The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas by Anne Salmond
Allen Lane, 25
Review by Roger Hutchinson
When the Endeavour sailed into Botany Bay in 1770, Captain James Cook and his crew observed a number of men fishing from canoes and some Aboriginal villagers cooking on the shore. To their utter astonishment, the Europeans gradually realised that their own interest in the native Australians was not being reciprocated.
The men with spears and women by open fires appeared not even to notice the apparition. A towering naval frigate manned by 85 pale-skinned life-forms hovered like some extra-terrestrial tourist a few hundred yards from their huts, and they continued barbecuing fish - or, in one instance, paddling diffidently beneath the Endeavour’s gunwale without a single look askance.
The reasons for this wonderful display of Aboriginal cool (were they truly uncomprehending? Was it simply none of their business?) have been lost to conjecture. Anne Salmond’s epic study of Cook’s three journeys to the South Seas leaves us wishing - futilely - that other inhabitants of the Pacific archipelagos had been as circumspect as those sensible Australians.
This is a magisterial, essential study of the most epic and poignant voyages in British maritime history and of the cataclysm that was caused by those voyages in the Polynesian islands. Everybody knows a bit about Cook: the runaway labouring boy who became our greatest sea-faring explorer; the enlightened captain; the martyr to his own liberalism; the imperialist who corrupted paradise. Salmond is a New Zealand academic who has specialised in cross-cultural study. Her contribution to this Homeric legend is to have researched, interpreted and presented - alongside the official, Odyssean journals - the version of the Lotus-eaters, too.
Post-colonial history took some of the gloss off James Cook. Post-modern history tarnishes everybody. If Cook was not quite a saint in naval uniform, neither were the Tongans and Tahitians noble savages. It is easier now to see what happened in the South Seas between 1768 and 1780 (when Cook was killed in Hawaii) less as a tale of innocence defiled and more as an inevitable encounter between two maritime civilisations, one of which happened to have gunpowder, gonorrhoea and big ships.
It does no service to reduce the Polynesians in this story to victims, or naive innocents who invited their nemesis into their beds. They were actively, and often ruthlessly, engaged in the narrative. Characters such as the Tahitian navigator Tupaia, who helped the Europeans to chart a huge area of the ocean by visualising distant islands like a constellation in the sky, who travelled with Cook as far as Java and who consequently was with him on the Endeavour in Botany Bay, deserve a fuller portrait and a deeper understanding.
Salmond’s remarkable achievement has been to draw Polynesian history alongside the European memoirs and to produce from them a seamless, complementary account. This is necessarily an unsentimental exercise: Salmond essays no more judgment on trigger-happy Jack Tars than on the cannibalistic Maoris (although certain shocked Society Islanders had plenty to say about both of them). She presents us, therefore, with a credible world; one in which a sea-going Quaker from Whitby may be as humane, admirable and unspoiled as any child of a coral atoll, and where mortals are greedy and corruptible in every corner of the high seas.
It is not necessarily Eurocentric to place James Cook in the middle of this epic - the Polynesians put him there, too, and his pale, elusive personality dominates proceedings. Two things help us, as westerners, to understand Cook better. He was a child of the Enlightenment and he was brought up among Quakers. When he first took command of the Endeavour, as an ageing lieutenant, Cook was instructed by the Royal Society to treat the indigenes of the southern seas as sensible human beings. Many another commander would have disregarded such high-flown ideals in the Pacific heat. Cook abided by them because he believed in them. His restraint and intelligent sympathy, even on his fatal final voyage, invite our admiration.
Those qualities also explain many of his outstanding accomplishments. Cook died because a proud and strong body of people in Hawaii took exception to what they perceived as heavy handed interloping. Another explorer would have died a hundred times before. Cook had navigated brutal seas and negotiated himself and his men through impossible human conflicts for the better part of 12 years before he overplayed his hand.
He was stabbed in the back with a metal knife that had earlier been bartered from his own ship to the Hawaiians. Quite ironic, but Salmond is right to caution us against looking for easy morality plays in this most complex of sagas. We are left only with tantalising metaphors.
Cook’s many friends and allies in Hawaii took his body and divided it between them, thoughtfully delivering part of his thigh back to his colleagues on the Resolution. When those colleagues furiously protested, and threatened to bombard Hawaii unless the rest of Cook was returned, the islanders did their best to reassemble a few charred pieces of bone. Those were given a Christian burial off the side of his ship.
The remainder is already part of the mana of one of the greatest seafarers that so extraordinary an ocean-going people as the Polynesians had ever accepted into their harbours and their hearts.
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