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  • The Death of Captain Cook: A Hero Made and Unmade
  • Gananath Obeyesekere (bio)
The Death of Captain Cook: A Hero Made and Unmade. Glyn Williams. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2008. 208 pp. ISBN 978-0-674-03184-4, $19.95.

Glyn Williams's interesting but flawed study of Captain Cook is the latest in the ceaseless production of books on the redoubtable explorer. Williams focuses on a single key episode: the death of the hero and the many ways in which this incident has been represented in the scholarly literature. Well written and jargon free, this work should appeal to a wide range of educated readers, including students. As someone who has been a scholarly participant in the unmaking of the hero, and the butt of vituperation by Cook ideologues, I find Williams's book an appealing account of the multiple ways in which Cook has been mythologized by the European imagination as "a new and saintly hero to a reading public looking for reassurance after the disastrous American war," a hero who "was more famous dead than alive" (2, 3).1

Williams however cannot escape from the heroizing model himself, in spite of his clear recognition that during the last voyage "Cook's patience ran out" as he engaged in acts of gratuitous violence on Polynesian islanders, "flogging, cutting off ears, burning of huts and canoes." He also indulged in indiscriminate flogging of his own sailors (8–9). Williams notes that when Cook reached Hawai'i in January 1778, he was "a weary, disappointed, and possibly quite sick man," while a "general depression" seemed to have overtaken the whole expedition (10).

Let me deal with a few of the problematic issues emerging from this book. Williams is a good historian and at his best when he discusses the fate of the official version of Cook's third voyage, edited by Canon Douglas and James King, the new commander. There were enormous editorial laxities in this edition, including the deletion and sometimes addition of crucial details in order to produce a version of Cook as "heroic and just, stern but compassionate" (46). For example: the journal by Molesworth Phillips probably contained information on Cook's last days in Hawai'i, but none of it was used. Before this journal was lost, it was given to a friend who in turn gave it to another with the note: "You will find Phillips's account of the death of Capt Cooke interesting … it shows that he (not the Islanders) was the assailant." Williams also agrees with Kerry Howe that all in all it was Cook who contributed to his own death (39). [End Page 512]

Another important issue for Williams and for me concerns the fate of Cook's journal that might have contained the Captain's own rendering of the events in Hawai'i prior to his death. Cook systematically kept journal records of his other voyages, but there is a "total lack on the third voyage of any known record by him covering his stay on Hawai'i in January and February 1779—arguably the most critical weeks of his naval career" (49–50). Several "loose papers" of Cook have also gone missing. Anne Salmond thinks the journal was destroyed by Cook's successor Captain Clerke before he died of tuberculosis, because it "included compromising material" (54). Williams disagrees with my contention, as with Salmond, that the journals were "shredded" because of the Captain's increasingly violent behavior (and his being overwhelmed by his "Kurtz persona," wherein the European civilizer takes over some of the features that are conventionally attributed to the savage). More likely, Williams suggests, British readers would have been appalled by Cook's willingness to be treated as a god by Hawaiians. This is certainly a plausible hypothesis, which if true could indeed mean that Cook might have been overwhelmed by his Kurtz persona. But Williams, true to form, does not endorse this position either but advances another possibility. Perhaps, he suggests, Cook never made any journal entries, although he had both time and leisure to do so. Rather, the journal stopped at the crucial event when Cook was taken to the Hawaiian shrine and made...


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