Re-Weaving the Argument: A Response to Parker

By Obeyersekere, Gananath | Oceania, March 1995 | Go to article overview

Re-Weaving the Argument: A Response to Parker


Obeyersekere, Gananath, Oceania


I had thought that the argument of The Apotheosis was rather well-knit, but owing to Parker's somewhat careless piece of 'knit' picking, I felt that the best response would be to reweave my argument in a more straightforward manner than that developed in my book. I will also retell in more straightforward methodological terms the thrust of my work. Once that is done, I can better frame most of Parker's criticism in an orderly argument.(1)

In The Apotheosis I try to step outside the particular structuralist paradigm that Marshall Sahlins deals with for reasons that will be readily apparent. The core argument of the book is in section VI (pp. 120-53) where I show that the apotheosis of the great explorer was a European construction and that it was developed initially in London and not in Hawaii. The first signs of this appear in the eulogies on Cook at his death; in letters and poetry; and in the theatre performance Omai with its crucial scene in which Englishmen dressed as Hawaiians lament the death of their god Lono on the English stage. I show that the last is an English cultural construction that could not have come from the major journal writers because they did not make this connection. The connection was made in the official version of the voyages published 1784 and edited by Captain James King and a total outsider, Canon John Douglas, five years after Cook's death. The information about the apotheosis could not have come from some Hawaiian source either because the first ships to reach Hawaii arrived in 1786 and therefore they could not have brought news of Cook's apotheosis to England in 1784. The painting of Cook ascending to heaven escorted by Britannia and Fame is very European and indeed (I might add) influenced other European works, such as Rodin's painting on the 'apotheosis of Louis IV'. The European myth totally idealised Cook portraying him as an exponent of Enlightenment values and this, I suggest, is an expression of that which is supposed to elude mythologization, namely rationality itself, the main plank of the Enlightenment credo. There were also Christian forms of the myth that went contrary to the Enlightenment one, most importantly the poet Cowper's depiction of Cook as Herod. Because he permitted himself to be apotheosized, says Cowper, God struck him dead. This version of the myth was well known in the US in the early 19th century and it went into the evangelical traditions represented in the Christian missions to Hawaii. I argue that the myth of the white explorer cum civiliser who is a god to savages is nothing new and one of its more powerful manifestations was the supposed apotheosis of Cortes (and by some accounts Columbus). That particular myth-form therefore has had a long run in European culture and consciousness and it manifests itself in shipboard gossip and narrative. Thus, when the first European visitors landed in Tahiti in 1767 during Wallis' circumnavigation, some of the crew thought that the natives would think they (the English) were demigods. Because these sentiments were uttered before landing on Tahitian soil and before first contact with Polynesians it is reasonable to assume that they represented what I call 'shipboard gossip' of the white god.

I am sure that this rich tapestry could be filled in greater detail by other scholars. For the moment let me continue the logic of my argument which Parker finds hard to take. I suggest that this myth of Cook as the god Lono became part of conventional history such as that of the well known Hawaiian historian Kuykendall who inherited it from previous evangelical historians. In the beginning of my book I show how a recent scholar, Gavin Kennedy, generally critical of Cook's character, accepted this myth in its entirety (pp. 50-52). I quote in some detail Kennedy's statements on the landing of Cook and his being welcomed by Hawaiians as their returning god Lono. I then show that Sahlins' account is a continuation and enrichment of the myth and that the Cook 'myth-model' affects his narrative retelling of Cook's last days. …

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