Anne Salmondby Steve Braunias
Steve Braunias talks to Anne Salmond [historian and anthropologist of Cook's tour].
Great sailor, shame he ever set foot on land. All the usual embarrassments, unease, and downright loathing of New Zealand's colonial past come into play with Captain James Cook: we view him, when we view him at all, as a stern and controlling figure, who set the scene for all the European-Maori divide and distrust that followed, somehow responsible for putting everyone in the cultural mess we flounder around in today. He started it, just another imperialist brute, so out of favour that years ago his face disappeared from our dollar - a man without currency.
Dame Anne Salmond's magnificent new study, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas, acts partly as a corrective. All of Cook's three voyages to New Zealand and the Pacific are traced in fresh and exciting detail; it's a rediscovery of Cook, sympathetic and probing, as Salmond follows his travels in a kind of psychological pursuit - right to the end, when she builds a thesis around the circumstances that led to his brutal death on a beach in Hawaii in 1779.
As such, the book also operates as the solution to a murder mystery. Salmond summons her evidence by examining his relationship with his crews, and also, just as crucially, with Maori, Tahitians, Cook Islanders, Hawaiians and other "South Seas" island people.
"I really admire Cook," says Salmond, in her large, handsome office at Auckland University, where she works as a professor of anthropology, and is pro-vice chancellor. "But I like the fact he's not perfect. He had to struggle with all these different tensions of somebody who'd come from a very humble background, who clawed his way up through the ranks of the navy, and all of a sudden was treated with extraordinary reverence in the Pacific. How do you cope with that as an individual? I guess in some ways that helps to explain why he just kept going back, when probably by the third voyage he shouldn't have. But he preferred to be in the Pacific.
"And one of the puzzles about Cook is, just what did go on in that third voyage? What actually happened? Why did the floggings of his men almost double? Why did he start slashing ears off? He wasn't the same on that voyage."
On his second voyage, in 1773, crew on the Adventure were killed and eaten by Maori at Queen Charlotte Sound, but Cook, on his return to New Zealand, refused to exact revenge. No one on either side respected him for it, and the strong suggestion in Cannibal Dog is that Cook became disenchanted.
"I think that's absolutely true," she says. "I think the thing that really got to him is when Maori started jeering him. It certainly got to his men. Local Maori would have been quite contemptuous, I'm sure. Guns are always there as a potential part of the conversation, but there's this guy with all this firepower just sitting there, knowing Maori have eaten a whole lot of his men, and he doesn't do a thing about it."
Catchy title. YOU COULD SAY this is a Cook book with recipes: the Maori practice of cannibalism, and European reaction to it, is a strong and persistent theme in Salmond's study. "Cannibalism [was considered] ... the extreme edge of human possibility," she writes. Yes. The crew were horrified; the Endeavour's botanist, Joseph Banks, suggested that cats and dogs were better than Maori, because they did not eat their own kind.
And so once again Salmond reminds us of European notions of superiority. Her 1991 book Two Worlds is like an earlier sketch of Cannibal Dog; she looked only at Cook's first voyage, on the Endeavour, and how it was presented by 18th-century accounts as a "discovery tale" of explorers who "survived attacks by tattooed savages (or worse still, cannibals)". Little, she argued then, has changed: "After 200 years or more of shared history in New Zealand ... Europeans are [still] depicted as being in charge of the drama, the explorers are the heroes, while Maori people either sit as passive spectators or act anonymously behind cloaks and tattooed masks ... This is not the way it was. Both European and Maori protagonists were active in these meetings and fully human."
There is a smugness about this: behold, the great Dame hath come to put us right. But that activity, those meetings, are given a superb narrative shape in Cannibal Dog. Yes, the book is Cook's tour, but Salmond looks at it from the shore as well as from the ships. Five years of scholarship have led to a rich history, for example, of political intrigue in Tahiti at the time the Endeavour sailed towards the "amorous islands". And so one of the great characters of Cannibal Dog - this is such a ripping yarn that it reads like fiction; London's Independent has called it "Dickensian", even "Homeric in its scope" - is Tupaia, the high-born Tahitian warrior-priest, or arioi, who joined the Endeavour for its first journey to New Zealand, in 1769.
"When I wrote Two Worlds, I didn't really pick up on Tupaia," says Salmond. "It wasn't until I started doing a lot of work in Tahiti that I realised what an important person he was in Tahitian history." And in New Zealand history, too. "It would have been extraordinary for Maori having this guy turn up who could talk to you, who was from the homeland [Hawaiki], and who was incredibly imposing, and probably quite intimidating.
"It's interesting in Tolaga Bay, you know, because that's where Tupaia was ashore for a while. There's these stories around on the coast of people who claim to be descended from Tupaia. I didn't say much about that in the book. But that's what everybody says, that there are Tupaia families. Now whether they were just people named after him, or whether ... well, surely he'd have slept with women there. Because the arioi were pretty active in that regard. I think he was probably doing his arioi thing in Tolaga Bay."
A ripping yarn with a lot of sex in it. Only poor old Cook "kept his dignity, and kept his trousers on", as Salmond says; everyone else on board the ships had the time of their carnal lives, including Banks, who bursts from the pages of Cannibal Dog, full of exuberance, happy to accept the offer of three women to share his bed.
Did the professor admire Banks? Salmond: "I enjoyed Banks. I don't think he was that dignified, and that's part of the thing that's attractive about him. Banks makes me laugh. I always thought of Banks as an arioi. He was fond of women and fine clothes."
Much of Cannibal Dog reads as litanies: lists of how many lashes Cook's crew received, of how many pigs were presented to the ships (the book could very nearly be called Voyage of the Succulent Chop), of how many nails, feathers, mirrors or other pathetic items that the crew exchanged for sex. Question: were the Maori whoring their women?
Answer: "It was only some women, probably war captives ... There was a barter that developed. I would say the same as they did in places like Portsmouth. There were whores there, too. That's what you find in the journals; they're saying you can't judge the modesty of these women by what you see on the beach, any more than you could if you went to Portsmouth, or Wapping."
Which is for Salmond to say that both European and Maori protagonists were active in these meetings and fully human. Her steady gaze is held throughout Cannibal Dog, established in its introduction: "On each side, there was savagery and kindness, generosity and greed, intelligent curiosity and stupidity."
In the book's acknowledgements, Salmond gives thanks to her "teachers", Eruera and Amiria Stirling, "who took me in hand when I was young, and led me into the world of Maori knowledge". She also thanks her father, Jack Thorpe, and his father William, who "told me stories about our forbears in Whitby, where James Cook first went to sea".
She says, "One of the things I think that I've learnt from spending such a lot of time in Maori contexts is accepting my ancestors, warts and all. You can get a kind of apologetic attitude to things that happened in the past, and get kind of guilt-ridden - you know, beat me up because I'm Pakeha. But that's not the way I feel at all.
"I think you recognise your ancestors, and try to understand who they were in their period. But that cuts the same for Maori as well. You can see in this book that it's not the case that you've got these God-like heroes striding around the Pacific, finding things that were never there before, and you've got these unmitigated savages, or indeed noble savages who have no faults. All these things," she says, "are just caricatures."