Home > The Trial of The Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas Salmond, Anne. 2003

The Trial of The Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas Salmond, Anne. 2003

 

Carr 1983The Trial of The Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas
By Anne Salmond, published by Allen Lane, London, UK in 2003 (ISBN 0-713-99661-7).
A biography of Cook that differs from its predecessors. It focuses on how the Cook and the other Euro-peans were viewed by the natives of the South Seas rather than the usual view of how the explorers viewed the inhabitants.
Professor Salmond draws on her academic knowledge and experience as an anthropologist and historian to produce a distinctly different book that adds to our knowledge of the events that are so familiar to us. She does so by bringing to the fore the influence and effect of the Polynesians who journeyed with Cook: Tupaia on the first Voyage, Hitihiti on the Second and Omai on the Third.
Dame Salmond sets the scene for us by not only describing the social background of Georgian England (such as "naval officers were among the top 6 per cent of income earners" and the causes of "the great merchant seamen's strike" of May 1768) but also that of Polynesia and the Society Islands, in particular. She draws on the increasing knowledge of Polynesian traditions and beliefs to explain how Cook's arrival and interaction with the islanders were viewed by them, avoiding North America where "Cook mentioned no individuals by name; and except at Nootka Sound… forged no friendships with local leaders".
We learn the effects on the sailors of coming under Polynesian influence "not surprisingly, since some of them had spent more time in the Pacific than anywhere else in recent years, forming close relationships with Polynesian friends… They had learned about the power of mana, how to resent an insult, and how to express that resentment." Time and again Salmond describes the way even simple actions were misunderstood. Describing the arrival of Wallis in the Dolphin, we are told "On the beaches people beckoned to the sailors, who mistook this for an invitation to come ashore, although in Tahiti this was a gesture of dismissal." When Cook arrived in the Endeavour at New Zealand there were "misunderstandings about reciprocity. In Maori gift exchange, return gifts were often delayed in counterpoint of chiefly generosity. No doubt Tupaia tried to mske these matters clear, but when the sailors simply pointed at things in the canoes, expecting people to hand them over at once, Maori were confused or resentful. Sometimes they were defiant, and taunted the strangers for failing to follow the appropriate rituals."
These explanations of how events were viewed by both sides makes the book a long one at 432 pages of narrative plus 100 pages of notes, appendices, etc. At times the story seems repetitious: another island, another greeting, another misunderstanding. But it is a useful reminder of how the events of a decade really did seem. In a sense, all of the explanations lead up to the events in Hawaii, which Salmond describes in a masterly way, summarising the journals of the officers and sailors aboard, the stories given to following European sailors and missionaries as well as the recent academic discussions of Marshall Sahlins, Gananath Obeyesekere and others. In Salmond's view most Hawaiians "identified Cook with their ancestor Lono-I-ka-Makahiki, a former sacred high chief of Hawai'I, returning from his visit to the far-off land of Kahiki."
However, by 1779 "many of his men thought that Cook cared far too much for the islanders. As Lieutenant Williamson noted, there was a long-standing difference of opinion between Cook and many of his officers about how 'Indians' ought to be handled". Salmond concludes that "The dynamics on board his ships led to Cook's death, as much as the situation in Hawai'i. It was a tragic event of epic proportions, and a purely local explanation will not serve, for all that it might seem pretty… In many ways it was a classic case of the 'collapse of command', when a leader's authority is undermined over time by severe stress and undue familiarity."
Salmond uses the trial and killing of a dog by sailors in New Zealand as an example of how their regard for the islanders differed so much from Cook's.. But its use as the title for the book does not work for me. I would have preferred: Captain Cook in the South Seas; as seen by the islanders he encountered.
Reviewer: Ian Boreham
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 7, volume 26, number 3 (2003).

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