First Contact: The Death of
Captain Cook
A case study in ethnohistory
• Ethnohistory is the
study of historical
situations through the
lens of anthropology
• It provides a way to
understand history
from the perspective
of those who did not
write the historical
accounts.
• Part of ethnohistory
involves
understanding the
culture of the people
who wrote the
accounts. These
were often also of a
very different mindset
than our own.
• Part of ethnohistory
involves inferring from
what we know about
a particular culture
from anthropological
sources or analogies.
• Often, historical
encounters have
been heavily
mythologized
Case study: the death of Captain
Cook
• James Cook was the
most famous 18th
century British Naval
explorer.
• He made three
voyages to Polynesia,
for a total of 10 years’
experience
In 1778, he sailed
past the Hawaiian
Islands and returned
in November , 1779 to
make astronomical
observations at
Kealakekua Bay on
the east of the Big
Island.
• The Hawaiians living
at Kealakekua Bay
greeted Cook and his
crew enthusiastically.
• Cook’s ships were resupplied and the
Hawaiians traded
freely with the British
• Cook was identified
by the priests with the
Hawaiian god Lono.
Ceremonies were
done in his honor and
he and the King of the
island of Hawai`i,
Kalaniopu`u, even
exchanged names.
• As in Tahiti, native women were more than
happy to have sexual relationships with
British sailors, in many cases, this was
accompanied by trade.
• Cook disapproved of this. He was
concerned about spreading venereal
disease as well as the lax effect on
discipline.
• In early 1779, Cook leaves to return to
England, but returns when one of his ships
breaks a mast in a storm.
• The return of the British is viewed with
concern and suspicion on the part of the
Hawaiians.
• Widespread theft of objects from the British
ships take place, including a large row-boat
used to ferry supplies from shore.
• Some Hawaiians, including a chief are flogged.
• Cook takes a party of marines to intimidate
Kalaniopu`u into returning the boat or giving up
the person responsible for stealing it.
• Cook asks Kalaniopu`u to accompany him, the King
agrees.
• Reports come in to Cook’s second in command, that
Hawaiians are “massing” on the shore.
• On the way back, reports come in that another British
shore party has shot and killed one of the ali`i.
• Kalaniopu`u’s wife and two chiefs beg the King not to
continue.
• Kalaniopu`u sits down on the beach “stricken
with terror”.
• A riot breaks out. Cook is struck down, the
marines open fire and the crowd charges.
• Cook dies in the melee along with 5 marines, 13
Hawaiian commoners and 4 chiefs.
• British accounts
emphasize the
“schizophrenia” of the
Hawaiians. How
could they greet
someone as a god
and then kill them
afterwards?
• To make sense of this encounter, we need to
consider the Hawaiian perspective.
• Consider:
• What kind of man was Cook in Polynesian
terms?
• Hawaiian notions of divinity
• Kapu and mana
• Relationships in Hawaiian society
• The relationship between politics and religion in
Polynesian thinking.
What kind of man was Cook?
• Cook had a large
following of warriors and
servants.
• He arrived in large
canoes carrying abundant
wealth
• He was marked by
clothing and the
deference paid to him by
others as the leader.
• Therefore in Polynesian
terms, he must be a
powerful chief
Notions of divinity
• In Polynesian societies, all beings possess
mana. Some possess a great deal. These are
the gods. Others possess little or none. These
are slaves and things that are polluting.
• There is a continuum with gods at the top,
followed by chiefs, priests, ordinary people and
finally slaves. Natural phenomena and human
creations also possess mana and are
sometimes related to humans through kinship.
• As a powerful chief, Cook therefore has great
mana, this places him alongside Kalaniopu`u
and in a close relationship with the god Lono.
Lono was invoked since Cook arrived during the
Makahiki, the time of the year associated with
Lono in the traditional calendar. Since his ships
carried long white sails, similar to the banners
carried in Makahiki processions, people
assumed that he was also a representative of
the god.
• Cook therefore was an
associate of the god and
carried some of the god’s
mana in addition to his
own. He was not literally
“a god” but a man with
some of the attributes of
the god by virtue of his
own mana as well as that
of the god himself.
• The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins
argues that Cook was killed because he
came back right after the Makahiki finished
(early February 1779), and the time of
Lono’s ascendancy was over.
Why did the Hawaiians steal stuff?
• There are a number of possible explanations:
• 1) Hawaiians were exacting fines from the British for
violating kapu. A number of sailors had violated the
bans placed on sacred sites and people, these violations
could be restored only through ceremonies and by
restitution from the violater’s kin-group.
• 2) Hawaiians were “borrowing” materials from their
British kinsmen. Sleeping with someone is one way of
establishing a kinship relation with someone. British
sailors may have become unwitting members of
Hawaiian ohana, and in doing so, their resources
became the resources of their Hawaiian kin.
Why did Cook care about the row-boat?
• Royal Navy ships in the 18th century were
absolute monarchies, ruled by the captain.
• Cook may have felt that the “natives” were
flouting his authority by stealing.
• Theft itself was a capital offence in England
at this time. You could be hung for stealing
bread or a sheep.
• Moreover, the ship was the property of the
King of England, not simply private
property, so Cook was bound by his own
culture to deal with the situation harshly.
In addition, Cook’s actions could be interpreted,
in a Hawaiian context, as an attempt to take
control of the Big Island by taking Kalaniopu`u
prisoner and sacrificing him.
Cook’s men bound the King’s arms behind his
back, which in Hawaiian custom is reserved for
people about to be sacrificed.
His men had also signaled their readiness to kill
local people.
• In Hawaiian terms perhaps, a high-ranking
chief had appeared in the time of Lono,
made associations between himself and
the god, returned with an armed war-party,
captured the King and prepared him for
sacrifice. This was clearly an attempt at a
coup, and was resisted by Kalaniopu`u’s
own followers, fatally as it turned out, for
Cook and 22 others.
• Cook then, was killed not
by irrational natives, but by
a fatal series of misreadings by both
Hawaiians and British.
• In a sense, he died
because he over-stepped
his mana in both
Polynesian and British
terms.
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First Contact: The Death of Captain Cook