesekere's debunking has a great deal in common with Edward Said's. Like Said, Obeyesekere is from the "third world," and is deeply concerned with what he perceives as generalized European strategies of exotifying the other. The particular bit of pernicious mythmaking Obeyesekere tackles is the model of the White Man as God to the dark-skinned savages. Marshall Sahlins has, according to Obeyesekere, done little more than tart up a very old idea in thoroughly modern (although decidedly not postmodern) Left Bank raiment.

Sahlins' main subject in his work on Hawaii has been the period just after European contact. The central drama of this period was the murder of Captain Cook by Hawaiians in Kealakekua Bay in February 1779. His monograph Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities examined the question of Cook's murder and the English-Hawaiian relations during Cook's final voyage. Sahlin's theories are well known: the Hawaiians (mis)took Cook for their god Lono, the deity of agriculture and peace. Cook's misfortune was to arrive during the performance of the Makihiki, a winter ceremonial depicting the contest between Lono and the war god Ku. In proper Fraserian manner, the agricultural god is killed in the Makihiki with the promise of future resurrection. The Hawaiians, acting according to their own "mythopraxis" saw no contradiction between killing Cook and maintaining friendly relations with the English. Sahlins even reports that one Hawaiian, after the death of Cook, inquired as to when "Lono" would return!

In this "structure of the conjuncture," the Hawaiians unknowingly entered the world of colonialism. In attempting to carry out "stereotypic reproduction," in Godelier's phrase, they instead radically altered their condition. It is, to Sahlins, profoundly ironic that in holding closely to a typical Polynesian historicity, in which all meaningful action must follow a mythic prototype, the Hawaiians in fact allowed unpecedented novelty into the system. This novelty was to be pragmatically ramified throughout the system. An example is the sign kapu (tabu). Originally referring strictly to ritual prohibition, it came to be applied to interdictions on chiefly property: specificality trade with Europeans. Within a generation, it completely lost its sacred dimension, as the system of ritual tabu was overthrown by Kamehameha II. (Now it means simply "private property" as the many "kapu" signs on Oahu attest). Working back to the initial instance of "novel reference," the transformation of the entire sign system rests on a case of mistaken identity.

Obeyesekere attacks Sahlins' arguments from every possible angle. Methodologically, he accuses Sahlins of making uncritical and haphazard use of the sources, not distinguishing eyewitness accounts from self-serving memoirs. But his real arguments with Sahlins are theoretical and political.

It is interesting that both Sahlins and Obeyesekere claim "pragmatic theoretical positions. This bespeaks more the popularity of pragmatic paradigms than anything distinctive about either man's theories. Sahlins is a Saussurian, with some structural Marxism tossed in for good measure. Obeyesekere is an eclectic Freudian, who at times sounds like Marvin Harris in his insistence on the material determinants of this historical encounter. In fact, Obeyesekere is so intent on debunking that he grabs at any and all straws, as well as some fairly sizable planks.

Obeyesekere assembles such a mass of counter arguments and contrary facts that it is difficult not to follow him at least part of the way. Sahlins' explanation rests on such a tenuous assemblage of suspect data, overinterpretation, and improbable coincidence, that it is hard to see it as anything but a creaky monster kept alive only by the masterly wit of its creator. I have wondered, since attending Sahlins' seminar on Captain Cook at the University of Chicago, how a real historical event could have had such a fairy tale quality, and, if it did, of what relevance it might be to the messier reality of other events of contact. however, the entertaining manner in which the material was presented, and the stimulating discourse that ensued managed to drive these thoughts from my mind.

Obeyesekere is not so easily charmed. He questions virtually every one of Sahlins' premises, including whether there was in fact a Makihiki in progress during Cook's visit. There is certainly room for doubt on this score; Sahlins' assurance that there was is based on data from a later period when the Makihiki had become more formalized. All of the encounters Sahlins cites as proofs of a reverent or ritual attitude toward Cook Obeyesekere explains as Cook's participation in ritual as a celebrant not a god, or as the general ritual attitude displayed by commoners toward chiefs. The interest in Cook was political not religious. As elsewhere in Polynesia, it was hoped that he would take part in local wars. In this case the wars were over unification of Hawaii, which was indeed achieved a generation later.

Everything cited by Sahlins as significant receives an alternative gloss. For Obeyesekere the underlying explanatory principle is individual psychology. Although lacking the data to make a complete psychological assessment of his subject, Obeyesekere does point to facts that shed light on Cook's personality. He mentions the cruelty and sadism that characterized Cook's voyages, far worse than the notorious Bounty under Captain Bligh. Similarly, his treatment of native people was wanton, characterized by wildly disproportionate "punishment" for infractions such as petty theft. Indeed, it seems quite plausible that it was fear and resentment of Cook's violent acts that were directly responsible for his death. The Hawaiians were, according to Obeyesekere, afraid for the life of their chief when Cook charged toward him, intending indeed to kidnap him. These details are generally obscured within the hagiographic tradition surrounding Cook, which began, according to Obeyesekere, witha shipboard coverup of many of the facts of Cook's death. Thereafter Cook became an icon of Enlightenment humanism who died, Christlike, bringing salvation to the savage.

It was not however only the Europeans who deified Cook. The Hawaiians did so as well, as it was customary to defy dead chiefs. Cook, who was christened "Lono" by the Hawaiians, in death became associated with that deity. Again, this was nothing unusual, as Obeyesekere provides evidence of it happening in other cases. The key point is that this was post-mortem deificafion, not an apotheosis of a living man.

Obeyesekere has a broader political agenda here. He hopes by debunking Sahlins that he will eradicate the myth of the White Man viewed as god, and a certain type of symbolic analysis to which this has led, such as Todorov's treatment of Cortes. This strategy is doomed, however, because there is simply too much contrary evidence. It is extremely difficult for the non-specialist to assess evidence in some of these cases, but it seems at least probable that some of the Aztecs, especially Montezuma, did perceive Cortes as a god or at least a divine messenger. If they did not, then the question of conquest of a land where the conquistadors were outnumbered by perhaps a hundred thousand to one becomes rather more difficult to understand.

Roughly contemporaneous with Cook's misadventures, the Northwest Coast was contacted by European mariners. Strong evidence exists that the Europeans were perceived at first as spiritual beings ("gods" not being an appropriate category in Northwest Coast religious thought). The Tlingit at Latuya Bay thought the first European ship was a manifestation of Raven. The Heiltsuk viewed the first European ship as a supernatural being of indeterminate nature. In boththese cases, the initial state of awe is replaced by a pragmatic understanding of the situation, especially its opportunities for profitable trade. However, there is nothing surprising about people not knowing what to make of physically different, technologically superior human beings. The only comparable case in our culture must be drawn from the pages of science fiction: if aliens landed on earth, our initial perspective would be one of awe mixed, in many cases, witha religious attitude.

It is especially surprising to me that Obeyesekere seems unaware of the Melanesian data. Cargo cults aside, we know from direct first-hand testimony that New Guinea highlanders believed Whites to be spirits of ancestors, or, simply, spirits. Several ethnographic films, including First Contact and Cannibal Tours, contain footage of eyewitnesses describing their first perceptions of Australians as non-corporeal spirits.

Obeyesekere has, like Sahlins, overreached in his attempt to make general points about human nature. Especially disturbing is Obeyesekere's "pragmatism," which has people everywhere acting according to some recognizable "common sense," as modified by individual psychology and only slightly by culture. Indeed, we have little more here than a great man theory of history: by fully understanding the relatively transparent motives of key historical figures, such as Cook and Kalani'opu'u, the Hawaiian chief, we can "make sense" of the facts. Sahlin's view of culture is much richer and more useful. There is no such thing as an "immaculate perception"; all reality is mediated by culture. This mediation is semiotic in nature; we can analyze it by looking at sign relations. The value of these principles has been demonstrated repeatedly in anthropology and the human sciences.

Sahlins' own legacy of work, especially that published in the 70s and 80s, remains a testament to the value of semiotic principles. His treatment of Captain Cook, a siren that has led other scholars astray, is a testament to the folly of enthusiasm, and the desire to "prove" a theoretical argument. Similarly, Obeyesekere's Cook book is little more than an exercise in debunking, however effective. It lacks the subtlety and inherent interest of his earlier books, which explore the dynamic relation between culture and psychology. While Obeyesekere has "won" this contest, neither theoretical tradition has been well served by the encounter.

References

Obeyesekere, Gananath. 1990. The Work ot Culture: Symbolic Transformation in Psychoanalysis and Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1974. Culture and Practical Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

---. 1981. Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities: Structure in the Early History of the Sandwich Islands Kingdom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

---. 1985. Islands of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Todorov, Tzvetan, 1987. The Conquest of America: the Question of the Other. Richard Howard, trans. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

Michael Harkin is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Wyoming. He has published articles on Northwest Coast culture and ethnohistory.


Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives