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  • “Maui and Orphic blood”: Cook’s Death in Contemporary Maori Poetry
  • Bridget Orr (bio)

The interpretation of Captain James Cook’s death at Kealakekua Bay in 1779 was subject to contention in the eighteenth century; admiring publicists of the navigator’s imperial benevolence such as Anna Seward differed from those like William Cowper, who denounced his irreligious participation in heathen rites.1 Assessments as to the cultural and religious implications of his end are as diverse today, with anthropologists Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere arguing extendedly over whether Hawaiians really believed Cook to be the god Lono. To Obeyesekere, the idea that Hawaiians greeted Cook as a deity is an absurd imperialist illusion, while for Sahlins, the identification is necessary to understand the ritual implications of his death.2 Nicolas Thomas and Anne Salmond have recently joined the fray, with Thomas emphasizing the extent to which Polynesian societies habitually blurred the line between the divine and human, while Salmond argues that Cook was recognized either as a contemporary representative of Lono-ka-Mahakihi or as the grandson of Lono-ma-I-Kanaka, in either case being saluted not as a deity but as the scion of a chiefly family.3 Whatever their differences, all these contemporary commentators bring an anti-imperial skepticism to their judgments about Cook but none writes from a specifically Poly-nesian perspective. In recent years, however, the Maori poet Robert Sullivan, of Nga Puhi descent resident in Hawai’i, has published two volumes dedicated to assessing Cook’s career and legacy from a markedly Pacific perspective. In writing about Cook as one of the “skin of the ocean” (people of the Pacific) through “Polynesian eyes,” Sullivan’s work reshapes the extant metropolitan debate.4

As Seward’s name-making Elegy on the Death of Captain Cook (1780) and Cowper’s Charity (1780) bear witness, eighteenth-century poetry was a crucial aspect in developing and contesting Cook’s emergence as a cultural hero. An important testimony to the salience of Sullivan’s contemporary poetic [End Page 165] contribution to the continuing historiographic and anthropological argument over his status is signaled by J. G. A. Pocock’s admiring tribute to his contemporary, Allen Curnow, Aotearoa/New Zealand’s leading modernist poet. In the first chapter of a recently published collection of essays, The Discovery of Islands, Pocock remarks that Curnow’s verse articulated the problematic of unsettled and mobile oceanic identities and histories that would shape his own perspective as a historian: “It was through the poetry of Allen Curnow that this conjunction of images and problems became in my mind a way of looking at history and living in it, when both had to be done a long sea voyage from anywhere else. He presented an imagination which could never be fully at home where it was, could never return to where it might have come from, and had traveled too far to fly off and live anywhere else.”5 In saluting the literary insight that enabled his own paradigm-shifting understanding of British history as archipelagic and oceanic, Pocock—who also cites Sullivan’s work in his account of Maori self-representation—reminds us that poetry is not simply an object but a form of knowledge.

Poetry, Postcolonialism, and Cook

Sullivan is relatively unusual in choosing poetry rather than the novel to challenge Anglo-American interpretations of Cook and the colonial histories that followed in his wake. Benedict Anderson’s influential account of the way that print culture helped generate the “imagined community” of postcolonial nations grants the novel a privileged role in this process.6 One of the most interesting aspects of Sullivan’s work is his ability to use a wide range of poetic genres to address and constitute a pan-Pacific community, which cuts across postcontact national boundaries, while also issuing uncomfortable challenges to other groups, such as New Zealand Pakeha (settlers).7 Equally interesting is his use of Cook’s narratives in this project, for like Richard Hakluyt’s collections of voyages, these texts can be read in the terms Richard Helgerson has proposed, as prose epics of the English nation.8 Whereas Hakluyt’s voyages provided a heroicizing legitimation of colonial...


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