of the paper: The aim of this paper is to reconsider the problem
of comparing, studying, researching and explaining different cultures or their aspects
under the conception of rationality. In this paper I examine the controversial works
of two cultural anthropologists: Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyeskere.
In the National Maritime
museum of London, on display there is a neoclassical work of Johann Zoffany
titled as “The Death of Captain James Cook”, which depicts the loss of British
explorer, navigator, cartographer and captain of the Royal Navy. He was killed
in 1779 by the natives on his second visit to the Hawaiian Islands.
Later the Hawaiian
tribesmen removed his body from the beach, disembowelled it, baked it and then
distributed the bones across a variety of their villages. Historians never disputed these actions and
also these actions weren’t motivated by the emotion of spite. In fact,
according to various anthropological studies of the Hawaiian natives suggest
that these actions were the traditional mortuary rites performed on the island
for those of high status.
burial rituals of Hawaiian natives, were interpreted by Cook’s crew as
something entirely contrary of what the anthropological study suggests. Rather
than seeing the actions as a form of respect and honour for a revered leader
they regarded them as a ghastly attempt to desecrate the remains of a fallen
army. More bloodshed ensued as in the
face of growing tension, Cook’s furious crew attempted to negotiate with the
islanders for the return of their captain’s body in order to perform a proper
Christian and naval burial. The volatility of situation is evident in the
accounts written at time, which contains various reports describing how a
number of crew wanted to attack the islander’s villages taking the body back by
force and accounts of the islander’s provocative actions performed on the
shore, directed towards the crew.
However, a massive scale
and bloody battle was avoided as after a few days and number of minor
struggles, the Hawaiian islanders returned of what remained of Cook’s body. A
proper Christian burial was performed and then the crew departed the islands to
return to England and report their captain’s death.
Cook’s physical remains
were now lost to the sea, yet this not be the last battle involved with cook’s
Past 200 years, in 1990s,
a much less bloody battled was waged between two anthropologists, centring on
Captain Cook and the surrounding circumstances during his death. These battles
were not fought on a tropical beach but across a number of scholarly articles,
books and conferences. Though battles were not as dramatic as the original one,
but were still full of passion.
Marshal Sahlins is an
expert anthropologist and professor of anthropology at the University of
Chicago. In one of his most famous illustrations of how historical anthropology
could be applied was an article in which he researched the reason behind cook’s
death. His solution to the mystery of Cook’s death was that Cook’s original
arrival to the island, due to timing and number of accidental coincidences,
fitted perfectly into the Hawaiian annual mythical cycle and resulted in him
being identified by the islanders as an avatar of a mythical god ‘Lono’. His
departure from the islands coincidentally also fitted within the mythical cycle
and thus it was passed without incident, what did not fit the cycle was his
return shortly after. Lono’s departure from the islands was supposed to signify
the beginning of another god’s reign, which was ‘structurally’ required and so
Cook’s (Lono) return resulted in something known as ‘cosmological crisis’,
which the islanders eventually ‘resolved’ via ritual murder.
Gananath Obeyeskere is
Emeritus Professor of anthropology at Princeton University and has done a lot
of work in his native country Sri Lanka. He contended that Sahlin’s study of
Cook’s death was an uncritical acceptance of a European myth, namely, that Cook
was revered as a God by the natives. He
argued that the real reason behind Cook’s death was simply that he exploited
the Hawaiian natives, had tried to kidnap one of their chiefs and thus seen as
threat and duly dispatched.
Sahlins’ reasoning of the
Advent of Cook
Sahlins argues that cultural
schemes are based in our language, and a language as a tool of categorization defies
how we can perceive the world.