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Life and death of Captain James Cook as the Hawaiian god „Lono“

Hausarbeit 2005 16 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur



1. Introduction

2. Captain James Cook
2.1. Who is “Lono” and why was Cook perceived as him?
2.2. Cook and Kalaniopu

3. The relationship between the explorers and the natives
3.1 Life as gods
3.2 Rising doubts
3.3 The return – growing tensions

4. The Dying God – The Death of Captain Cook: death of Lono
4.1. The transformation
4.2. The actual death

5. Possible opinions on the reasons for Captain Cook’s death

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

On January 17th 1779[1], the HMS Resolution, under the command of Captain James Cook, and the HMS Discovery under the command of Captain Charles Clerke[2] anchored for the first time in a shallow bay on the west of Hawaii, which the natives called Kealakekua Bay. Immediately, the ships were surrounded by a huge crowd of Indians, either swimming around them or circling them in canoes. Cook describes the situation in his journal: “I have no where in this Sea seen such a number of people assembled at one place, besides those in the Canoes all the Shore of the bay was covered with people and hundreds were swimming about the Ships like shoals of fish”[3]. Due to a lack of understanding the native’s language, Cook and his crew had no chance of realizing that all those people had gathered not only to greet strangers from across the ocean, but to celebrate the arrival of their god Lono, who was believed to have sailed across the ocean in search of his wife “in time immemorial”[4] and was due to return[5]. In his last journal-entry Cook writes:

“… to enrich our voyage with a discovery which, though the last, seemed, in every respect, to be the most important that had hitherto been made by Europeans throughout the extent of the Pacific Ocean”[6]

He and his crew were greeted with cheers and presents, such as pigs, coconuts, expensive red cloths and rare feathers[7]. When Captain Cook first set foot on the beach, the assembled people fell to their knees and buried their faces in the ground, chanting and thus giving him the honours of a living god.

Five weeks later, on February 14th, the same friendly Indians killed Captain Cook and four of his marines[8], mutilated their bodies and scattered their remains all over the island. Citing a crewmembers diary: “…..snatching the daggers from each other out of eagerness to have their share in killing him”[9]

How is it possible for a man to fall from divinity and godliness to being a mortal enemy, the Hawaiians were so eager to kill, within only five weeks? To answer this question, one needs to take a closer look at Captain James Cook both as a man and as “the incarnation of the god Lono”, as well as the relationship between the explorers and the natives in general.

2. Captain James Cook

2.1. Who is “Lono” and why was Cook perceived as him?

Carrington describes Lono as the god “… of peace and happiness and agriculture”[10], while Sahlins writes: “… Lono is the god associated with natural growth and human reproduction who annually returns to the Islands with the fertilizing rains of winter; he is also an ancient king come in search of his sacred bride”[11]. His return during the Makahiki season - the Makahiki season lasted actually for up to 4 months, but historians often use the term to refer the “Lono circuit”, a 23 day long ceremonial climax of the whole season12 - , also coinciding with the return of the sun and the revival of nature, is the occasion of collective joy[12]. So when the Discovery and the Resolution reappeared at the shores of Hawaii, almost one year after the first sighting and thus the initial discovery of the Hawaiian Islands, “the return of the British (…) was immediately understood as the return of Lono”[13]. Without doubt, their god had returned, sailing on what they referred to as “…islands; they are forests that have moved out into the sea”10.

When they anchored in Kealakekua Bay, Sahlins guesses there could have been about 10.000 people celebrating their arrival, or in other words: about five times as many people as usually lived in this part of the island11. “And on board as well as in the water, on the shore and in their canoes, people were singing, dancing, shrieking, clapping and jumping up and down. They were jubilant.”[14]

A Hawaiian messenger, trying to describe these divine and beautiful strangers provided a good impression on the shock and awe the natives must have felt when they were confronted with the “godlike beings”.

“The men are white – their skin is loose and folding (referring to clothes) – their heads are strangely shaped (referring to hats). They are gods, volcanoes, for fire and smoke issue from their mouths (tobacco smoking). They have doors in the sides of their bodies (pockets); into these openings they thrust their hands and take thence many valuable things. Their bodies are full of treasure”[15].

When addressed with the titles “Rono”, “O`rono” or “Lono”, Cook and his crew assumed them to be references to a chief or a king and thus played ignorantly along. When the Captain went ashore he was greeted by a train of “priests” escorting him to the nearby temple while chanting incomprehensibly, but always including the word “Erono”[16]. Accompanied by two of his officers, “Captain Cook was put through the customary rites of welcome to Lono”[17] and with the “proper sacrifices”17 he actually became the image of Lono. Carrington supposes, that Cook wouldn’t have agreed to all this, if it weren’t that “…difficult to withdraw without causing offence to persons he was particularly anxious to conciliate.”[18]

An interesting fact is that all the ceremonies were organized and held by members of the priesthood. In some mythologies, Lono as a god fights with the earthly chief for the right of leadership – for supremacy. By “introducing” the god to the people, at the right moment, they created a “counterweight” to the ruling King. As Beaglehole points out, the priesthood took responsibility for the British supply[19] and in most other situations clearly took sides with them. They even directly expressed their dislike for their king:

“… there always appeard in their conduct however some dislike to Terreeoboo [Kalaniopu], although very careful treating him with Respect, but to many of the Chiefs about Terreeaboo they openly declared to us their hatred but they were afraid to do it publickly before them”[20]

This raises the theory that there could have been a more political agenda behind the priests’ actions. Maybe, the “crowning” of Cook as the god Lono is to be seen in a less mythological light, but in a more “symbolic” way.

Nevertheless, “Cook, although embarrassed in his movements, seems to have accepted it all, so bafflingly beyond anything in his experience of other islands.”[21]

2.2. Cook and Kalaniopu

Captain Cook and the Hawaiian king Kalaniopu, the “principal chief of the whole of the Hawaiian group”[22], met several days after the British arrived at Kealakekua Bay, because he had been “at Maui pursuing, as we know, matters of conquest, not very successfully.”[23] His arrival was preceded by a complete state of “tapu”, which means the absence of every common or not specially assigned Hawaiian within sight-range of the ships. The problem with this sudden state of “tapu” was, as Beaglehole explains, the lack of fresh supplies on board the ships and when after almost two days nothing happened, the crew was happy to see that some “unorthodox and daring spirits were prevailed on to bring a small supply of provisions”23. When finally Kalaniopu arrived aboard the Resolution for a private audience, only his wife and two sons were accompanying him[24], Captain Cook had to realize that it was the same chief that had visited them eight weeks ago on Maui. Kalaniopu is described as “tall, emaciated, red-eyed, scabby, shaking – [apparently due to heavy alcohol abuse] – but amiable.”[25] He returned the next day with an abundance of gifts, “not only of fresh food, but of cloaks and helmets of the valuable red feathers.”24 He even offered the formal exchange of names which is perceived as a sign of friendship.[26] When honoured with all these presents, Captain Cook “…returned the lavish display of generosity in the best manner he could, girding about the old chiefs waist his own belt and sword”[27] and by this creating an intense relationship between the two of them. In Hawaiian mythology, the role of the king is very similar to the role of a god, and on some occasions, great kings even assumed the mythological position of a divine being. Thus Cook as the image of Lono and Kalaniopu as the worldly leader of the Hawaiians were immediately rivals in the argument for leadership and supremacy - a rivalry which should prove “disastrous to the Great Navigator”[28].


[1] Beaglehole, J.C. The Life of Captain James Cook., Stanford 1974: 647

[2] Sahlins, Marshall. How ‘Natives’ think: About James Cook for example”, Chicago 1995: 33

[3] Vgl. Beaglehole: 649

[4] Carrington, Hugh. The Life of Captain Cook. London: 1967

[5] Price, A Greenfell. Captain James Cook: Entdeckungsfahrten im Pacific, Stuttgart/Wien: 1983: 431

[6] Vgl. Carrington: 271

[7] Vgl. Carrington: 273

[8] Vgl. Price 1983: 437

[9] Vgl. Sahlins 1985: 106

[10] Vgl. Carrington: 272

[11] Vgl. Sahlins 1985: 105

[12] Vgl. Sahlins 1995: 27

[13] Vgl. Sahlins 1995: 36

[14] Vgl. Sahlins 1995: 47

[15] Vgl. Carrington: 272

[16] Vgl. Beaglehole: 649

[17] Vgl. Sahlins 1985: 105

[18] Vgl. Carrington: 274

[19] Vgl. Beaglehole: 653

[20] Vgl. Sahlins 1995: 67 f

[21] Vgl. Beaglehole: 652

[22] Vgl. Carrington: 275

[23] Vgl. Beaglehole: 653

[24] Vgl. Carrington: 275

[25] Vgl. Beaglehole: 654

[26] Hennig, Edwin. James Cook. Stuttgart: 1952: 97

[27] Vgl. Carrington: 275

[28] Vgl. Sahlins 1985: 155


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Life Captain James Cook Hawaiian




Titel: Life and death of Captain James Cook as the Hawaiian god „Lono“