Rediscovering the great white discoverer, Jock Phillips

The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas
Anne Salmond
Allen Lane, $59.95,
ISBN 0713996617

I will not forget reading Anne Salmond’s Two Worlds. I was on holiday at Tolaga Bay. Between walks to Cook’s Cove and surfing at Anaura Bay, I read the rich descriptions of Cook’s first encounters with Maori along that glorious coast. It is always a thrill to read about the land laid out before your eyes – I remember noting with excitement how accurate even today is Sporing’s image of that extraordinary rock, “Te Kotore o te Whenua” (the “anus of the land”) which is reprinted in the book. But what gave the book power was its success in refocusing our understanding of familiar stories of the great white discoverers.

Anne Salmond was determined to see these early voyages as a mutual discovery. The view from the shore was as important as the view from the deck. We learned, for example, that for Maori the Endeavour was Tupaia’s ship, not Cook’s, for the Tahitian was the person who always initiated spoken contact. We learned that while Europeans and Maori had different worldviews, they shared much. Their hierarchical societies, their life expectancy, their tolerance of violence were very comparable. Salmond was also aware that these first encounters of Maori and European provided a unique opportunity to learn about Maori culture before it had been affected by the new invader. She looked for intriguing details in the voyagers’ accounts and drawings and taught us much – about the extraordinary regional variety of Maori economies and rituals, or about the effectiveness of Maori communications. She pointed out how news about the “goblins from the sea” travelled faster than the Endeavour itself. The book was superbly illustrated, and beautifully structured with its tragic and gripping climax that successfully explained the murder of Marion du Fresne in the Bay of Islands. Without doubt, a New Zealand classic.

I have spent time on Two Worlds partly because it will inevitably have whetted readers’ appetites for this new volume, and more because I suspect that its success helps explain Salmond’s latest endeavour. Six years after Two Worlds came Between Worlds in which she followed the story of encounters between Maori and Europeans through to 1815. The book provides the most comprehensive and accessible study of how Maori interacted with that astonishingly small number of wild colonial boys (plus a couple of Indian “sepoys” and at least two female pirates) who pursued seals and whales and tall trees in the 50 years after Cook’s first landing. But it did not have quite the drama of its predecessor and the story became more complex as Maori learned quickly to adapt to the invader. That revealing moment of innocent meetings had passed. I wonder if this is why Salmond did not proceed to the expected next volume where we might have followed the encounters between shore whalers and missionaries and their Maori hosts.

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Instead she has chosen to go back in time and sideways in space. In The Trial of the Cannibal Dog, she returns to the greatest explorer, Cook, and examines his encounters in the South Pacific. There is much that is familiar and enjoyable for admirers of Two Worlds. Once more the early chapters counterpoint the worlds of a class-ridden Georgian England with aristocratic Tahiti.

Salmond’s determination to see Cook from the perspective of the Pacific Islander pays dividends. We see Cook entering into the particular histories of the islands, especially Tahiti and Tonga, and becoming a participant and an object in their worlds. Repeatedly Salmond shows how Cook was used in power struggles between different Pacific chiefs; and we learn how he was increasingly affected by his Pacific sojourn as well as affecting it. Both sides are actors, both in their different ways victims. One admires the way Anne Salmond uses “thick description” (Clifford Geertz’s phrase) to detail the meetings and explore the nuances of traditional rituals.

On one side of these exchanges are the white men’s needs and desires. Cook needs fresh water and provisions and information about routes, his shipboard scientists wish to record flora and fauna, and his crew desire women. On the other side, Pacific peoples want iron or prestigious red feathers, while the chiefs want the status and support of a “taio” or  ceremonial friend who has a large ship and guns. The exchange has costs on both sides – Pacific peoples receive venereal disease and are on occasion shot; the sailors suffer food poisoning and malaria and, on at least one occasion, are eaten.

There is an extraordinary richness of detail in the descriptions of these exchanges. At times too much. This is a big book of over 200,000 words in small type. Anne Salmond is less inclined to stand back and draw larger conclusions than she did so deftly in Two Worlds. Further, this book is not printed on nice glossy paper. So we get none of those marvellous full-page images scattered through the text. Apart from an inset of coloured paintings, the in-page illustrations are small and hard to examine and, strangely, the author never uses them as evidence. At times the book becomes almost a commentary on Cook’s journals – an awful lot of the footnotes are “Cook in Beaglehole ed”.

Yet the story is wonderfully rich. It revolves essentially around four places – Georgian London, the cramped groaning ship with its domestic animals, hard-bitten crew and fractious scientists, and two places in the South Pacific to which Cook repeatedly returns – the elysium of Tahiti with its tropical fruits and women, and the cool green garden of Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound. We learn much about the politics of all four of these places.

There are also some wonderful characters. Tupaia appears again. We learn of his background in the territorial struggles of Tahiti and of his particular role as a high priest within the “arioi” of Tahiti. His story ends sadly. Cook loses patience with Tupaia once he no longer has an interpreter’s role in Australian waters. He eventually dies far from home in Batavia – although in subsequent travels Cook is greeted endlessly with the question “Where is Tupaia?” There is Mai who travelled back from Tahiti to Georgian London on the Adventure, Cook’s second boat on his second voyage. Mai wowed the high society of Georgian London, and became the model noble savage. There is the Tahitian chief Tu, who became Cook’s friend and protector. The two spent much time entertaining one another sumptuously.

On board ship, the scientists deserve special mention – the self-confident aristocratic Joseph Banks who became a notorious pursuer of the flesh in Tahiti, and whose ambitions to build himself splendid quarters on the second voyage ended in farce with the Resolution so top-heavy that it almost tipped over. Banks then withdrew in high dudgeon when the ship had to be rebuilt. Banks was replaced as scientist by the endlessly grumbling Johann Forster and his son, who came to be detested by all the ship’s company. After these experiences Cook dispensed with scientists entirely for his third voyage.

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In the end the major character is Cook himself. There is a certain irony here since heroic biography was precisely the genre that Salmond appeared to be moving beyond in Two Worlds. While the nature of Pacific Island society is one focus for Anne Salmond, it is not the major story. Cook’s life and death mark the beginning and end of this book, and give it shape.

Of course this is not a conventional biography. Cook’s role as the mapper and navigator receives little attention, and while there is good coverage of his restless between-voyage sojourns in England, that part of the third voyage spent in Alaska and the Arctic are skipped over in a few lines. The focus is primarily on Cook and his relationships with both the people of the South Pacific and the men on board ship. The theme is Cook as the manager of men.

On the first voyage Salmond’s Cook comes across as every inch the hero. The working class boy become self-made man, he is tough but fair with his men, anxious to avoid unnecessary bloodshed with indigenous peoples, careful when he did use guns to use smallshot which would injure and not balls which would kill, scrupulous in turning down offers of Pacific island beauties.

In Salmond’s view Cook’s personality changed with the incident that opens the book and provides the title, the trial of the cannibal dog. The trial occurred on the third voyage in Ship Cove in February 1777. On the previous voyage a group of men on board the Adventure, Cook’s companion boat, had been killed and eaten at Grass Cove nearby. Cook had been unaware of this until returning to England and catching up with the survivors. On getting back to Ship Cove, both his men and also the local Maori expected Cook to take revenge. Cook refused. He lost mana in the eyes of the Maori; even more so in the eyes of his men. In mock derision of their captain who would not take revenge on cannibals, the men captured a dog, put him on trial for cannibalism and then ate him.

From that point on, says Salmond, Cook’s behaviour changed. Determined to assert authority, he became more erratic with his crew, and the number of lashings on board rose. He began acting more intolerantly towards Pacific peoples. He whipped those caught thieving and cut off their ears. There was a terrible incident in Mo‘orea when, believing that the locals had stolen a goat, he destroyed their canoes and houses only to discover that it was all an error. Cook’s growing inability to control his temper with both his men and the people he met ended fatally in Hawaii. Frustrated at continual looting, he attempted to take the local chief, Kalani‘opu‘u, captive. When there was resistance he fired with balls, not smallshot, and killed an Hawaiian. Off-shore his men, no longer completely trusting him, delayed coming to his rescue. Cook’s demise, says Salmond, was partly the long-term consequence of the Ship Cove incident and partly that years of Pacific travel had undermined Cook’s poise – he was caught between his western rational manner and his role as a Pacific Island chief.

This makes for an intriguing story; but one wonders if Salmond is not over-loading onto the explanation for Cook’s death her interest in the two-sided ethnography of encounters. It is revealing to go back and read the explanation for Cook’s death provided by our first great Cook scholar, John Beaglehole.

Salmond and Beaglehole agree on the circumstances of the death. But Beaglehole has a rather simpler explanation. He sees Cook’s misjudgements on that day in Hawaii as being no more than a case of tiredness. Looking at Cook’s complete life he notes his navigational misjudgements in the months before his death and he interprets his rages of temper as those of a man exhausted by the burdens of exploration – the endless tensions of navigating in uncharted waters, of dealing with hungry men in dangerous southern oceans, and of negotiating with different peoples each with their own languages and ways of relating.

Anne Salmond, as we note, does not explore those navigational misjudgements and ignores the preceding months spent in the far north. The twin interests of her book compel her to find an explanation for Cook’s death in the particular traumas of encounters – and the trial of the cannibal dog is where she locates it. I am not wholly convinced. It is apparent from the fascinating tables at the back of the book on shipboard lashings that even before the Resolution reached Ship Cove the number of lashings was much higher than on previous voyages. And an awful lot happened between Ship Cove and Kealakekua Bay. I am uncertain that good relations with his men would have enabled those on boats close by to save him. Beaglehole’s view is just as convincing.

In other words I sense that The Trial of the Cannibal Dog falls between two impulses. Although biographical in structure, it is only a partial biography. But as a study of Pacific societies and their encounter with the west it is limited by focusing exclusively on the Cook voyages. Both aspects of the story are fascinating – and don’t get me wrong – this is a great read; but in the end neither impulse is fully explored, and the book falls, dare we say it, between two worlds.

 

Jock Phillips is general editor of Te Ara: The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Pacific and Review
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