We may never know who killed union boss Jimmy Hoffa and where his body ended up (Giants Stadium is a more romantic option than a gravel pit in Michigan). The Monster of Florence may remain forever anonymous, despite tantalizing hints of wealthy libertine occultists getting their kicks through ritual murder. And despite the role it played in fanning the "Popish Plot" hysteria‘s flames in Carolingian England, leading to the martyrdom of Saint John Wall, and the attention of no less a scholar of mysteries than John Dickson Carr, the people who killed Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey probably got clean away. On the other hand, history has no doubt who killed Captain James Cook. He died at the hands of angry Hawaiians, bludgeoned to death while his boat was Kealakekua Bay in February, 1779. He was one of the most celebrated and travelled men in the world, and his death was recorded by his crew; the question they couldn’t answer is why he died. To a certain sort of person, the appeal of finding something unseen by European eyes was irresistable. James Cook was not necessarily this sort of person; a captain in the Royal Navy and an amateur scientist and mathematician, his earliest forays into the world of exploration and mapmaking were in the interest of his nation, mapping the St. Lawrence River to allow the British better access should they attack Quebec. After that success, though, Cook’s voyages were more dramatic. The Royal Society, that tireless promoter of English exploration, hired him to observe the transit of Venus. He made his way to the south Pacific, building an observatory on Tahiti, and then set out for the mythical Terra Australis Incognita, the unknown southern land that Ptolemy had described. Amazingly enough, he found it; after becoming the second white man to lead a ship to New Zealand and the first to reach the channel — now known as the Cook Channel — between the two islands that make up that nation, he made his way to the east coast of Australia and Botany Bay. Cook fed his men sauerkraut and malt on the vague suspicion that it would help stave off scurvy (twenty years before the Royal Navy started giving limes to their sailors and earning Cook a somewhat undeserved reputation as a pioneer in the antiscorbutic sciences); Tupaia, the Tahitian navigator who had taken him Australia, died of scurvy anyway, and many more men were lost to malaria, but Cook and a good portion of his crew made it back intact.
Future expeditions to the Pacific led to the European discovery of Hawaii (which Cook called the Sandwich Islands) and Prince Edward Island, the rediscovery of the Îsles Kerguélen, the exploration of the Bering Strait . Cook’s journals, logs, and meticulous notes, somewhat edited, had made him a hero to the English, and inspiration for future explorers there and in the United States. Then came his return to the Sandwiches in the fall of 1778 and a disaster which is contentiously debated in the present day. Cook’s arrival at the islands had coincided with the festival honoring Lono-i-ka-makahiki, the god of the harvest. Celebrated in conjunction with the rising Pleiades, the Makahiki festival was a time of games and feasting. And Makahiki would return:
Symbolic forms of this sort look as if Lono of the Makahiki had once appeared in the person of some voyager who brought culture gifts, introduced athletic sports, perhaps also the Polynesian custom of the ho’okupu or tributary offering, a word meaning literally "to cause to grow, as a vegetable; to spring up, as a seed." The offering sent to sea to feed the god was hence to come back to the people in abundant crops for the coming season. The basket of food was to provide for the god’s "return" in symbol in the year to follow. There was indeed a tradition that such a human manifestation of the god had actually appeared, established games and perhaps the annual taxing, and then departed to "Kahiki," promising to return "by sea on the canoes"….
Cook had a scholarly interest in the lives and culture of the Polynesians, but he certainly wasn’t above following good advice about being mistaken for divinity. Cook and his men were given feasts in their honor and treated as, if not gods, at least honored guests. But after leaving at the end of the Makahiki and the rainy season, in February 1779, Cook’s ship was damaged by a storm. He returned once again to Hawaii, this time to a much more turbulent reception. The Hawaiians were not at all pleased to see him; attempting to retrieve a boat stolen by one the Hawaiians, Cook made the disastrous mistake of taking a chieftan hostage. Hundreds of angry Hawaiians set upon him and beat him to death. But why?
An acrimoniuous debate broke out in the early 1990s between the University of Chicago’s Marshall Sahlins and Princeton’s Gananath Obeyesekere. Sahlins claimed the timing and the method of Cook’s arrival, including the white sails of his ship, placed him squarely within the accepted cultural norms for appearances of the Lomo, that his return meant that this pattern had been disrupted and the Europeans rendered tabu, and that the Hawaiians were responding to the disruption by cleansing the taint. Obeyesekere felt that the European accounts of Cook’s death were necessarily tainted and that the claim that Hawaiians thought of Cook as a god was a monumental display of cultural insensitivity; Hawaiians, he said, were as rational as anyone else, and their actions were not the result of superstition but of simple practicality — feeding a shipful of Europeans wasn’t easy, especially after the harvest festival, and the Hawaiians were in no mood to put up their odd guests for another four months. Obeyesekere attacked Sahlins’ scholarship; Sahlins attacked Obeyesekere’s. Tempers grew heated; relationships frayed; whole journal issues were devoted to hashing out who was right and which side people were on. The whole battle would have left John Beaglehole, the definitive biographer of Cook in the early twentieth century, more than a little bewildered. But it might not have confused Captain Cook; he had risked the his life and the lives of his crew in what might well have been a futile attempt to settle a geographer’s debate about whether Ptolemy was right about the existance of a huge and unknown southern continent. In the words of a smart, vicious man, academic politics are vicious because the stakes are so small.