When Hawaii Was Ruled by Shark-Like Gods

The Hawaiian high chief Ka‘iana, who the nineteenth-century historian Abraham Fornander believed may have killed Captain James Cook; engraving after a drawing by John Webber, 1790

In mid-January 1778, HMS Resolution and Discovery, sailing on secret instructions from the Admiralty to search for the fabled Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific via the Arctic, unexpectedly encountered a cluster of volcanic islands in the central North Pacific. Captain James Cook, already famous for his two previous circumnavigations of the globe, commanded the expedition. As the ships neared the larger island of Kaua‘i, several outrigger canoes approached; the first shouted exchanges between the ships’ crews and the native paddlers confirmed that here was yet one more far-flung outpost of what Cook had come to call the “Polynesian Nation,” for the islanders spoke many of the same words that the English had learned in Tahiti, 2,560 miles to the south.

Cook tarried but a few days at Kaua‘i and nearby Ni‘ihau before continuing north, barely long enough for his sailors to infect the island women with venereal disease. Nine months later, wearying of the fruitless search for passage through the archipelago along the northwest coast of North America, Cook set course for the islands he had named after his patron, the Earl of Sandwich. His ships arrived off the much larger islands of Maui and Hawai‘i just as the islanders were about to begin the Makahiki, an annual four-month period sacred to Lono, deity of thunder, rain, and dryland cultivation. Cook himself was taken to be the living manifestation of Lono, or at least that idea was vigorously promoted by the Lono priests.

A combination of cultural misunderstandings and fateful coincidences led to Cook’s death on the lava rocks at Kealakekua (“Path of the God”) Bay. The captain’s body was defleshed, the British recovering only his hands and part of his thighs. By some native Hawaiian accounts Cook’s bones were encased in a wickerwork casket in the shape of a human torso and head and for some years paraded annually around Hawai‘i Island during the Makahiki festival.

Cook lifted the veil that for centuries had kept this most isolated of archipelagoes in utter seclusion. Before the close of the eighteenth century the Sandwich Islands—fortuitously situated midway between the rich fur-hunting grounds of North America and the trading entrepôts of China—rapidly attracted traders and fortune-seeking entrepreneurs. The discovery of sandalwood (greatly prized by Chinese mandarins) in Hawai‘i around 1810 heightened the frenzy of capitalist exploitation, turning the islands into a “great caravansary,” as the fur trader Étienne Marchand put it. Protestant missionaries, arriving from New England in 1820, took advantage of the social and political upheaval following the death of the great unifying King Kamehameha in late 1819 to convert the “savages”; they were determined to cover tattooed native bodies with gingham dresses and frock coats and to stamp out all other…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.