HONOLULU, HI. What makes history such a fascinating subject is its ability to be understood and interpreted differently, based on the upbringings and intentions of those who experience it. Challenges then arise when we are not informed and taught how to critically analyze historical facts. One example of this is the debate surrounding Captain Cook’s journeys to Hawaii and their impact on the type of historical information transmitted worldwide.
The interesting element about the story of Cook’s arrival, and ultimately his death, lies in the exploration of the tension between “authentic” history, as understood by Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) and one “mass communicated” by Western explorers. Much of the investigation of Hawaiian customs, traditions, people and places from around the late 1700s is told through the lenses of the artists, writers and observers part of Cook’s crew. This arguably influenced, and even potentially altered, the validity of the historical information that we consumed so far.
Captain James Cook’s two ships made the first recorded European contact with the Hawaii islands in January 1778. The story tells that a timing coincidence between Cook’s arrival and the celebration of the New Year led Hawaiians to believe Cook was a form of Lono (or deity). It is believed that Cook engaged in religious rituals, sports and dance with the Native Hawaiians. In a return visit, set outside the Lono period, Cook was greeted very differently by the locals. A dispute over a few “stolen” boats (as expressed in one version of the story) or Cook’s attempt to take the King hostage (as told in another version) aggravated the tension and a violent confrontation ultimately resulted in Cook’s death.
However, did Hawaiians really consider Cook a deity? Or is the story merely an ethnocentric invention of the West? Moreover, which version of the drawings most closely resembles to what truly happened with Cook? Was John Webber (the official artist on board) actually on shore, or were his sketches created based on the accounts of the Marines who witnessed the events? Different images have been found that depict Cook’s behaviour upon his return to Hawaii from very peaceful to very violent.
Although Webber’s sketches are important pieces of information about early life in Hawaii, it is important to remember they were created through the lenses of an artist who possessed European background and education. His understanding of the people and events was shaped by his upbringings and inherent biases. Furthermore, many of the images that were reproduced and reprinted are second or third generation of the initial drawings. It is believed that many were altered or “reworked” and therefore ended up being quite different than the original versions.
Throughout history, explorers from Columbus to Cortes were found to father lies about their experiences through false and vague descriptions, with many accounts unchallenged until this day. Trying to find various opinions, from local historians and natives will usually bring us to quite different conclusions. How did it really happen? And why were we told differently?
© HawaiiAlive.org | Shalins, How ‘Natives Think’ | U of Chicago: Cook’s Tour Revisited | Bishop Museum, Honolulu | RinkerAcademy.com
© Cover Photo by Ruediger Gros | Flickr @marc-gros
This post is part of a series titled “Beyond Paradise,” inspired by my most recent trip to Hawaii. The series will explore the islands’ rich culture and past.