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Captain James Cook As God Of The Natives History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

In anthropology one of the famous debates associated with the understanding of religious rituals and historical events about the death of Captain James Cook, the British discoverer of Hawaii. Whether the Hawaiian native took Captain Cook as their returning God Lono, or whether this may have been an understanding of apotheosis under the European myth model, in this essay I will analyse the anthropological debate, and in a similar case of apotheosis in which the discoverer of Mexico, Hernan Cortes was taken for the returning god QuetzalCoatl, according to records.

A debate between Marshall Sahlins (1981, 1985, 1989, 1995) and Gananath Obeyesekere (1992) regarding the apotheosis or meaning of Hawaii’s discoverer Captain James Cook, has become quite famous in Anthropology. Captain Cook the leader of the English exploration ship “Resolution” came to Hawaii on January 17, 1779 and died by the native Hawaiians on February 14, 1779 (Beaglehole 1974; Hough 1995).

On one side of the debate, Sahlins disgusts that Cook’s death fits within the Hawaiians’ Makahiki calendrical rituals, where Cook is known as the returning God Lono and, his life must be ritually claimed by chief Kalaniopuu, who in turn is known as Lono’s rival God, Ku (1981:11). Cook’s case is tried to show Sahlins’s structural understanding of culturally attached historical processes (1981:7).

On the other side of the debate, Obeyesekere questions Sahlins’s analysis is that his historical sources were taken for granted, and their credibility was not completely checked (Obeyesekere 1992:66-67). Furthermore, he disgust that Cook’s death was accidental. (Obeyesekere 1992:20).

One of the most important points where the Sahlins-Obeyesekere debate appears to be important is the question of Captain Cook’s apotheosis or, promotion by the Hawaiians native. Obeyesekere makes a difference between “apotheosis” “(which he defines as a European myth of white man taken as a God by natives)”, and “deification” “(a Hawaiian custom in which a dead chief is conferred a God status)” (1992:91)

Obeyesekere questions the apotheosis of Captain Cook as a fact. In his opinion, the apotheosis is a mystification which he attributes to the European imagination of the 18th century. His hypothesis is based on the myth models “pertaining to the redoubtable explorer cum civiliser who is a God to the natives” (Obeyesekere 1992:3). Obeyesekere claim that it is the Europeans that created the “European God for the natives,” therefore forging a myth of victory, imperialism and civilization (1992:3).

Captain Cook as the God Lono

Much of the debate of Captain Cook’s apotheosis seems to come from the issue of being called Lono, the name of one of the chief God in the Hawaiian temple. The problem comes from Cook’s classification as Lono is central to the alternative interpretation suggest by Obeyesekere, which suppress Sahlins’s hypothesis on Captain Cook’s apotheosis.

Cook’s name “Lono” is related with a variety of cases, the most unlikely being Hawaii’s political crisis at the time of Cook’s arrival and the potential need to give him a status that would guarantee his bond in Hawaiian warfare.

Obeyesekere finds proof in the ship’s journals that Cook was identify as a human (1992:76). The ship’s officers acknowledge that Lono is a name given to other highly placed people. For this reason many had interpreted Lono as a title, when truly is a title.

Sahlins (1989:377-386) few evidences aim to establish that Cook was called Lono because in the natives’ idea he was known as Lono, a representation of God who had returned with the Makahiki.

In the other hand, Obeyesekere’s hypothesis suggests that Cook was first introduced to the Hawaiian Gods, and had to accept with the rituals administered in the Hikiau spirit (for the God Ku, the king’s God). Then, he is given the name of Lono. Cook and two of his highly trained officers King and Baily were blessed with coconut and they were fed pork and kava. This part of the ceremony indicates that the Englishmen were introduced into the Hawaiian Gods’ ceremony. The submission, the chants “O Lono” and the red clothing he was presented, shows that Cook had been given honours to chiefs of the highest status and mana (Obeyesekere 1992:84-89). Therefore, in the Hawaiian society Cook was certainly given a high ranking chief named after Lono.

Sahlins vs. Obeyesekere and the Notion of God

One truly complex and mysterious topic is how Hawaiians communicated with the mythical, for what reasons they had their beliefs, or religion, including a cosmology and a cosmogony. This complication is a fact from the resulting debate of Captain Cook’s dubious ceremony death and apotheosis as the Hawaiian God Lono. However, Sahlins and Obeyesekere controversial debate on Cook’s apotheosis, and whether he was classify as a God before or after his death, is truly dependent on the people.

In How “Natives” Think, Salhins’s introduction (1995:5) and conclusion (1995:192-193) shows a clear purpose to blame Obeyesekere’ work by accusing him of invoking his native experience as a Sri Lankan, therefore claiming a benefit over the “outsider-anthropologist.”

On one side of the Cook’s arguable debate is Gananath Obeyesekere, an Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and his impressive academic background. On the other side, we have Marshall Sahlins a prominent American anthropologist by advantage of both his academic and ethnic background. Therefore, Sahlins’s religious view when interpreting religious arguments in Anthropology is certainly monotheistic. Monotheism, one God detached from humans and nature, is the outlook that has been absorb mentally into Western cultures, standardise and dictate during two thousand years (Campbell 1972:8). Any indication of pantheistic or polytheistic religions and beliefs has been extremely removed from Europe and the Western world. People suspicion of engaging in “idolatry” and “witchcraft” or any form of “paganism”; have been exiled, hung, burnt or prosecuted by official “religious” authority. For this reason, it is doubtful that Sahlins’s view of God would be free from traditional Judeo-Christian-Muslim paternal idea, which is so strongly define in the word “God.”

At the same time, the East has achieved to preserve many of their pantheistic and polytheistic traditions, although the expansionistic aim of Christian ideologies of different religious belief, those converting missions have been reproducing worldwide since the Crusades. Obeyesekere, in being exposed to a multiplicity of pantheistic, polytheistic and even monotheistic religions as a Sri Lankan, has a better chance to try to understand and interpret a pantheo-polytheistic cosmology of a pre-literate society such as the Hawaiian, in a less strict behaviour.

As Weiss (1996:15) has hinted “the religious convictions that one does hold are clearly the consequence of the culture in which one is raised, since it is the culture that provides the religious ideas that will be accepted, certainly by the majority.” In this sense, Obeyesekere, as an anthropologist native of South Asia, culturally adapt with multiple pantheistic, polytheistic and monotheistic idea of the word “God,” has a definite benefit. Therefore, it is reasonable to think that his interpretations (Obeyesekere 1992: 21-22) on Cook’s apotheosis and classification as Lono are a cultured product of multiple delicate communications between his knowledge and experience of his native culture.


Under the above perspective, Gananath Obeyesekere’s theory (1992:3), which claims that the apotheosis of Captain Cook is confusion largely ascribe to the European imagination of the 18th century, seems to be genuine. Additionally, the European mystification may not be a result of 18th century conception as such, because it seems to directly base on earlier models of “explorer cum civilizer” come from the Crusades and reaching its top with Cortes, as evidenced by Sahagun’s history. Accordingly, Obeyesekere’s affirmation that the myth model of victory, and civilization is a European fairy story (1992:3-8), is a reasonable interpretation of the apotheosis of Captain Cook, and is found to govern text. Under this analysis Captain Cook’s apotheosis is not the Hawaiian fundamental myth that Sahlins has suggested (1995).

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