What ‘Natives’ Think: About Captain Cook, For Example 
by Marshall Sahlins.
Chicago, 316 pp., £19.95, July 1995, 0 226 73368 8
Show More
Show More

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.

And here is something to strike fear into the heart of every student of evidence. We know an enormous amount about the voyage and quite a lot about the captain’s death, and yet precious little. The records are written by various hands, although Cook’s most famous officers, Midshipman Vancouver and Captain Bligh, were fairly reticent, as if awaiting their own glory or catastrophe. The stories hang together well, the odd man out being Corporal John Ledyard, a marine, of Groton, Connecticut. (Another Boy’s Own boy: Thomas Jefferson encouraged him to walk from Siberia to Nootka Sound, off Vancouver Island, and on to Virginia. He was arrested at Irkutsk and returned to the Polish border; later he was hired to help explore the Niger; he died en route, in Cairo.) Ledyard was the chief journalist aboard the ships – yes, each ship ran a weekly newspaper, of which no sheet survives. All authorities but Obeyesekere distrust Ledyard – more on that anon.

Here is what we do know about Cook’s voyage. The ships had a complement of 112 men, plus supernumeraries, who were replaced or traded from time to time. Only 46 were seamen and servants. There were a great many landmen: draughtsmen, surgeons, cooks, carpenters, sail-makers, smiths (but the chief armourer had to be sent home from the Cape as he had spent the pleasant days on the trip south minting false coin). It was standard for many of the seamen to be (literally) jacks-of-all-trades. This was a little English society, in many ways a microcosm of the English village. There were even the village flora and fauna, augmented by imports: a horse and a mare for breeding, and ‘as many Sheep Goats Hogs Rabbits Turkeys Geese Ducks, a peacock and Hen, as they could conveniently make room for’ on a 462-tonner, 111 feet long. The animals were brought with the somewhat zany but philanthropic thought that if these breeds naturalised on Pacific islands they would much improve the lot of the inhabitants; food plants were carried, with the even zanier thought that Tahiti could profit from a spot of English gardening. There’s a feeling of knowing everything and nothing about the sociology of this society. The hermeneutic rule would be: if you want to know what it was like among these men, use as partial model long voyages now or in wartime. Think of the lives of men on one of those endless tours of duty in a nuclear submarine, but add in a thicker layer of drink, indiscipline, desertion and cruelty.

On the Hawaiian side things are murkier: no written records, only memories, tales and songs, usually recorded by missionaries or island converts. And it is here, in this evidential vacuum, that Obeyesekere and Sahlins diverge. On such critical issues as how and why Cook died and whether he was esteemed a god at first meeting, Obeyesekere thinks that the missionaries and their converts were wedded to the European god-myth story which was then internalised into Hawaiian legend. In his view, the most one can read these records for are subtexts. Sahlins, in contrast, mines these stories for clues of practices from earlier times. For example, Obeyesekere claims that Cook’s bones were given a deification ritual appropriate for a dead chief. Sahlins argues that we can tell clearly from Hawaiian stories that there were two altogether distinct sets of things to be done to bones, one for deification, one for dealing with a dead god-king. Since all the British records and Hawaiian stories indicate, with unusual unanimity, that Cook’s bones got the latter treatment, Sahlins does not use the Hawaiian texts to argue that they must be right, because they pretty much agree with the British accounts. Instead, he uses the Hawaiian texts to infer new ethnographic information with which to interpret historical records that hitherto did not make much sense.

But I had better say a little more about what happened on the voyage. It is a story so familiar to oceanists that they will tune out; for the rest of us, however, it begins (although itself in medias res) on 6 July 1776, just two days after the American Declaration of Independence. The secret instructions from the Admiralty to Captain James Cook, Commander of His Majesty’s Sloop the Resolution, open: ‘Whereas the Earl of Sandwich has signified to us His Majesty’s Pleasure that an attempt should be made to find out a Northern passage by sea from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean ...’Cook, aged 48, finally in possession of a sinecure, was sent out in command of the Resolution and Discovery to find the North-West Passage across the Arctic. He encountered the Hawaiian Islands on the way. The only remarkable thing is that it appears that no European had successfully sailed north from the South Seas. Remember that all this happened two centuries ago: for two full centuries and more before that, there had been a regular shipping service between Lima and Manila, and the South Seas were bustling with privateers. When Cook arrived, Hawaiians wanted iron. They had quite a few tools using iron, obtained, it is thought, not by trade with more southerly islands, but taken from the driftwood of sunken ships.

In brief, Cook sighted Hawaii, circumnavigated it, was welcomed as nowhere else by islanders, went north, encountered a 12-foot wall of ice in midsummer at almost the northern extremity of Alaska, came back, circled the island three times, was met again with joy and left. Cook’s ship, the Resolution, had been fitted out privately for his second voyage, and was magnificent. It had been refitted in the Naval Yards for the third. The Deptford Yards were a famous scandal of corruption and patronage. It was leaking before it left English waters. The rigging of its companion ship, the Discovery, was privately fitted, and was almost as good four years later as when she set out; Resolution’s failed over and over again. (True to form, a naval official stated that Cook, the greatest navigator of the age, knew nothing about rigging.) Hence masts failed, one after the final departure from Hawaii. The ships returned, to be treated to thievery and hostility. In the end, the Resolution’s cutter – her largest boat, and irreplaceable – was stolen. Cook reacted in what everyone agrees was an uncool way and he and several marines were killed in an ensuing mêlée.

The goings-on, during Cook’s visits, can only strike one as, well, strange. Problem: why if the ships were welcomed with so much good faith and no thievery beyond help-yourself on both the first and second trips around the island, did they return after saying their last farewells to hostility and disaster? Many other curiosities. Why, for instance, did the island women seem so eager for sex with Europeans? Even Obeyesekere does not take this brute fact for European machismo. At first Cook tried to prevent sexual encounters so as not to transmit disease, but he eventually gave up – or gave in – and one has the feeling that the ship was swarming with women. That presented difficulties of various sorts, as sailors in their bunks would, it seems, pull nails out even of the hull to give as presents to their lady friends at the same time that the island lads in canoes were pulling nails out for themselves. Or, to turn the question on its head: why, when Cook was increasingly violent in dealing with annoyances, treating offending Hawaiians with cruelty and shooting at others, were relations so wonderful, till the end?

Obeyesekere’s basic answer to the sea-shift in Hawaiian attitudes is simple and plausible: Cook was falling to pieces throughout the third voyage. He was erratic, irritable, unpredictable, given to bursts of anger, violence and cruelty. Formerly the perfect navigator, he reckoned wrongly, omitted to survey what he ought to have, and unaccountably circled Hawaii three times on his return. He mismanaged his crew. Captain Bligh learned his lessons all too well and flogging was the rule for those onboard who made mistakes and for Polynesians who made trouble. Long before reaching Hawaii, offending Polynesians were receiving three or four times more lashes than the maximum of 12 a day prescribed for seamen.

Cook became obsessive about his conviction that fresh food prevented scurvy. On the second voyage his complement of 118 men lost only one due to sickness in three years (several more would have died of disease had they stayed at home). That was a triumph, not an easy one. On the third voyage he managed to force sauerkraut down them – however, a beer made from sitka spruce needles was not only revolting (and fairly poisonous, I should think) but also incited revolt. Off Hawaii he made a concoction of sugar cane which was to replace grog. He even tried to starve the seamen into submission. The ship had become a culture of violence. Correspondingly, the slightest annoyance from islanders was treated with increasing violence and quite untypical misjudgment, hasty reaction, brutal punishment. Guess what? The Hawaiians, having greeted the visitors with good will, having got all the iron they could hope for, said good riddance. When an angry Cook returned, furious at everyone for bad rigging and a broken mast, the islanders went on a stealing spree which culminated in the theft of the ship’s cutter. About the time Cook went ashore, a Hawaiian had just been killed at the other end of the bay. He was hardly the first, although Cook was not responsible for the very first Hawaiian fired at with ball (rather than shot) and killed by his men. Not too surprisingly, when Cook and the marines met mild force with lead shot – panicking when surrounded by thousands of angry people – a scuffle broke out. Cook and four of his marines were killed. Obeyesckere skilfully weaves a lot of circumstantial historical detail into what I’ve just sketched, but I hope I’ve conveyed the tone of his analysis.

Was it like that? The judicious Beaglehole never suggests a reign of terror, but he does make plain that Cook repeatedly changed the routine, made many errors of judgment, had outbursts of rage and apparent lapses of memory during the third voyage. The captain has previously been diagnosed by scholars with this or that flavour-of-the-day physical/mental disorder. Today he’d be a dead-ringer for early-onset Alzheimer’s except that he doesn’t seem to have the pedigree. But despite attempted desertions – rational acts in paradise – and occasional near mutinies, Cook does seem to have kept the affections of most of his men. That is, except the American corporal, Ledyard. Obeyesekere trusts that adventurer more than anyone else in this business. I, too, would pay some attention to a libertarian anti-English amateur journalist of those days, but everything has to be settled on internal evidence, and Beaglehole comes out against Ledyard.

I should guard against the thought that the English are violent and the Hawaiians lovely and loveable (by our standards), peaceable, singing, dancing, happy, adoring of lovely women, politically correct, ecological and sexually liberated – the sort of stuff I’m told the Hawaiian tourist industry promotes. By our present lights, they were not such sweetie-pies two hundred years ago. The traditional Hawaiian year is divided into two parts, a point essential to Sahlins’s analysis. During one month there is a period of renewal, war is forbidden, and affairs are largely in the charge of priests who honour the mythical return of a god and ex-king Lono. Then, they make love, not war. For the other 11 months, however, war is almost a norm; there was certainly a war in progress before Cook arrived, though in abeyance because of the month off. This period, too, was characterised by violence. Human sacrifice was an integral part of the renewal ritual. The return to power of the 11-month king seemed to involve him eating two eyes, one of a bonito tuna and one of a sacrificed human. Missionary reports are consistent and unequivocal that a great many infants, mostly girls, were killed seconds after birth (and only then), so that the disproportion of live males to live females was said to be so large that the figures don’t bear repeating by an amateur. A reason advanced is that since the chief end in life is to be a warrior of no great life expectation, one needs a lot more boys than girls.

Hawaiians, then, had what we, if not they, might think of as a culture of violence. Perhaps I’m supposed to condemn the British culture and not the Hawaiian one, on a. the excellent Millian grounds that the Hawaiians left other people alone and did not seek them out, while the British did; and b. the dubious ‘I’m of the British culture and can condemn my own but not others.’ Nevertheless I’m for moral parallelism here. We’re dealing with two great sea-faring peoples, each possessed of a formidable nautical technology, and each given to a lot of violence. Both, for better or worse, appeal to romantic variants of the Boy’s Own temperament.

Formally, Obeyesekere and Sahlins confront each other only when it comes to god. There is nothing seriously incompatible between Obeyesekere’s vision of an English culture of violence, and Sahlins’s ethnography. Ironically, we can read Obeyesekere as the ethnographer of a fragment of an English village: the young males, out to sea for years, a society about which Sahlins is discreetly silent. Or almost. He has 17 appendices rebutting particular bits of Obeyesekere’s version. One is entitled ‘On the Wrath of Captain Cook’. This is, as throughout Sahlins’s polemic, first-class on particular details of Obeyesekere’s account of why Cook was especially angry at Hawaiians, and at the world, during his return to the island. ‘Obeyesekere’s speculations on Cook’s wrath give rise to an elaborate set of makeshift interpretations whose truth values range from the historically unknown to the ethnographically unwarranted, passing by way of the textually unproven.’ That’s a fair sample of Sahlins’s icy anger. It opts out of Obeyesekere’s more global claim – truly marred by some bad Hawaiian ethnography that I’ve omitted – that Cook was falling apart and the Hawaiians had good reason to lose their tempers.

I’ve managed to put off god long enough, partly because, as I said at the start, it is small potatoes until we start reading the deity issue through our own present-day myths of culture and oppression. Cook arrived at the time of the winter festival, when legend had it that the god Lono returned from a distant land over the horizon. Usually he did it every year, in symbolic form, but this time it was, amazingly, for real. During the festival the centre of celebration toured around the island; Cook circumnavigated in just the right direction at just the right time. So Cook is greeted not only as a superior being, but literally as a god. But we’re not to understand this to be like God, utterly absent from anything earthly, or like Christ, made incarnate by divine order. Nature and supernature mingle happily in Hawaiian culture. And we’re not to imagine everyone thought Europeans superior or those at the top divine. Sahlins invokes the philosopher Hilary Putnam’s doctrine of the division of linguistic labour: just as we use experts to tell gold from non-gold, priests tell god from non-god. The priestly hierarchy is very different from the kingly hierarchy – a fact too little studied by Obeyesekere – and it is the influential one during the winter festival. Cook and his men are welcomed as gods. Why then a later killing? Because when Resolution returned with a sprung mast, the winter festival had ended. It was now the time of the 11-month king, who in the normal course of events was ritually restored by a sacrifice of a representative of the loser king, once Lono, who then went out beyond the horizon for 11 months. People are confused when Cook comes back, but rationalise the possibly accidental effects of a scuffle by performing the appropriate rituals, including peeling off the flesh, bunting the surfaces of the bones and distributing them – each rank in the hierarchy has its allotted bone. There’s an immense amount of detail here, and whether or not it is fitted rightly, Sahlins does a masterly job of producing a coherent narrative, from within a conjectured Hawaiian structural space of ideas and practices.

To which Obeyesekere protests that the whole god business is a European myth. The question is whether it fits Hawaiian myth. Obeyesekere argues that the Hawaiians were sensible people. Some entertained the possibility that Cook might be a god, but after examination this was rejected. They did greet him as a chief. The early rituals in Cook’s encounters had to do with that status. After his death, those who owned the bones found it expedient, for political reasons, to deify this powerful intruder. A simple point: god after death, but not before. Obeyesekere argues at length for his hypothesis, which clearly rides in tandem with the culture-of-violence analysis of Cook’s command.

I said I had an initial prejudice in favour of Obeyesekere. I first extrapolated it, perhaps, from some maxims of David Hume, to the effect that if you want to know why men did such and such in Rome, look for models among the Edinburgh politicians of the day; conversely, if you want to predict how your city council will react, consider how some others, Romans say, did so in comparable circumstances. That is universalism. Noam Chomsky is the most famous universalist of our time. Obeyesekere is a universalist, even if what he holds universal may be very different from Chomsky. Freud looms large from time to time in his book, for Freud wrote of human nature, the nature of all humans. In a more recent essay on cannibalism (for Obeyesekere, another quasi-European myth) among the Maori, Jung and his archetypes make a striking appearance. Sahlins pointedly presents universalists as being sucked into a naive empiricism – everybody sees the world in the same way. So, lie implies of Obeyesckere, the Hawaiians perceived a man, Cook, a sense datum. And they acted out of, as Obeyesekere himself says, ‘pragmatic rationality’, a kind of rationality that established itself in Europe at the time of the great empiricists. Thus Obeyesekere is saddled with wicked empiricism and bourgeois ideology. Sahlins repeatedly argues that it is Obeyesekere who is the imperialist, who denies the Hawaiians their own historical voice. Good polemics, but it does not probe the depth of universalism (which underlies those shallow tags of rationalism and empiricism that are still used in the schools to describe philosophies that have the same foundation). Obeyesekere’s real difficulty is in fitting his universalism into a careful survey of the ethnographic data. There’s the matter I mentioned of whether what happened to Cook’s bones was deification or the treatment accorded, at the end of the winter festival, to the sacrificed and then exiled Lono. Sahlins convinces us that it is the latter. When the record says that after the killing a Hawaiian asked whether Lono would come again, Obeyesekere tries to finesse the question, while Sahlins observes how perfectly it fits his own analysis. There’s an important ritual performed around Cook soon after his arrival. Obeyesekere says this is the treatment for a new chief, and that Cook was furious at being made to prostrate himself. Cook clearly had no idea what was going on, but there is no indication in any of the English texts that he was upset – and the ritual, Sahlins argues effectively, was a god-welcoming and not a chief-making one. On a return voyage, Captain Vancouver wonders why he is no longer treated as a god. He is told it is because he and his men have lunched with Hawaiian women. No god could ever do that, nor indeed any Hawaiian man: men and women don’t eat together, ever.

On and on. To repeat, an outsider cannot assess the argument well except in terms of coherence and consilience, but when it comes to ethnographic data, Sahlins usually takes the day. The contest is a little closer, I thought, in explaining why sex with sailors was so in demand by the Hawaiian women. Sahlins sees it as part of the role of women in the winter ceremonies with Lono. Obeyesekere speculates that installing Cook as chief, combined with later myths, helped legitimate the relations, but he is not strong on why there should be so much more immediate inter-racial sex here than in other parts of the South Seas, or on the north-west coast of America (where quite a good time was had by all, but not the same good time).

Some evidence can be checked from outside, which is not always good news for Obeyesekere. For example, he quotes King (the lieutenant who carried on Cook’s journal after the killing) as saying that the god ‘resided in us’, and concludes: ‘It is therefore entirely possible that the installation rituals helped effect this “residence” both in Cook and in the other gentlemen present, thereby converting them into Hawaiian chiefs.’ That is already strange in a Hawaiian context, where there may be no concept of gods ‘residing in’ people, notwithstanding possession ideas elsewhere on the globe. Now, Obeyesekere is not quoting from King’s own journal, but from one of several editions published in 1784, this one edited by a canon of St Paul’s. The words are not in King’s journal as published by Beaglehole. Much worse: the words don’t appear in the 1784 edition cited. It does not say ‘reside in’; it says ‘reside amongst’, and around that, ‘dwelled with’. Mighty prepositions! Whoever wrote the text, it has to mean that the god was already amongst and with the English, in their land, not residing in anybody.

There’s another feature of Obeyesekere’s book which is unnerving. I mention it only because there’s a lot of sloppy thinking out there in the culture wars. Obeyesekere begins his universalist stance by wondering whether any people, on being encountered by Europeans, ever took the white men for gods. Or is this a European myth, perhaps later swallowed by the natives as part of a reconstructed self-history? Excellent question. Obeyesekere reflects that he, a Sri Lankan and scholar of South-East Asian peoples, never heard any such story about his own people’s meeting with the white men. To be sceptical is one thing, but to argue from the Sri Lankan experience is altogether disingenuous. Sri Lanka is historically one of the most cosmopolitan places on earth, a centre of civilisation when Britain was a distinctly unsceptred isle. Today, you will hardly want to sail around India without putting in at the island (and people have been sailing around India ever since sailing began). Its inhabitants were converted to Buddhism 2500 years ago; when the British finally took over, the monarchy had a genealogy as old as the one claimed for Persia. The island was known to ancient Greece. Sri Lanka was well known in Western Asia (from my off-centre point of view, the Near East) for as long as we can tell. We know that European visitors came to Sri Lanka by the ninth century at the latest. Even if those, improbably, were the first pale faces, Sri Lankans must have already been pretty jaded by skin variants. They are hardly the ones to be surprised – let alone adulate – when a new face appears across the horizon. What a different story is Hawaii. I do find it very hard to believe the islanders did not know a lot more about Europeans than the general run of stories makes out. But it would have been second-hand, from islands to the south. Cook and his men may have been the first non-Polynesians ever to land on Hawaii.

To conclude in my role as philosopher, there’s a small point where I’m more universalist than Obeyesekere himself. He doubts the reports in the journals of conversations between officers and chiefs, for how could the English have understood Hawaiian? Sahlins argues convincingly that they quickly recognised morphemes similar to those of other Polynesian regions, such as Tahiti. They were good on phonemes and noticed how some consonants systematically change across parts of the island system, a fact confirmed by later linguists. Their instructions, in self-composed pidgin, were evidently quickly followed or resisted. Claims or hopes expressed by Hawaiians were mutually communicated, so far as one can tell by mutual reactions. The English had real trouble with the finer details of religion and ritual, and made plain when they did not understand what was told them. But so long as there are some shared interests, two mutually alien peoples, anywhere, can get to understand each other remarkably quickly on a vast range of matters that are, for both of them, practical and pragmatic. Shared interests? Cook wanted vegetables, fuel and water: the chiefs wanted iron. On first encounter, a Hawaiian thought he could help himself; it took one sharp lesson to convey the British concept of property. Then it was trade or theft (on both sides) all the way. And a lot of doing what came naturally. A final unserious word for universalism happens to fit Sahlin’s account better than Obeyesekere’s. After having had dinned into us all these years that sex is culture, let us not demand too high a cultural quotient in asking about sex between those two underprivileged groups, sailors and women. Maybe the sailor-boys treated the Hawaiian girls better, at least at lunch. Does anybody remember GIs?

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences