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  • The Death of Captain Cook: A Hero Made and Unmade
  • Michael E. Harkin
The Death of Captain Cook: A Hero Made and Unmade. By Glyn Williams. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009. 197 pp. $19.95 (cloth).

Captain Cook is always with us. His meaning is dependent upon one’s socially, culturally, and historically situated perspective, a phenomenon that only adds to his importance. He exists as a sort of Rorschach test of one’s attitude toward, inter alia, religion, colonization, the nature of historical events, the relative determinacy of cultural versus [End Page 150] material explanations, and, in some sense, the nature of the modern world itself. My own quest for Captain Cook began in a seminar taught by the great anthropologist Marshall Sahlins at the University of Chicago, and continued with a visit to Kealakekua Bay, where the majesty of the natural setting and its historical resonance seemed somehow removed from its current status as a surfing beach: a reminder that a beach is always historically both interface, in the sense that Greg Dening has developed, and palimpsest.

Captain Cook’s reputation has experienced both high and ebb tides. In the immediate period after his death in February 1779, he was an instant martyr, arguably fitting into a structure of the longue durée of Western culture, evident in the very speed by which the christological and hagiographic associations were made. (Something similar happened after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.) Cook was in this era seen as a new type of hero, a hero of the Englightenment, who died for the sake of science and humanity, not military adventure. As Williams points out, this was perhaps predictable in a period when England had lost the American Revolution and had not yet undertaken the wars against the French that would produce martyrs of the old school, such as Horatio Nelson. In any case, various accounts of Cook’s third voyage with an emphasis on his death were produced for the European reading public. New methods of printing, put to such good effect during the American Revolution, were employed to produce very cheap copies of these books. It is probably safe to say that the whole of the literate population of Western Europe had access to a written account. And, for the illiterate, there were copies of the magnificent paintings by John Webber and others. (An interesting sidelight is the author’s observation that these were evidently so widespread that they are mentioned in several of Dickens’s novels, more than a half century later.)

A key question that would vex the European reading public was the attitude of the Hawaiians toward Cook. Williams suggests that evidence of his seeming deification was suppressed by officials of the Royal Navy. Nevertheless, it is a likely fact that at least some Hawaiians, notably the priests, took Cook to be the fertility and agricultural god Lono, or rather a manifestation of him. A mere decade after Cook’s death, this became highly problematic. England was in the throes of a religious revival that would lead to the development of Methodism and other Protestant sects. In the United States, the “Second Great Awakening” was underway. Cook became caught up in this earlier version of the “culture wars”: a paragon of the Enlightenment could also be seen as a godless idolater. This issue would arise again in the last decades of the twentieth century, in an academic duel of the sort seldom seen [End Page 151] anymore, between anthropologists Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere. Williams devotes less than four pages to this controversy, and dismisses it finally as a superfluous interpretation in violation of the historian’s version of Occam’s razor: “The events that followed: the uneasiness that grew among the swelling crowd of Hawaiians when they saw their king being manhandled as he slumped to the ground, the screams of his wife, the news of the killing of a chief across the bay, the failure of Cook’s small-shot to make any impact, need no Lonostyle explanations. The sequence of events at Kealakekua Bay on 14 February 1779 that resulted in a score of deaths could have happened on almost...