Captain Cook’s American

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The crowds on shore were still more numerous. The beach, the surrounding rocks, the tops of houses, the branches of the trees and the adjacent hills were all covered, and the shouts of joy and admiration proceeding from the sonorous voices of the men confused with the shriller exclamations of the women dancing and clapping their hands, the oversetting of the canoes, cries of children, goods on float, and hogs that were brought to market squealing, formed one of the most tumultuous and most curious prospects that can be imagined. God of creation, these are thy doings, these are our brethren and our sisters, the works of thy hands. …

Cook was astonished not only by the number of Hawaiians out to greet him, but by their attitude. Somehow this seemed to go beyond what might have been expected even of people who had never met white men before: the moment he set foot upon the beach all the natives within view “fell prostrate with their faces to the ground, and their arms extended forward.” A great cry of “Lono” went up, and with elaborate ceremony Cook was escorted by the chiefs and priests to a grassy pavilion. Various rituals ensued, none of which the English understood very well, beyond grasping that for the Hawaiians something highly important was taking place.

The explanation, it developed later, was that Cook unwittingly was playing a role in Hawaiian mythology. In a former age, so the story went, a god-king named Lono had departed from the Islands with a promise to return in some distant future bringing with him omens of peace and plenty. It happened that Cook’s first landing, at Kauai the year before, had occurred during the annual feast of Lono. Now it was feast time again, and during the year that had elapsed the idea had spread through the Islands that the English, with their great ships and miraculous equipment, were Lono’s immortal band, and that James Cook was Lono himself.

In John Ledyard’s opinion, the trouble that soon began between the Hawaiians and the British grew out of the natives’ gradual discovery that they were dealing with creatures who were, after all, extremely human. One human proclivity that led to the lessening of awe was the sailors’ persistent desire for the accommodating Hawaiian girls, many of whom swam out nightly to the two ships despite Cook’s orders to the contrary. Those orders, moreover, had been prompted not by any concern for chastity—Cook knew his seamen too well for that—but by the Captain’s realization that his crew was spreading venereal disease among natives who had never before known this affliction.

But nature would not be denied, and even at the shore encampment, where Ledyard held guard over the tents, the attempt to keep Hawaiians and Englishmen apart soon broke down. Since the nonfraternization orders initially had been looked upon as having the force of a religious tabu, the fact that they were now broken with impunity raised considerable doubt among many natives as to the visitors’ supernatural standing.

To make matters worse, Hawaiian economic resources were being put to a severe strain by Cook’s demand for more and more produce with which to stock the ships for another long stint at sea; it seemed that there was not enough pork, breadfruit, yams, and bananas on the whole island to fill the maws of the Resolution and the Discovery . On the other hand, the British supply of nails, beads, and other desirable hardware for trade was running low, while some natives were getting bold enough to want more substantial articles, and to steal them when they could not be bargained for. Cook punished acts of thievery rigorously; the Hawaiians were obliged to see some of their fellows lashed with the cat-o’-nine-tails and others, including chiefs, held as hostages until stolen goods were returned. “We shall soon see the consequences of such conduct,” Ledyard noted ominously.

Still, there were pleasant days during the latter part of January, when Cook and the old Hawaiian king, Kireeaboo, exchanged formal visits and entertainments, becoming genuinely fond of each other. The weather was fine, and the men enjoyed themselves ashore. Native girls performed exceedingly voluptuous hula dances; the English responded with a cotillion, danced to flute and fiddle—the music of the violin producing among the natives, Ledyard reports, “the most immoderate laughter.” His Dartmouth mettle stimulated by the beckoning peak of Mauna Loa, Ledyard went with three friends to climb to its snow-rimmed top. They never made it, having underestimated its height (13,680 feet) and the thickness of the tropical undergrowth on its slopes, but it was good sport.

Now events took their last, sinister turn. Wanting firewood for the ships’ stoves, Cook had the bad judgment to requisition the fence surrounding the Hawaiian’s Morai, or sacred burial ground. A party went ashore to tear it down, offering the priest two or three iron hatchets in compensation. The bargain was indignantly refused, but the priests took no action to prevent the destruction of the fence: Lono had spoken.