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The Death of James Cook

Myth, reason and clairvoyance between two worlds

By Ricardo P Nunes

    As with all fatalities, no one knew exactly what their decisive cause would have been, if it wasn't due to the confluence of all of them (which is equivalent to saying “none”), or to mere misfortune. Furthermore, in the remote part of the South Pacific where, at the end of 1778, the violent death of the English naval officer James Cook took place, something even more intriguing than the chance circumstances would have precipitated it: the ill-fated contact, not only between two cultures, but between two worlds.
  The record of extensive and controversial inquiries, minutes and recreations reflects the tense and speculative discussions that the fateful event raised. Despite the bewilderment, the narrative spoke for itself, and the commonsense conclusion was obvious. In short, Captain James Cook docked with his crew on one of the then unexplored Polynesian islands in mid-December of that year. They would spend the New Year there because the ship needed repairs. To secure the necessary lumber and caulking, Cook had promised what he could not in exchange for native labor. His perjury started the indigenous revolt in the midst of which he was pierced by the fatal spear or axe.

John Webber - The Death of Captain James Cook (c. 1782)

The Death of Cap James Cook -  John Webber, c. 1782

    The historical perspective that then gave rise to nautical power and the lucrative lust of British sailors is well studied until today. While what lay behind the astonishment with which the islanders first beheld the monumental European ship is as little known as one of Marshall Sahlins' books, in which the anthropologist gave his version of events in the flickering light of his now wasted discipline.

    In the chronicles that he was able to collect, Sahlins sought new data and insisted on looking into  a series of unsuspected aspects. Not that his analysis lacked theoretical assumptions, such as that cosmological signs provide a kind of model for individual action. The bottom line was that, for some reason he didn't dwell on (possibly linked to economic factors, like scarcity, I think), tempers were running high in the archipelago when Cook landed. His arrival catalyzed tension among the Polynesians, whose  religious rituals had been prognosticating the nearness of redemption through the return    of their chief deity, a god Lono.

     In the local astrological tradition, the appearance of the god, akua, Lono took place in annual cycles that were renewed at the summer solstices, that is, at the end of December in the southern hemisphere. Cook's sea convoy anchored there a first time to return a second and final occasion. Thus, his first arrival coincided with the date on which the Polynesians, even if in a symbolic way until then, expected the magical vehicle of the promised god. A series of small coincidences, authentic or forged by eagerness, confused Cook's arrival with an epiphany. Furthermore, the insignia that decorated the English sails resembled the native graphics that reproduced the misshapen image of Lono, and the itinerary of the ships as they approached the island completed a journey similar to that described in the omens of Hawaiian sorcerers.

   The logbook confirms the testimony of the survivors. On the first “visit”, Cook was celebrated to the point of worship by the natives as one of their gods, who had returned to fulfill incarnate the rituals that were practiced annually in the religious festivities of the Makahiki. Upon disembarking, Cook, led by a Hawaiian priest, flatteredly donned the idolized cap. The rituals completed, the flotilla's holds supplied, the last rite was celebrated: the ritualistic death of the host god and the farewell ceremony prescribed in the liturgy, with his promise to return for the following year as soon as the pleiades appeared in the sky announcing again the station votive to the god Lono. At dawn the English departed, grateful and sated.

    An incident on board or a storm, however, damaged the captain's ship, who, in order to show his bravery and leadership, declined to change ships and returned without escorts to the island where he was worshipped. This unforeseen event, however, reversed the view of the natives. Resurrected three days later, Cook could not be the akua Lono, but an imposter. The cycle of regeneration and its oath of prosperity had been desecrated by the deception. The now hostile reception was followed by a series of thefts and depredations against the now weakened frigate. Until the theft of a longboat precipitated the fatality. With cannons trained on the populace, Cook attempted to take the Polynesian king hostage in order to regain his property. There was a beginning of revolt and a slaughter was imminent. In the turmoil, a heavy Hawaiian spear pierced his chest or jugular.

    It is difficult to conceive of what followed without resources other than intuition. It seems as if everything up until then had been nothing more than a grandiose act, because Cook's blood and death rattles suddenly calmed down. Perhaps he was not dealing with an imposter, but with a lesser god who had pretended to have gone to the beyond and who had finally deigned to fulfill his role in the ceremonials of death and resurrection. Redeemed, his ghostly body was revered by the natives as if he had regained his sacredness. Resigned and hungry in the face of the bad auspices and the lack of a better alternative with which to honor the funeral fate of their chief, about fifteen days later his crew left the island carrying the embalmed remains of James Cook.  

    Marshall Sahlins was certainly aware of Malinowski's thesis according to which myths “were a kind of justification for the present, a way of legitimizing it”; or that of Lévi-Strauss, for whom myths would be “a way of philosophizing, a vehicle for cosmological discourse”. Sahlins set out to go beyond assumptions. Cook's tragic case, thus retold, served him to illustrate his theory that individuals make use of plots already established in mythology. Like a script, myths had an ideological structure and served as archetypes for analogous situations. Hence, Sahlins conceived the unfortunate episode as the unfolding of a series of prescriptions whose practice would result in the cultural rearrangement that Hawaiian society would then undergo.

     What Sahlins may not have realized is that his version serves to raise the hypothesis that the English also acted according to their cosmological conjuncture. Although more difficult to define or demonstrate, since we incorporated it as a Western civilization, there was also a cosmological structure that conditioned the perception of reality by Europeans. I hazard a few symptoms: the attainment of status after his exploits by sea; profiled on deck, feeling motivated by chanting God Save the King with emotion; earning a good place in Heaven for taking their faith to the Gentiles; guarantee the legacy of their blood and their inheritance to their future offspring. Anyway. Apart from these reasons, all this would be as absurd, or unintelligible, to natives as the advent of akua was to outsiders.

     What these lines refer to is what mythical signs would then be structuring our conduct today. If Sahlins is right, if we can identify them, it is because they are not myths in the sense he proposed, or they would have ceased to be so. Its immanent character adheres to reality. Engulfed in this way, we hardly notice the fragility of the relationships between cause and effect.

   Facing the landing of a luminous flying saucer, we could ask ourselves what it had come to do here. It is certain that by ourselves we would never have reached the intention of the crew. Perhaps they would sign us up for one of their tales,  so to speak, if the story on other worlds was still needed. And we would also inscribe them in our annals. Creating obviously as different versions of the same fact as different cosmologies could be.

  After all, as in the immaterialism of George Berkeley, in which an object only exists if there is someone who perceives it, or in Kant, where we only grasp appearances from things, deep down facts are nothing without someone to interpret them, and nor will this someone be able to do it without a cosmology that supports him. 

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