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How to kill a god: the myth of Captain Cook shows how the heroes of empire will fall | British empire

In a kind of neoclassical portray one would possibly name The Apotheosis of X, the useless hero is bundled up to heaven by a host of angels, often in a windswept tumult of robes, wings and clouds. A crowd of grieving mortals watches from beneath as their hero turns into divine. It’s a celestial scramble: in Rubens’ luxurious Apotheosis of James I, heaven is chaos and James appears terrified at having arrived.

In Barralet’s Apotheosis of Washington, the dead president has his arms outstretched in a crucified pose, whereas Father Time and the angel of immortality bear him up to heaven. In a mid-1860s Apotheosis, a freshly assassinated Lincoln joins Washington in the sky, and clings to him in a tight hug. In Fragonard’s Apotheosis of Franklin, the new god reaches again to Earth with one hand whereas a stern angel, greedy his different hand, drags him upward.

In 1785, in a Covent Backyard theatre, a spectacle premiered depicting Capt James Cook’s voyages in the South Pacific. Throughout the ultimate scene of Omai, or A Journey Round the World, at the phrases “Cook, ever honour’d, immortal shall stay!” an infinite oil portray descended from the ceiling – Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg’s Apotheosis of Captain Cook, commissioned for the event. Cook is carried up to heaven by the angels Britannia and Fame, however his gaze is directed again at the vertiginous earth, the place ships and canoes are going through off in Hawaii’s Kealakekua Bay. His expression is queasy and his eyes appear to plead: “Don’t drop me!”

Cook had been a revered determine amongst British seamen. “Wherever he goes he crops English gardens,” famous a Sri Lankan anthropologist, not with out some disgust. Cook’s ship was an ark, heavy with sheep, cattle and potted crops, prepared to cultivate any savage land he spied. Every time he took possession of a new South Pacific island for the crown, Cook would sow seeds and set unfastened pairs of animals “virtually in a loving trend”. Amongst his crew, Cook was allegedly adored as a father, who cared deeply for his sailors’ well being, and infrequently misplaced a man. In England, he was famend as the navigator who decided the boundaries of the liveable world, and was praised for his humane conduct in darkish, faraway waters.

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However on his third voyage, on the quest to discover the Northwest Passage, Cook had begun to drown in some unseen, inside deluge. He sank into a black temper, misplaced contact with actuality and inflicted punishments on his crew at the slightest whim. He paced the deck and flew into rages that the sailors known as heivas, after a Tahitian stomping dance. He unfold terror throughout the islands, torching whole villages and carving crosses into natives’ flesh in revenge for petty crimes. Even earlier than he turned a god, Cook had staked out the true area of divinity: violence, of the arbitrary sort. After weeks at sea, as provides of meals and water started to run low, his ship, the Decision, sighted a paradisal shore. Quite than touchdown, Cook insisted, for no motive in any respect, that they hold crusing, interminably, round the coast. As the unhinged captain circled the island, the 12 months turned from 1778 to 1779. Eyes watched from the seashore.

On 17 January, the Decision forged anchor ultimately in a black-sand bay and a crowd of 10,000 gathered to await it. 5 hundred canoes, laden with sugar cane, breadfruit and pigs, glided up to the ship. Histories narrate that for the individuals of Hawaii, the arrival of Cook was at least an epiphany. “The boys hurried to the ship to see the god with their very own eyes,” wrote the Nineteenth-century Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau. “There they noticed a truthful man with vivid eyes, a high-bridged nostril, gentle hair and good-looking options. Handsome gods they had been!” An aged, emaciated priest went on board the Decision and led the deities ashore. 1000’s fell to their knees as Cook handed by. The priest led the captain to a thatched temple, wrapped Cook in a crimson fabric and sacrificed a small pig to him, as the individuals recited strains from the Hawaii epic Kumulipo, a creation myth.

In accordance to the late anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, amongst others, Cook’s arrival marked a unprecedented coincidence. A ritual often called the Makahiki was happening on Hawaii at the time, wherein the god Lono is alleged to reappear from the distant land of his exile, and to seize energy over the Earth from the king, for a interval of time. Because it circled the island in a clockwise route, the Decision had inadvertently traced the path of the effigy of Lono because it was borne in a procession round the coast. The idol is made of a pole and crosspiece with white fabric hanging from it, resembling a sail. And Cook, as if following the script of a myth he couldn’t have identified, had landed in the bay stated to be the god’s residence. His sailors reported that the captain was hailed variously as Lono, Orono, Rono, Eroner – “a Character that’s appeared upon by them as partaking one thing of divinity,” the ship’s surgeon associated, echoing a biblical phrase describing Christ. One other phrase used to greet Cook was akua, a Hawaii time period that was translated as “God”.

An engraving of a Hawaiian dancing for Captain Cook in 1788, after John Webber, 1844
An engraving of a Hawaiian dancing for Captain Cook in 1788, after John Webber, 1844. {Photograph}: Album/Alamy

The Hawaiians long-established a particular idol in Cook’s honour, recorded the sailor Heinrich Zimmermann, however utilizing “white feathers as an alternative of crimson”. The mariner John Ledyard wrote that the natives “noticed that the coloration of our skins partook of … the white from the moon and stars”, and concluded that the strangers should have some reference to the heavenly our bodies. The white males remained on the island for 3 weeks. They dismantled half of the temple at Hikiau for firewood, and turned the relaxation into an observatory housing their astronomical gear, which they might take out, every now and then, to stare up at the sky. Every day the clergymen ceremoniously introduced the British with a barbecued hog. The individuals would collect all the fruits of their land – candy potatoes, coconuts, bananas and taro – for these gods from a heaven the place meals had run out.

Can one turn into trapped, unaware, inside one other’s myth? Throughout the Makahiki pageant, after the Lono effigy has sailed round the island, a ritual is carried out often called kali’i, that means “to strike the king”, wherein Lono and the king combat a theatrical sham battle. In accordance to Sahlins, Cook continued, unwittingly, to carry out the Makahiki script. On 3 February, the Decision departed Hawaii to proceed its explorations in the north, but was struck by a extreme storm and compelled to flip again. When the British anchored once more in Kealakekua Bay, eight days after that they had departed, a fog of suspicion and hostility settled over the island as the individuals tried to discern the strangers’ motive for returning. The stress quickly erupted into violence; two Hawaii chiefs had been killed, and Cook determined to take the king, Kalani‘ōpu‘u, hostage. When the captain waded ashore, a whole bunch of warriors fell upon him with iron daggers and golf equipment.

Following Cook’s demise, the captain was accorded the conventional rituals for a vanquished chief. His corpse was dismembered, his flesh roasted and his bones separated and portioned out, along with his decrease jaw going to Kalani‘ōpu‘u, his cranium to anyone else, and so forth. Amongst Cook’s sailors, who had fled again to the Decision, “a common silence ensued”, wrote the officer George Gilbert; it was “like a Dream that we couldn’t reconcile ourselves to”. Two clergymen rowed to the ship with a bundle containing a massive chunk of the captain’s thigh.

Together with their charred providing, they introduced with them “a most extraordinary query”. They wished to know when Cook would return to the vessel “and resume his former station”. Wouldn’t it be in – a very Christlike estimate – “three days’ time?” The 2 males “shed abundance of tears at the loss of the Erono”, Lt James King recorded, and so they requested, “what he would do to them when he return’d”. On shore, different islanders “asserted that he would return in two months & begged our mediation with him of their favor”, in accordance to Mid James Trevenan. The German sailor Zimmermann recorded a prophecy: “The god Cook will not be useless however sleeps in the woods and will come tomorrow,” as translated by an interpreter. Over the following years, the thought appeared to persist that Cook would resurrect.

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In accordance to the sailor Edward Bell, who visited the bay in 1793, Cook’s demise had turn into the definitive body for the Hawaii sense of time. “The Natives appear to think about that melancholy transaction as one of the most exceptional occasions of their Historical past,” Bell wrote, and reported that they use it as a date to help their calendrical calculations. “They nonetheless in talking of him fashion him the Orono and if they’re to be believ’d, most sincerely remorse his destiny.” The accounts by later British travellers to Hawaii emphasise the shock and guilt felt by the islanders at Cook’s demise, as if that they had imagined it to be a play, with no consequence. “The natives had no concept that Cook might presumably be killed, as they thought of him a supernatural being, and had been astonished after they noticed him fall,” reported the English explorer William Mariner in 1806; regardless of having killed him, “they esteem him as having been despatched by the gods to civilise them”.

These tales, advised and retold over generations, ignore one apparent reality: Cook was killed as a result of he acted rashly and violently, slaughtering chiefs, kidnapping the king and giving the impression the British had returned to conquer the island. The fur dealer James Colnett, who arrived in Hawaii in 1791, reported that ever since the British first appeared, the islanders had been consistently at warfare and devastated by unusual, unknown diseases, all of which they attributed to Cook’s revenge. Two volcanoes had woke up and burned night time and day, the work, they contended, of the vengeful god. “They made strict inquiry of me, if ever he would come again once more, and after I noticed him final,” Colnett wrote.


When the first missionaries arrived in Hawaii from New England in 1820, they used the cautionary story of Cook as a potent parable. “How useless, rebellious, and at the identical time contemptible, for a worm” – that means Cook – “to presume to obtain spiritual homage and sacrifices from the silly and polluted worshippers of demons,” thundered Hiram Bingham, the Calvinist chief of the first evangelical mission. After six months at sea, the Calvinists anchored at the archipelago and located it beset by the “thickest heathenism”, its sun-drenched landscapes masking horrible despair. Viruses launched by the British had been killing off whole households and villages, and survivors had taken to ingesting themselves to demise.

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The nice Kamehameha, founder and first king of the newly unified Kingdom of Hawaii, had died the earlier 12 months, and his son had not too long ago abolished the tabu system, the strict codes that had structured day by day life for hundreds of years, and which had unravelled after the British arrival. A disaster of religion appeared to grip the islands, as temples fell into break and the totems of the outdated gods had been destroyed. “The nation, with out a faith, was ready for the legislation of Jehovah,” in accordance to one early missionary. The Calvinists blamed the rampant illness and malaise on the Hawaiians’ immorality, sexual promiscuity, idol worship and on their reverencing of Cook.

A 1784 engraving of Hawaiians bringing gifts to Captain Cook by John Webber
A 1784 engraving of Hawaiians bringing items to Captain Cook by John Webber. {Photograph}: Alamy

Underneath the stern Calvinists, the Hawaii language was alphabetised, the Bible was translated and novel Christian ideas had been mapped on to outdated Hawaii phrases. Faculties and seminaries had been opened and draconian morality legal guidelines launched throughout the islands. The queen of Hawaii was amongst the first to convert, and far of the inhabitants adopted her; a broom dipped in water baptised 5,000 Hawaiians directly. The myth of Cook-as-Lono lived on in the historical past books and faculty primers the evangelists produced, a story that perpetuated the whiteness of divinity, whereas concurrently affirming that Cook and all those that worshipped him had been idolators of the worst sort.

Together with their indignations, the Calvinist missionaries introduced with them a novel idea of non-public property, merely appropriating no matter land they desired. They had been, in spite of everything, apostles of a God who possesses the Earth. “To the LORD your God belong the heavens … the earth and every part in it,” Moses had declared. Their kids went on to set up huge sugar plantations, securing worldwide markets for his or her profitable crop. “The world is to be Christianised and civilised,” the evangelist Josiah Sturdy would assert, capturing the temper of the century, “and what’s the course of of civilisation however the creating of extra and better needs? Commerce follows the missionary.”

In 1840, with the looming menace of an invasion by France, Hawaii sought to make clear its ambiguous territorial standing and search nationhood. The king despatched a delegation to the United States and Europe, and three years later Hawaii was formally pronounced an unbiased nation. Nevertheless, the plantation house owners, keen to promote their crop tax-free in the US, deeply resented the prospect of Hawaii sovereignty.

Throughout the US civil warfare, with sugar manufacturing halted in the south, the wealth of the white Hawaii oligarchy soared, enabling it to consolidate its grip on the archipelago’s financial system, from banks, utilities and steamships to native commerce and commerce. Beset by sickness and poverty, the native Hawaiian inhabitants had shrunk to a fifth of its former dimension. The industrialists deemed Hawaii employees to be lazy and unemployable, casting them apart in favour of labourers from China and Japan whom they might pay even decrease wages. In 1893, the sugar cartel, together with a regiment of US Marines, overthrew the Hawaii queen Lili’uokalani, in an act that even the US president at the time, Grover Cleveland, condemned as unconstitutional. The American navy occupation of the archipelago had begun.

In the American press, racist cartoonists deployed their anti-black arsenal of caricatures to sketch the Hawaii sovereign grinning as she heated a cannibal cooking pot. They claimed Lili’uokalani was the youngster of a “mulatto shoemaker”, who illegitimately lorded over her “heathenish” individuals. With such colouring, it was argued, she was clearly unfit by nature to rule. Together with the queen, the US occupiers arrested newspaper editors who supported her and clamped down on the opposition press. This meant that the solely information that got here out of Hawaii was delivered by the coup’s spokesmen, who introduced that the queen had willingly surrendered her kingdom and her declare to the land.

To at the present time, the myth that Hawaiians passively accepted the loss of their nation, with out resistance, lives on. Historic accounts make little point out of the undeniable fact that 40,000 Hawaiians petitioned towards the occupation and protested in the streets. A century later, in 1993, hundreds of Hawaiians marched on the queen’s former palace in Honolulu, once more calling for independence. But the American public creativeness hardly ever questions whether or not Hawaii needs to be half of the US; there may be the assumption that Hawaiians, in a distant paradise, have to be content material. Didn’t they venerate a white man as a god? Didn’t they prostrate themselves earlier than him, costume him and feed him with all the fruits of their land? They killed him in a ritual however, not figuring out what that they had carried out, didn’t they, with responsible tears, impatiently await his return?


When information of Cook’s demise lastly reached London in January 1780, 11 months after the captain was killed, it was met not with a public outpouring of grief however a quite morbid fascination at the unique particulars. The success of Omai, which starred alongside the Apotheosis portray 80 dancing “savages”, some in blackface, inaugurated a new European ritual of slaying Cook onstage. In 1788, the wildly in style Death of Captain Cook; A Grand Serious-Pantomimic-Ballet premiered in Paris, earlier than occurring to tour the continent, England, and the US.

By all accounts, the ballet was violent, chaotic, “horrid”, overwrought with emotion – and a nice triumph. 12 months after 12 months, it was revived, and the captain’s demise re-enacted, like a blood providing the imperial powers continued to make to assure their very own ascendance. Cook was killed in Yarmouth, Bungay, Leeds and 9 occasions in Norwich; he was bludgeoned to demise in Dublin, clubbed in Quebec, speared on Greenwich Road in Manhattan and once more in Charleston, South Carolina. Navy males received death-of-Cook tattoos and aristocratic girls wore clothes impressed by “the Indian who killed Capt’n Cook with His Membership”, as the society diarist Mrs Hester Thrale famous.

By the mid-Nineteenth century, PT Barnum would joke that the celebrated blunt instrument had multiplied itself, securing a treasured place in each museum vitrine. The poet Anna Seward heaved the captain up to heaven in her 1780 Elegy on Captain Cook, To Which is Added, An Ode to the Solar. “To place it bluntly,” wrote the anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere, “I doubt that the natives created their European god; the Europeans created him for them.”

A defaced statue of Captain Cook in Melbourne, Australia, January 2018
A defaced statue of Captain Cook in Melbourne, Australia, January 2018. {Photograph}: David Crosling/AAP

An apotheosis can come up in an epiphany or in an act of prostration, and it could possibly additionally occur by poetry and portray, by pantomime and translation. What phrase do you’re taking for God? The Hawaiian syllables had been akua, however that is deceptive, for in its authentic sense the phrase might refer to any quantity of sacred beings, objects, or dwelling individuals – something possessing immense energy. So, too, with the phrase Lono: the crew of the Decision was by no means in a position to work out its exact that means. “Generally they utilized it to an invisible being, who, they stated, lived in the heavens. We additionally discovered that it was a title belonging to a personage of nice rank and energy in the island,” Lt King recalled. Not solely Cook however the Hawaiian king, too, was greeted with shouts of “Lono!” Misinterpretations create gods.

Kamakau, the historian, wrote of the coming of Cook in his 1866 Mo’olelo or “Historical past”, a textual content broadly esteemed as the authoritative “native” account. It was ultimately printed in English in 1961, after a long time of work by a workforce of translators that included the Nineteenth-century Australian-born settler and former sugar plantation employee Thomas Thrum. In the English version, the story was closely doctored, ostensibly to conform to “western” requirements of history-writing, as the Hawaiian scholar Noenoe Silva has proven. Earlier than his description of the arrival of Cook, Kamakau particulars, over 17 pages, different foreigners who had already arrived by sea, some with pale pores and skin, some with brown. The translators, nonetheless, omitted the whole part, reworking the narrative of the look of Cook and his ark into a magical, completely unprecedented occasion. In the authentic, Kamakau emphasises the violence, preventing and hostage-taking that culminated in the killing of the captain, and concludes with a record.

“The fruits and seeds that Cook’s actions planted sprouted and grew, and have become timber that unfold to devastate the individuals of these islands:

1. Gonorrhea along with syphilis.
2. Prostitution.
3. The false concept that he was a god and worshipped.
4. Fleas and mosquitoes.
5. The unfold of epidemic ailments.
6. Change in the air we breathe.
7. Weakening of our our bodies.
8. Adjustments in vegetation …”

“The perfect half of Cook’s go to was that we killed him,” the Hawaiian activist Lilikalā Kame‘eleihiwa writes. If man imagines that a god resembles himself, then the god, ultimately, should die. Cook has been killed repeatedly, on the seashore, in the theatre, on the web page, however the myth of his alleged divinity lingers. With each new demise, it lives on.

Deicide is on my thoughts. How do you kill a god, if not by bludgeoning, stabbing, piercing, splitting, dismembering, boiling, roasting, distributing? Is it by rewriting historical past, by exposing the machinations beneath myths, by breaking open syllables in order that no matter is sacred inside spills out?

Is it by tearing down His picture? In the twenty first century, throughout New Zealand, Australia and Hawaii, statues of Cook have been defaced. Strutting throughout a pedestal in his breeches, telescope in hand, a defaced Cook wears a spray-painted bikini; round the neck of one other Cook hangs a massive, canvas signal that reads, merely, “Sorry”. The forecast requires extra. White gods will fall like raindrops. It feels as if the heavens are about to open up.

That is an edited extract from Unintentional Gods: On Males Unwittingly Turned Divine, printed by Granta. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop

Observe the Lengthy Learn on Twitter at @gdnlongread, pay attention to our podcasts right here and join to the lengthy learn weekly electronic mail right here.

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