Did Hawaiians Think Cook was Lono? The Sahlins-Obeyesekere Debate

#74 in the Moʻolelo series

In 1985, the University of Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, an expert on the Pacific, was published in a book called Islands of History. His chapter, “Cook: the Dying God,” sparked what was an unexpected debate that brought Hawaiian history, and more importantly, Hawaiian perspective, into world view.

The debate between Sahlins and Princeton anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere between 1985 and 1995 brought world attention to the question of whether or not Hawaiians thought Captain Cook was the god Lono. Sahlins made the claim that was uncontroversial at the time, that Hawaiians mistook Cook for the God Lono. Obeyesekere, from a postcolonial position questioned whether this was not a kind of god complex brought about by colonialism. In his book The Apotheosis of Captain Cook, a rebuttal of Sahlins, he doubts that “the natives created their European god; the Europeans created him for them.”[1]

Sahlins, incensed, spent the next few years writing his defense, which carried the sarcastic title How Natives Think: About Captain Cook, For Example. He claims in it that Obeyesekere, as a native of Sri Lanka, is not privy to the perspective of Native Hawaiians, to “how natives (in general) think.” Neutral observers in the Pacific anthropology world gave the nod finally to Sahlins, as his grasp of Hawaiian oral history and archaeology was superior, but conceded that Obeyesekere had raised a good point – to what extent does colonial attitudes shape the view of “neutral” observers of culture, i.e., anthropologists?

Whatʻs missing, of course, from this debate over Hawaiian perspective, is a Hawaiian perspective. According to Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau, Hawaiians’ idea of Cook as Lono was short-lived. That is, they thought he was Lono at first, but not later because he failed a test:

Here is the test of a god: if we tempt them and they do not open their gourd container which holds their ancestral gods (‘aumakua) then they are themselves gods, but if they open the sacred gourds (ipu kapu) [that is, if they yield to the temptation of women], then they are not gods – they are foreigners (haole).”[2]

Kamakau, 1992

Messengers from Kaua’i related to the people of O‘ahu that Cook was a haole from the land of other Western sailors previously known (Ka’eka’e was a foreigner before Cook, probably Spanish). They said that haole would “possess the land.”[3] Incidentally, Obeyesekere dismissed Kamakau as being unduly influenced by missionaries and thus unable to view his own culture correctly.

I lecture on the postcolonial approach in my course at UH Mānoa “Indigenous Nonviolent Action in the Asia-Pacific.” The specific lecture is called “Genealogy of the Postcolonial” and addresses the Sahlins-Obeyesekere debate:

[1]Gananath Obeyesekere, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992, 3.

[2]Kamakau 94 – 95.

[3]Kamakau 96.

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