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The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific Reprint Edition

8 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0691057521
ISBN-10: 0691057524
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Editorial Reviews Review

According to many standard histories of the Pacific, when Captain James Cook landed on the island of Hawaii on January 17, 1779, he was received by the natives as an avatar of the god Lono and feted accordingly. In The Apotheosis of Captain Cook Sri Lankan scholar Gananath Obeyesekere questions this "fact" of history, arguing that it was the Europeans, and not the natives, who found a need to establish their colonization of new worlds on the notion of deities come home. Cook himself, Obeyesekere adds sympathetically, was a man caught between social classes, treated as an equal by Polynesian kings but shunned by members of the English nobility because of his lower-class background; he was a good man, but a god only in the imaginations of his compatriots. Obeyesekere devotes much of The Apotheosis of Captain Cook to arguing spiritedly with anthropologist Marshall Sahlins over matters of Hawaiian history.


Winner of the 1992 Louis Gottschalk Prize, American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies

Winner of the 1993 Award for Best Professional/Scholarly Book in History, Association of American Publishers

"In The Apotheosis of Captain Cook, a fascinating and important book, Gananath Obeyesekere ... examines the murder and the events leading up to it in a fresh way. He enlarges the debate about how we think not only about our own diminishing collection of heroes, but also about the outsiders of European history, in this case the eighteenth-century Hawaiians."--Robert I. Levy, The New York Times Book Review

"Without question the most provocative reassessment of the famed explorer's demise.... Obeyesekere has made a persuasive case for his counternarrative of Captain Cook, strongly supporting it with a fine-grained analysis of an impressive array of cultural material, some of it long submerged."--Amy Burce, The Sciences

"There are so many ways of patronizing the past, [Obeyesekere] as good as says, and one of them is to accept your own culture's version of it. For this reason alone, his book would be stimulating. But there is more, much of it centering around the personality of James Cook himself. That familiar, Queegish figure of a ship's master obsessed with theft, increasingly unhinged by whatever private ghosts ... is surely worth examining."--James Hamilton-Paterson, The New Republic

"A fascinating and important book . . . Obeyesekere examines [Cook's] murder and the events leading up to it in a fresh way."--Robert L. Levy, The New York Times Book Review

"The whole book is admirable, impeccable, even at times brilliant."--Simon Schama, The Washington Times

"A remarkably rich and persuasive argument."--Nicholas Thomas, Current Anthropology

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 313 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (November 24, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691057524
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691057521
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.8 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #922,373 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on May 22, 2003
Format: Paperback
I bought this book because of a general interest in Hawaiian history and Captain Cook. I'm not a professional historian and don't have any comment on such matters as quality of footnotes. However, I thought this was an excellent, very readable book. Mr. Obeyesekere takes historical fragments - diaries, letters, and so forth, and re-constucts the last few days of Cook's life. It's done so cleverly, in such a readable style, that it reminds one of the end of a mystery novel, where Sherlock Holmes explains his reasoning to Dr. Watson. However, there's the similar suspicion that it's being too clever, and that the author is taking evidence to fit the conclusion, rather than the other way around.
Also of interest was the repeated theme of cultural imperialism, explaining how modern historians project their own cultural predjudices (in this case, the simple savage, and a view of religion that is decidedly rational and rooted in monotheism) onto foreign cultures, and the misunderstandings that naturally arise. There's a number of similar cases I can think of, where the common knowledge is so influenced - best example is the view that Cortez conquered Mexico as an unimpeded God, when a simple reading of Bernal Diaz shows that's not the case.
I do have to complain, though, that a overly large portion of the book is given to the academic refutation of fellow scholar Mr. Sahlins. The author is challenging common thought, and I appreciate being able to read the debate with a prestigious scholar who represents the status quo. However, I thought it should have been made more distinct from the rest of the book - much interesting information is revealed in the argument, but it's comparatively dry reading.
Still, overall, this book makes for a very interesting read, and encourages one to re-examine their historical and cultural assumptions. I definitely think it's worth reading.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By James Ferguson VINE VOICE on December 22, 2002
Format: Paperback
You have to give Obeyesekere credit for looking beyond the Makahiki festival, which dominates Marshall Sahlins' study of the apotheosis of James Cook. Obeyesekere sparked a minor maelstrom when he challenged the renown scholar's thesis that Cook was personified as a god by the Hawaiians. Obeyesekere looks beyond bicameral minds, and insists that the Hawaiians were fully conscious of their actions.
Cook was not the great god Lono, nor did he pretend to be. While his second arrival at the Sandwich Islands did coincide with the Makahiki festival, the Hawaiians did not deify him, but rather invited the Captain and his crew to take part in the ritual. Unfortunately for the Captain things seem to devolve afterward, and the Hawaiians killed him and several members of his crew.
Many have tried to piece together the tattered remnants of this story. Several of his crew kept journals and attempts were made after the fact to collect oral history from Hawaiians who were part of the cannibalistic ritual. Unfortunately, few of these accounts jive. Marshall Sahlins has done the most to try to piece together the events, but he seems to discount the Hawaiians ability for cognitive thinking, which tarnishes his work.
Obeyesekere attempted to draw Sahlins out, which he did with this book. Sahlins responded with the more scholarly but overbearing "How Natives Think," which he hoped would settle the issue once and for all. Unfortunately, Obeyeskere is not an anthropologist and his arguments tend to be a bit thin, but he does shoot plenty of holes into Sahlins' thesis.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Seth J. Frantzman HALL OF FAME on March 6, 2007
Format: Paperback
This book starts with a simple question and assertion. Most scholars claim Captain Cook was taken for a God when he arrived in Hawaii(much as Cortez in Mexico) but this book claims that this narrative is 'racist' and 'eurocentric' and a classic 'imperialistic myth'. The idea here is that the narrative assumed Cook was a god(not that he was mistakenly taken for one) because the racist Europeans of the 18th century beleived Europeans really were gods to the 'natives'.

But this argument falls apart when one realizing what it is based on. The book wants to be the new 'Orientalism' and the author claims that as a 'Sri Lankan' he is best placed to judge what Hawaaians a dozen generations ago thought of a European. How rediculous. THe difference between Sri Lanka in the 20th century and Hawaii in the 18th is as different as Captain Cook's culture in England in the 18th and the culture of the Hawaiians. The racist assertion that a Sri Lankan can better judge a Hawaiian than a European is unfounded, perhaps the best person to judge a Hawaiin is a Hawaiian but it doesnt logic that a Sri Lankan would be better than a British person.

Thus the idea presented her is simply wrong headed. It would have been better had this book re-examined how Polynesians and Hawaiians in particular viewed Cook, rather than claim that every piece of the Cook story is 'racist'. What was Cook supposed to do? Not sketch the people he encountered, not write about them, he was in fact being very forward thinking in bothering to learn about the cultures he visited.

Seth J. Frantzman
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By K. M. Lawson on November 7, 2004
Format: Paperback
In addition to asking some very important theoretical questions relevant to the practice of history and anthropology, Obeyesekere takes aim at Marshall Sahlins in this book. Sahlins went on to write a blow by blow response in the book "How 'Natives' Think: About Captain Cook, For Example" which should probably be read along with Obeyesekere's.

While I have only read selections of both, my feeling is that Sahlins has probably defended his honor, revealed big flaws in his opponent's arguments, but done little to blunt the critique Obeyesekere launches against the structuralist approach to the apotheosis of captain Cook. Even if some of his specific claims are called into question, Obeyesekere's best contributions are 1) showing the importance of "myth models" not only for natives, but for modern Western cultures and 2) showing that cultural specificity does not rob the "natives" of their capacity to engage in a kind of "pragmatic rationality" and we must hold open the possibility that considerable irrationality can creep into the "civilized" characters such as Cook.

Sahlin and other reviewers of this book argue that Obeyesekere simply reverses things, making the natives "bourgeois rationalists" and the Westerners irrational savages. I find this totally unpersuasive. His conception of pragmatic reasoning is flawed, but doesn't ignore the importance of culture in configuring the parameters of possible action.
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