Part One: Primitive Accumulation




Chapter Three


Enlightenment in the South Pacific







European expansion into Africa and the Americas in the sixteenth century lies at the origins of global capitalism. It also constitutes a radical break between the mediaeval and modern periods. Before that break, the ruling classes of Europe acted in a world in which their will to power was constrained by Islamic empires to be sure, but also by the rudimentary state of navigation and cartography, and by a consequent ignorance of global geography. After the break, they took their place at the dominant center of an accumulation process that was destined to revolutionize existing social conditions, both in Europe and beyond. An important aspect of such revolutionary transformation was the elevation of science to an increasingly significant position in maritime exploration, material production, and intellectual life.


To begin with, certain scientific advances made the great voyages of discovery possible. As early as the fifteenth century, Renaissance polymaths developed methods for projecting the three dimensional surface of the globe onto the two dimensional matrix of a map. These geometrical procedures were soon given practical significance by the use of astronomical tables, the quadrant, and the mariner's astrolabe to determine position with some degree of mathematical exactness. Together scientific astronomy, cartography, and navigation enabled Europeans to investigate all regions of the earth and record information about its lands and waterways in such a fashion that long distance voyages could be undertaken and, even more importantly, repeated. This methodical and precise information was a necessary condition of organizing the exchange of commodities, and the extraction of economic surpluses, on a planetary scale. Once the capitalist world market was in place, it acted as a further incentive to scientific progress. Especially in the core countries, consumer wants multiplied along with the means of satisfying them through expanding circuits of commodity production and exchange. In response to the growing demand for goods of all kinds, the wealthy began to reinvest their profits in innovative industries and agricultural enterprises. These in turn required the creation of a host of new natural sciences and stimulated the development of already existing ones.


At first, the ruling classes of Europe and their priests and other ideological functionaries were not able to grasp the epochal significance of this situation. As we have seen, they interpreted the new world system with ideas drawn from a Catholic culture that was deeply rooted in the Middle Ages. But it was only a relatively short period of time before the centrality of science to global capitalism began to register in intellectual affairs. Writing in the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon was perhaps the first thinker to recognize the revolutionary implications of the new sciences for the organization of knowledge and the guidance of practical activity, in short, for the whole conduct of life. According to his celebrated formulation, disciplined empirical inquiry and controlled experiment are capable of making humankind “the masters and possessors of nature.” In learning to subordinate ourselves to nature's laws, we discover how to subjugate her all the more completely. We are compensated for the initial blow to our narcissism by the consequent extension of our technological power. But we will realize this potential to intervene cunningly in the nexus of causes and effects only if we relinquish prevailing habits of scholastic speculation and theological reverie. For Bacon, the human mind hopelessly embroils itself in fantasy in the attempt to penetrate to the hidden essence of things. The culture of old Europe is more or less the outcome of that vain attempt. The most sophisticated forms of mediaeval thinking make use of so many Platonic and Aristotelian “idols of the theatre,” representations of the world in a scenic and unreal fashion. Such empty metaphysical imaginings act as a fetter on the development of useful knowledge of empirical causes and therefore on the many sided satisfaction of human needs. In the name of science and its promise of genuine prosperity, The New Organon and Bacon's other writings issue a sort of declaration of war against the past.


That declaration was renewed in the mid-eighteenth century by the scientists, philosophers, and secular literati who occupied the forward cultural outposts known as the Enlightenment. Significant Enlightenment thinking went on in Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and the United States. But it is not an accident that the real home of that audacious movement was jointly located in Great Britain and France, for these were the powers currently engaged in a struggle for world hegemony. The pretensions of Spain and Portugal to global rule had collapsed in the early seventeenth century with the end of primitive accumulation itself, that is to say, with the definitive consolidation of capitalism as a self-sustaining mode of production and exchange. The rivalry between the initial contestants gave way to a hundred year period of Dutch domination. But that was only an interregnum. By the early eighteenth century, the aspirations of the Low Countries had already been eclipsed by the ascendancy of France and England, which now directed their national ambitions against one another, sometimes in open warfare. Most of the Enlightenment thinkers of the two contending powers were cosmopolitans, not nationalists. And many of them argued vociferously against militarist adventures. But the wide public influence they and their comrades enjoyed was not due to such pacific arguments. Rather, it was a result of the fact that they offered broad and persuasive programs of economic, political, and cultural reform to nations that saw themselves, quite plausibly, as occupying the dynamic center of the planet. They promised to replace the dogmatic anachronisms of Catholic Europe with sober insights into the real forces capable of shaping a brave new world.


Enlightenment interest in the peoples encountered by Europeans in the voyages of discovery was pervasive. But strange to say for a movement that drew its major inspiration from the sciences, that interest was not itself scientific in character, at least not in the sense of contributing to one of the empirical sciences. Although Hume, Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau, among others, devoted sometimes considerable space in their writings to indigenous peoples, none of them did so from even a rudimentary anthropological point of view. None of them attempted to classify indigenous societies in terms of their tools and other technologies, collect their myths, observe and record their rituals, or explore the subtleties of their kinship systems. Instead the Enlightenment thinkers who wrote about “savages” did so from the vantage point of moral and political engagement in their own countries. Their aim was not to understand indigenous peoples with any meaningful specificity, but to employ a general concept of “the savage” in order to subject dominant European institutions and practices to rational evaluation and reform. For them native peoples were not objects of serious ethnography; they were instruments of social critique.




In 1756, Voltaire published L'Ingenu, the fictional story of the son of a French army officer who is raised from infancy in Canada by Huron Indians, and journeys by accident in his young adulthood to his ancestral home in Lower Breton. The story is unusual in that it is a hybrid between two literary genres. It is half comic satire on the prejudices, self-deceptions, and abuses of power of Parisian as well as provincial high society; and it is half what the Germans will later call a Bildungsroman, in which the hero loses his original innocence through a painful process of theoretical and moral education. Voltaire dubs the story's protagonist, the “Child of Nature,” but the name is not meant to indicate a pre-social condition. In recounting some of the details of his past life, the hero expresses affection for the Huron nurse who raised him, pain at the death of his mistress who was eaten by a bear, mercy for an Algonquin warrior he defeated in battle, and attachment to Huron laws and customs, the unmistakable creations of an ordered society. But in native Canada, the social order is not the product of coercive or artificial arrangements. It is the unfettered expression of three impulses that are almost biological in character and that are, as it were, the voice of nature speaking directly within each human being: a love of freedom, especially freedom from physical confinement, an uncomplicated sexual ardor, and a willingness to speak one's mind without dissimulation. The adoptive Huron continues to follow these impulses in the country of his European forbearers. Only there they contrast glaringly with the groveling servility to superiors, the sexual hypocrisy, and the general social duplicity of the French upper classes.


In Voltaire's story, then, the distinction between the Child of Nature and the cultivated European at first works to the disadvantage of the latter. In the light cast by the ingenu’s direct and vigorous approach to life, the civilized manners of the French aristocracy show themselves to be no more than masks hiding a profound inner corruption. But Voltaire is far from recommending emulation of native Canada as an answer to the problems of modern Europe. When the Child of Nature is imprisoned in Paris by scheming Jesuits for expressing sympathy with a Huguenot heretic, he does not hesitate to take the opportunity to shed his rude and unformed character. He uses the enforced solitude to study philosophy, mathematics, the Greek tragedies, and the plays of Moliere and Racine. His only advantage in this endeavor over the ordinary French citizen is that his past has left him untainted by envy, theological obscurantism, and the lure of power. Since he has none of the faults of a Europe that has lost its way, he is able to return to the very sources of culture, and so acquire it from an unsullied starting point:


The rapid development of his mind was almost as much due to his savage upbringing as to the spirit he was endowed with, for having been taught nothing during his childhood, he had not acquired any prejudices. Since his understanding had not been warped by error, it had retained its original rectitude. He saw things as they are, whereas the ideas we have been given in childhood compel us to see them in false lights all our lives.[1]



He becomes a deist, an advocate of religious tolerance, a promoter of scientific thinking, and a rational critic of society ─ in other words, an Enlightenment intellectual. Moreover, after the intervention of his lover secures his release from prison and results in her own tragic death, the Child of Nature receives a commission as an army officer and becomes a celebrated personality in Paris.


In 1754, two years before the publication of L’Ingenu, Rousseau submitted the manuscript of his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality to the Academy of Dijon as an entry in an essay competition (which he failed to win). When he sent Voltaire a copy of the treatise, the latter wrote in response:


I have received, Monsieur, your new book against the human race, and I thank you. No one has employed so much intelligence to turn us men into beasts. One starts wanting to walk on all fours after reading your book. However, in more than sixty years I have lost the habit.[2]



The jibe is perfectly understandable. The discussion of savages in the Discourse has implications far more radical than Voltaire's handling of the topic in L’Ingenu. In the first place, Rousseau's critique of private property and of the political intrigues of the rich against the poor, both of which mark the transition from the state of nature to civil society, offended the older philosophe's eminently bourgeois sensibilities.[3]



In the second place, Rousseau's uncompromising rejection of the city as a locus of envy, duplicity, and moral enervation could hardly please Voltaire. For Rousseau, the life of a Parisian celebrity, even one steeped in Enlightenment culture, was a regression, not an advance, from the savage state. And yet the basic theoretical move of the Discourse is similar to the literary ploy at the heart of L’Ingenu. Like Voltaire, its author appeals to the life of savages as a natural condition that reveals contemporary Europe to be the product of decadence or corruption.


Rousseau is aware that his treatise is not a contribution to empirical science. He recognizes that, in 1754, the field research and other “experiments” necessary to create the foundations of a genuine science of society have not yet been conducted. But he also insists that there is no way to understand Europe's contemporary predicament without separating “that which is original from that which is artificial in man's present nature.”[4] This pressing need justifies the purely hypothetical method of reasoning adopted in the Discourse. The purpose of that method is to define the character of “natural man,” to create an image of the human species as it exists in the state of nature, to construct a model of the original human condition. It may be the case that nothing in prehistory corresponds exactly to that model. But even if this were true, it would not rob the model of its heuristic significance. It is possible to distinguish the natural from the artificial even without ordering the two in terms of temporal succession. All that is necessary is that one basic principle be kept in mind. The theorist must be careful not to project back into the state of nature qualities that human beings develop from their participation in civil society, with its antagonistic economic and political institutions and tortuous psychological states. According to Rousseau, this was Hobbes' error. The “war of each against all” is no more natural to the species than honor or private property, which are, in fact, the real bones of contention in that war. If we suspend in thought the existence of civil society and its effects on human behavior, then it becomes apparent that people are motivated by two impulses only: straightforward concern with one's own preservation and pity for the suffering of other sentient beings.


Rousseau imagines the species obeying these impulses in an environment unaltered by technology and with social bonds that extend no further than the act of sexual intercourse and the tie between mother and prepubescent child. By means of this thought experiment, he hypothetically reconstructs the state of nature as the earliest stage in human prehistory. It is a stage in which people are certainly not very intelligent ─ they have no language, no culture, no abstract thought ─ but in which they are supremely happy. Abandoned to the forces of external nature, those who survive childhood are physically robust, and their size, strength, and speed enable them to protect themselves against predators. In the lush forests that they inhabit, their simple needs for food and rest are satisfied with a minimal degree of effort. Since no one requires anything of anyone else beyond momentary sexual release, each goes his or her own way without obstruction. This means that the original human beings have no fear of one another. For the same reason, they are unfamiliar with vanity (a concern for one's image in the eyes of others) and the fury of offended honor that is one of vanity's more destructive expressions. Most importantly, they live without any thought of the future and therefore entirely without anxiety.


The reports of missionaries, colonialists, merchants, and travelers concerning the customs and habits of indigenous peoples play a complicated role in this reconstruction. Rousseau appeals to some of these accounts to support elements of his hypothesis. For example, an anecdote about a Carib Indian who sells his bed in the morning and regrets the sale in the evening, having failed to foresee that he would need the bed to sleep in at night, is supposed to lend credence to the idea that, in their earliest prehistory, human beings dwelled only in the immediate sensation of their present existence.[5] Still, Rousseau is clear that contemporary savages do not live in the state of nature. They have languages, family structures, and rudimentary technologies. But they are closer to the original condition than is European society. In fact, they occupy a half way point “between the indolence of the primitive state and the petulant activity of our own amour-propre.” The development of private property and the antagonistic selfhood that has its origins in amour-propre (selfish pride) leads further and further away from that balanced condition which is “the true youth of the world.” The progress that Europeans value so highly consists in “so many steps in appearance towards the improvement of the individual, but so many steps in reality towards the decrepitude of the species.[6]


Yet, even here, Rousseau is not as far from Voltaire as the irritated comments of the latter might lead us to believe, for he also does not counsel Europeans to adopt a savage way of life. His point rather is that the “natural man” continues to exist beneath the artificial layers accumulated in the course of a life in a decadent society. Since even the most profound corruptions do not alter that primordial substratum of humanity, Europeans, should they so desire, have the power to begin the process of education and political organization all over again.[7] The burden of Emile and The Social Contract is to show how these two tasks might be accomplished.


The theoretical role played by the savage condition in the context of one Enlightenment project, then, is to serve as a pristine starting point for the creation of a new European culture. But the culture of savages themselves is irrelevant to that project. In particular, neither L’Ingenu nor the Discourse discusses the spiritual beliefs and practices of indigenous peoples or the artifacts and other objects in which those beliefs and practices achieve material concretion. That discussion was left to an author who was by no means as sympathetic to the life of savages as Voltaire and Rousseau.




In 1757, Charles de Brosses submitted the preliminary results of his inquiry into the religiously significant material culture of indigenous peoples to the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, of which he was a member. At that point, Diderot became aware of the manuscript and suggested that de Brosses communicate with Hume, whose Natural History of Religion had been published earlier the same year. Brosses followed Diderot's suggestion, and initiated a correspondence with the British philosopher, whose book and private communications came to have a profound impact on his subsequent work. Under Hume's influence, Brosses completed a treatise based on the material previously submitted to the Academy and titled it, On the Cult of Divine Fetishes or the Parallel between the Ancient Religion of Egypt and the Contemporary Religion of the Negroes. Fearing persecution at the hands of the authorities, he published the book in France in 1760 clandestinely, that is, through a third party and without the author's name.[8]


His fear, no doubt, was justified. Helvetius had been persecuted two years earlier for his atheistic treatise, Concerning the Spirit. And, while de Brosses was not an atheist, his book had uncomfortable implications for the Roman Catholicism that was still the dominant ideological power in France. It would have been hard for the eighteenth-century reader to have missed the fact that holy images, relics of the saints, and even the Eucharist, in which Christ is supposed to be actually present, resemble the African and Amerindian sacred objects that serve as the main topic of de Brosses' work. Writing in Anglican England, Hume had already made the relevance of the discussion of “primitive” religion to the critique of Roman Catholicism crystal clear: the Natural History of Religion unambiguously associates Catholic beliefs and practices with those of the earliest idolaters and polytheists. Hume's correspondence with de Brosses alone would have been enough to have condemned the investigations of the latter in the eyes of the French Church.


But there was more for French Catholics to worry about than this guilt by association. The two thinkers were in substantive agreement concerning their basic theories of religion. Like Hume, de Brosses was a deist. Both men believed that the only rational version of religious belief is based on the so-called argument from design. While this is implicit, though unmistakably so, in Brosses' book, Hume states the position overtly in the Natural History of Religion. According to his introductory remarks, nature is a vast machine whose intricate parts are so marvelously interconnected that the whole must be the product of an intelligent artisan, a maker who designed the machine and set it in motion without needing to interfere any further in its workings. But, unfortunately, the force of this argument can be appreciated only by those who have some grasp of the true grandeur and sophistication of the universal nexus of causes and effects. The earliest human communities, as well as the uneducated masses of later times, lacked that understanding, and yet had definite ideas concerning the nature of divine power. It follows that, at its origin and throughout most of its history, religious belief has been irrational. In a reversal of the formal schema that guided Voltaire and Rousseau, Hume argues that the primitive, in the sense of the original, human condition is unequivocally inferior to the modern one, at least insofar as modernity is represented by the enlightened segment of the population. Progress is a straightforward transition from the less to the more reasonable. In a passage that Brosses repeats verbatim in On the Cult of Divine Fetishes, though without identifying its source, Hume writes:


It seems certain, that, according to the natural progress of human thought, the ignorant multitude must first entertain some groveling and familiar notion of superior powers, before they stretch their conception to that perfect being, who bestowed order on the whole frame of nature. We may as reasonably imagine, that men inhabited palaces before huts and cottages, or studied geometry before agriculture; as assert that the deity appeared to them as pure spirit, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, before he was apprehended to be a powerful, tho' limited being, with human passions, appetites, limbs and organs. The mind rises gradually from inferior to superior…[9]


If the origin of religion is not to be found in reason, where then does it lie? In answer to this question, Hume appeals to certain basic psychological mechanisms. The objects of our deepest hopes and fears ─ plenty and want, health and sickness, life and death ─ are the effects of unknown causes. If we could analyze nature from the vantage point of “the most probable, at least the most intelligible, philosophy,” we would see that these causes lie in complex material interactions between human bodies and external objects, interactions that are governed by “constant and regular machinery.” But such a perspective is not available to the ignorant multitude, and certainly not to that “barbarous, necessitous animal (such as man is on the first origin of society).[10] According to Hume, the earliest human beings could not help but evolve confused ideas of the causes upon which their fate was so utterly dependent. Since the purpose of the ideas was to make the unfamiliar familiar, primitive peoples imagined the unknown sources of their happiness and misery as possessing the qualities with which they were most intimately acquainted: those of conscious personality.


Hume mentions contemporary indigenous peoples only once in his treatise, and then merely to affirm that: “The savage tribes of America, Africa, and Asia are all idolaters.[11] Most of his examples are drawn from Greek, Roman, Pagan European, and Catholic sources. When it comes to the psychological complex ─ ignorance, anxiety, anthropomorphic projection ─ at the root of irrational religion, these cultures are also representative of the original human condition.


The grand parallel that de Brosses draws between the religion of the contemporary Africans and that of the ancient Egyptians, with references to Greek, Roman, Pagan European, and Old Testament themes, demonstrates that he shares this conception with Hume. For him as well, primitive religion is not the exclusive domain of contemporary savages, but a cultural complex found wherever reason has not yet triumphed. Nevertheless, the focus of his book is on indigenous peoples, since, according to him, they exhibit the most complete absence of rational thought. They have no more capacity for conceptual reflection than “a four year old child.[12] Lacking any knowledge of the true relationship between causes and effects, they live in constant fear of the forces in their environment, and in the equally blind hope that those forces will operate in such a fashion as to produce beneficial results. In accordance with the compensatory psychological mechanism that Hume analyzed, they see spirits everywhere. But Hume was a bit misleading when he said that savages are idolaters. Most of them do not exhibit the idolatry that we associate with the classical world, for example: that of deified human beings. According to de Brosses, native peoples are usually given to more base superstitions. “Their knowledge is limited like that of beasts to the natural needs of life.”[13] They project their gods into the objects that most concern them: plants and animals, features of the landscape, and inanimate things. These they endow with consciousness and will, like the European child who plays with dolls, believing them to have a life of their own. However, unlike the child, they regard these objects as superior powers that control the forces of human destiny, and so they exhibit the most pitiful attitudes of terror, rapturous enthusiasm, and servile adoration with respect to them.


Following the Portuguese in western and central Africa,  de Brosses calls these objects, fetiches. His treatment, though, misses the derivation of the word from the Latin, facticius, “made by human hands,” and instead asserts a false etymology from the Latin root, fatum, fanum, fari,  referring to divine, enchanted, or fairy-like objects.[14] The reason for this error is obvious: de Brosses's belief in the stupidity of savages does not allow him to pay proper attention to products of human skill, since skill, after all, is a form of knowledge, and indeed knowledge of causal connections. In one passage he does refer to “an ugly little idol made of clay” from the Guinea coast, an evident result, however imperfect, of manual production. But, in general, his emphasis is on what we might follow the surrealists in calling “found objects.” The fetish is:


… nothing other than the first material object chosen by each particular nation or person and consecrated by its priests in ceremonies: it can be a tree, a mountain, a piece of wood, a lion's tale, a pebble, a shell, salt, a fish, a plant, a flower, an animal of a certain species such as a cow, goat, elephant, sheep; anything imaginable.[15]


For Brosses, the fetish has no aesthetic significance since is not an artifact, or at best an extremely crude one. Although his book describes the material culture in which indigenous peoples express their deepest ideas about the nature of reality, it is not, from its own point of view, a treatise about indigenous art. It is, rather, a thesis in the history of religion, and one that at least attempts a certain degree of empirical verification. Brosses coins the word fetichisme for the cult in which crude artifacts and found objects alike are employed for ritual and magical purposes. In attempting to demonstrate that fetishism is common to the entire indigenous world, he makes a more comprehensive use of the information available on native societies than any other Enlightenment thinker. He draws from a wide range of reports from Africa and the Americas, and, in the process, touches on a number of topics that were to receive sustained attention by nineteenth and twentieth century anthropologists, including totemic animals, possession cults, and the concept of the Manitou. Yet the principal significance of his work does not lie in its empirical detail, or even in its anticipation of later, genuinely scientific investigations. Rather, de Brosses' major achievement consists in the use that he makes of an originally Catholic concept for the purposes of enlightened thought.


We saw in the previous chapter that the Portuguese had developed the concept of the fetish in an attempt to distinguish the religious artifacts, especially the minkisi, of native Africa, from those of Roman Catholicism. But since the concept was part of a culture that affirmed the participation of the world in Divine Being, and the consequent validity of relics and images, as receptacles of spiritual power, it was incapable of performing the discriminating function for which it was intended. De Brosses resolves this problem by abandoning the attempt to distinguish between fetishes and genuine sacred objects, for there are no such things. As a deist, he withdraws God from the world. Since the Divine has no indwelling presence in material reality, no natural object or artifact, whether indigenous or Roman Catholic, is capable of serving as a locus of spiritual power.


This theory of fetishism is part of what Max Weber will later call “disenchantment.” For Brosses, as for the entire Enlightenment, it is a sheer myth, in other words, a false story, that visible reality is inhabited by spiritual presences. There is only one reasonable description of the world: that given by science in terms of impersonal causes and effects. Savages do not see the truth of this description. But then, they live far from the rationality that has finally emerged in the European metropole.




For de Brosses, the absence of reason confines savages to a state of nature, just as it does for Rousseau. For both thinkers, the native is closer to animal existence than is the civilized person. Only, for Rousseau, this is a positive judgment. The natural urges toward self-preservation and pity that guide the actions of savages, just as they do those of animals, result in a happiness that is no longer available to more "advanced" representatives of the species. For Brosses, however, the judgment is a negative one. The animal-like stupidity of Africans and Amerindians prevents them from understanding the true causes of human fortune and misfortune. Out of fear and blind hope, they project their own image into the found objects and crude artifacts that are the objects of their daily concern.


Apart from their divergent evaluative implications, these two conceptions are united by the rejection of any attempt to understand savages by means of an appeal to transcendence. The world supplies all of the principles necessary to explain the behavior of its inhabitants. If it is to produce genuine knowledge, then empirical and moral inquiry must remain within this wholly immanent context. It is true that, as a deist, Brosses continues to refer to the moment of creation. But this is more a way of exiling God from the world after His first and only act than the perpetuation of a mode of traditional religious thinking. For deists as well as atheists, there are no miracles, only the tightly woven fabric of mundane events. Savages are part of that fabric. When Catholics encountered indigenous peoples in the fifteenth century, they saw them as actors in a drama of sin and redemption, spiritual stakes in a cosmic battle between God and the Devil. Enlightenment thinkers rejected this conception. They viewed savages in relation to natural forces, not divine or demonic ones.[16] Their new approach was activated in practice as well as theory when the last remaining region of the world to be explored by Europeans was fully probed and mapped in the second half of the eighteenth century.[17]


Appropriately enough, Brosses helped inspire the final voyages of discovery. In 1756, four years before his treatise on fetishism, he published The History of Navigation around the Southern Land Mass. In that two volume collection of maps, captains' journals, and his own commentaries, he renewed the ancient Ptolemaic argument that a great Southern Continent must exist in order to balance the continents of the north, since otherwise the planetary sphere would be unstable. Before the History appeared, a century and a half of voyages had already established the existence of New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand, New Hebrides, and Tahiti in southern waters, though these territories proved difficult to exploit and so were never systematically charted. According to Brosses, a more complete exploration would reveal them to be the promontories and coastlines of an enormous land mass. He went on to make the persuasive point that confirmation of the existence of a Southern Continent and determination of its true dimensions would constitute a scientific discovery of the highest order. It would represent a contribution to geography, but also to the study of humankind, since the land mass would undoubtedly prove to be inhabited by many unique societies. But Brosses also emphasized the hypothetical continent's extra-scientific value. He argued that it would be an invaluable resource for French commerce, colonization, and naval power.


Following the loss of its American colonies to England in the French and Indian War of 1754 to 1762, the Bourbon monarchy was anxious to assert its power in another region of the globe. Under the influence of Brosses' book, in 1766 it dispatched the aristocrat-explorer, Louis de Bougainville, on a journey around the world in search of the Southern Continent .





Bourgainville landed by accident in Tahiti nearly two years after beginning his voyage and stayed a total of thirteen days on the island. In that short period of time, he created a myth that has proved to have a tenacious hold on the Western imagination. He named the place, New Cythera, after the Peloponnesian Island where Venus was said to have been born in the act of emerging from the sea. In a passage from his journals, Bougainville identified the reason behind the name. When the sailors on board the two ships he commanded came ashore, they were


… invited to enter the houses where the people gave them to eat; nor did the civility of their landlords stop at a slight collation: they offered them young girls. The hut was immediately filled with a curious crowd of men and women who made a circle around the guest and the young victim of hospitality. The ground was spread with leaves and flowers, and their musicians sang a hymeneal song to the tune of their flutes. Here Venus is goddess of hospitality, her worship does not admit of any mysteries and every tribute paid to her is a feast for the whole nation.[18]



The classical allusions were influential. They led later commentators to depict Polynesian society as an arcadian paradise like the one described in the Georgics. In addition, they had some influence on the visual arts: many of the early European paintings of Tahitians and other Polynesians portray their figures and clothing according to classical conventions. But Bougainville's word picture of a free and guiltless sexuality had even more important implications for the way Europeans came to regard the islands of the tropical Pacific. In particular, Diderot filled in the outlines of the picture in his Supplement to Bougainville's Voyage, published in 1771.


In his treatment of savages, Diderot contributes to the tradition of Voltaire and Rousseau. In the Supplement, he writes:


Shall I tell you in brief the history of almost all our woe? It runs as follows. Once there was a natural man: inside that man there was installed an artificial man, and within the cave a civil war began which lasted the whole of his life.[19]


The phrase “our woe” refers, of course, to Europeans. The Tahitian by contrast carries no artificial man within him. He is not internally divided, since he has not learned to oppose his natural instincts, a futile enterprise in any event that can only result in misery. Most important of all, he freely and openly expresses his need for the sexual act.[20] Now Voltaire and Rousseau also affirm the natural sexuality of savages, but that affirmation does not have the central importance for them that it does for Diderot. According to the latter, sex is the most significant of the natural instincts. The history of civilization has made it so. It is the instinct from which civilized institutions demand the highest degree of repression, and with the most negative consequences. The incest taboo, the restrictions against divorce, the cult of female chastity, and the demand for marital fidelity are different ways of making what ought to be “the greatest, sweetest, most innocent of pleasures” into “the greatest source of depravity and evil.”[21] Their attempt to block what continues inexorably to press toward release converts sexual enjoyment into guilt, envy, jealousy, and relentless deception.


Once again, the enemy of the Enlightenment turns out to be Catholicism. Diderot makes this clear when he places a defense of Tahitian sexuality into the mouth of the character Orou, who implores a visiting chaplain to sleep with his wife and daughters. The chaplain's defense of his vow of chastity and of the other sexual mores of Europe is incapable of withstanding Orou's logic. As his attempt to defend himself against nature also fails, he ends by complying with the reasonable requests of his host.


Diderot's decision to focus his account of “natural man” on the issue of sexuality has an initial plausibility. Is sex not a matter of biological processes that unfold, as it were, of their own accord, drives that demand expression no matter what institutions attempt to block them? Here if anywhere nature seems to prescribe a form of behavior that people oppose at their own peril. Diderot's view that happiness results from the free expression of sexual desire and misery from its repression found proponents in such twentieth century radicals as Alexandra Kollontai, Wilhelm Reich, and Herbert Marcuse. But as Foucault points out in his critique of such later versions of the discourse of sexual liberation, the idea of a wholly natural sexuality is absurd. Whatever role biological drives undoubtedly play in this central area of human experience, they are always shaped by the institutions and symbolic systems apart from which life in society is inconceivable. We can extend Foucault's insight to the Supplement as well. What Diderot misinterprets as the natural sexuality of Tahitians is simply an alternative expression of sexuality, every bit as “artificial” as that of Europeans, but differently configured.


It is easy to show that this is the case on the basis of later ethnographic information. Diderot was under the impression that nuclear family incest was permitted in Tahiti, and places a defense of the practice into the mouth of Oru. Why should the father not sleep with the daughter, the mother with the son, the brother with the sister, when these practices contravene neither the public good nor private utility? But here Diderot's ethnography is faulty. No Polynesian society countenanced father-daughter or mother-son incest, and only Hawaii allowed sexual relations between brother and sister for the purposes of maintaining the purity of the royal line. This was also the rationale for the marriage between first cousins permitted in Tahitian society. Thus Tahitian “incest” was not an unfettered expression of the sexual drive, a refusal to be limited by a supposedly arbitrary distinction between those who may and those who may not be taken as partners. On the contrary, it was a device of the ruling class for maintaining its genealogical claim to political power, and therefore involved the regulated designation of an appropriate partner. Whatever the natural component in sexuality may be, it has human significance only in relation to the cultural order.


Still, from a false theory of natural sexuality, Diderot draws a conclusion capable of standing on its own. He presents one of the earliest and most forceful literary critiques of European expansion into the world inhabited by “savages.” Building on an anecdote from Bougainville's journals about the aloof father of the explorer's Tahitian host, Diderot places a compelling monologue into the mouth of the suspicious old man. The Europeans have carried the twin powers of sexual devastation, guilt and syphilis, to the island. This is merely the first volley in a campaign that will end by destroying the indigenous way of life:


Weep, unhappy Tahitians! Weep, not for the going but for the coming of those wicked and ambitious men. One day you will know them better. There will come a day when they return, in one hand the scrap of wood you see hanging at this man's girdle, in the other the steel you see at that man's side, to bind you in chains, to cut your throats, or enslave you to their whims and vices. One day you will be their servants and as corrupt, as vile, as miserable as them.[22]


 It is finally necessary to reject the idea of corruption, since it presupposes the mistaken identification of the undisturbed native with the “natural man.” But it is just as important to recognize that, in the hands of one Enlightenment thinker, both that idea and its presupposition served as intellectual weapons against Western colonialism.




James Cook was not as determined an opponent of colonialism as Diderot, but he was certainly skeptical about the benefits contact with the West was supposed to bring to indigenous peoples. In the journals he kept during his second stay on Tahiti, he wrote of the islanders:


… we debauch their morals already prone to vice and we introduce among them wants and perhaps diseases which they never before knew and which serve only to disturb that happy tranquility they and their forefathers had enjoyed. If anyone denies the truth of this assertion let him tell what the natives of the whole extent of America have gained by the commerce they had had with Europeans.[23]


This skeptical sentiment is especially remarkable considering the fact that Cook was on a mission of colonial expansion. His voyages of discovery began with the ostensible goal of conducting an experiment in astronomical observation. On June 3, 1769, the planet Venus was due to make one of its infrequent transits across the disc of the sun. Some astronomers believed that, if the time required for the transit could be measured from two widely separated geographical points, then the distance of the earth from the sun could be calculated. The Royal Society petitioned the British Crown to fund a voyage to the Southern Hemisphere for the purpose of making one of the two measurements. The Crown granted the request, purchased a collier for the voyage, equipped it with the precision quadrant, telescopes, and chronometer necessary to set up an observatory on Tahiti, and placed the forty year-old veteran of the French and Indian War, James Cook, in command of the mission. But it also provided Cook with secret instructions to continue his voyage beyond Tahiti to see if he could discover the Southern Continent. While taking care not to incite the natives, he was to claim whatever territory he could in the name of the Crown. Cook failed to find the Continent and indeed eventually demonstrated its apocryphal character. But he did manage to claim the eastern coast of Australia as British territory, discover the Hawaiian Islands, and map much of the South Pacific with a considerable degree of accuracy.


This is not to suggest that the scientific aspect of Cook's voyages was merely a cover for colonial expansion. The intense public interest in the voyages, at least, was focused on their scientific significance. The Royal Society had done more than make certain that the first voyage was equipped to conduct a delicate astronomical observation. It also assigned one of its Fellows, Joseph Banks, to the journey in order to collect botanical, zoological, and other natural historical information. From his private fortune, Banks recruited a scientific team that included the botanist and pupil of Linnaeus, Daniel Carl Solander, the landscape painter, Alexander Buchan, the natural history draftsman, Sydney Parkinson, and a scientific secretary, Herman SpÀ?_Àring. These researchers collected thousands of plant, animal, and mineral specimens, made drawings and paintings of flora, fauna, geological formations, and whole landscapes, and compiled written observations on a wide range of natural historical phenomena. In many of these efforts, the team and its equivalent on subsequent voyages were guided by the Linnaean Systema Naturae. (Linnaeus himself had been invited to serve as chief naturalist on the first voyage, but declined). The Systema provided a taxonomic framework and the associated terminological precision necessary for bringing conceptual order to biological entities that no European had seen before. Like one of the organisms that it sought to classify, it had the unique property of being able to grow organically with the development of new branches and sub-branches. Moreover, it perspicuously identified the criteria, primarily those pertaining to sexual reproduction, which allowed the categories of living things to be distinguished from one another in terms of kingdoms, orders, classes, genera, and species. Outfitted with this supple theoretical tool, Banks and his associates were able to classify the plant and animal denizens of the strange islands they visited, and communicate that systematic information to the interested public back home.


There was no conceptual framework, comparable in its logical power, for making sense of the human beings encountered on the three voyages. It is true that Linnaean taxonomy could be directly applied to human populations. All that one had to do was correlate the concept of the species or, more reasonably, the subspecies with the idea of race. In such a fashion, cultural differences among peoples could be attributed to divergent biological factors. But that fateful step, which led in its most consistent form to the development of “scientific racism,” was not taken until the nineteenth century. What was available instead by the time of Cook's voyages was the moral-political concept of the savage as “natural man,” and that idea was undoubtedly an influence on the way the European visitors regarded the peoples of the South Pacific. But as we have seen, the concept was framed for the purposes of social criticism, not those of concrete ethnographic work. The fact is that, in their attempt to record and explain the appearances, customs, technologies, beliefs, and political systems of Oceanic natives, Cook and the scientists who accompanied him simply muddled along as best they could.


The disparity between the explorers' sophisticated natural history and their rough and ready attempts at ethnography is reflected in the corresponding collections brought back to England. Several thousand natural history specimens were collected under the direction of Banks, including plants, birds, fish, insects, shells, and pieces of coral. They were classified approximately in the field in accordance with the Systema Naturae, and were subsequently assigned the appropriate Latin binomial nomenclature. By the time they were exhibited in London, donated to wealthy patrons, or offered for sale, they had already been more or less thoroughly exposed to the light of reason. Perhaps it was because of this ability to introduce order into the chaotic profusion of tropical organisms, and so to make sense of a part of the world that threatened to escape European comprehension, that the natural history collections stirred wider and more enthusiastic public interest than any other aspect of the voyages.


The ethnographic objects were not so highly regarded. This was not for any lack of items. More than two thousand objects were collected on the three voyages. In addition, an attempt was made by the collectors to be as comprehensive as possible given the limitations of time, geography, and willingness to trade on the part of the natives. In reviewing what survives of the objects today, there is no mistaking the principle behind their selection. Basic categories of objects were identified, and the scientists, if not the sailors, on board tried to acquire several examples of each type. In many cases, the islanders were willing to part with ceremonial as well as utilitarian objects. Thus the sheer range of items is impressive. Feather gods, wicker helmets, bowls with human images, ivory hook pendants, temple carvings, shark tooth implements, ornamented bark cloth from Hawaii; mourning dresses, feather gorgets, ear ornaments, neck rests, tattooing needles, sennit god images, bark cloth beaters, carved fly whisk handles from Tahiti; carved staves, feather headdresses, bone ornaments, dance paddles from Easter Island; baskets, greenstone talismans, necklaces, whalebone combs, war clubs, bone and wooden flutes, hafted adzes from New Zealand; food pounders, wooden vessels, decorative girdles, leg ornaments, ivory images, pan pipes, nose flutes, octopus lures from the Tongan Island ─ these are only a few of the categories exemplified.


What was missing was not specimens of the material culture of Oceania, but a rational principle that could introduce order into the proliferation of ethnographic forms, just as the Systema Naturae had introduced order into the profusion of biological entities. Here the Enlightenment propensity to see the savage as a child of nature, however construed, blocked any possible path to understanding. For the tools, clothing, ornaments, and ceremonial objects that Cook and his scientists collected had not grown spontaneously from tropical soil. They were the meaningful products of socially organized activity, and therefore required principles of explanation quite different than those of biological taxonomy. In the absence of this recognition, there was no way to ward off the chaos with which the Oceanic objects threatened the European mind. It is not surprising, therefore, that very little interest was stirred in the public by the ethnographic collections. There was only an anemic market for the objects, even on the part of the nascent museums. Many of them have been lost since they were first transported to London, and some undoubtedly exist in contemporary collections without any indication of their provenance in Cook's famous voyages.




The passive disappearance of artifacts from the collections brought back by Cook was not the only loss of Oceanic objects that resulted from his expeditions. His landing on Hawaii set off a chain of events that led to a far more dramatic and widespread destruction of works of indigenous art. 


According to current archeological findings, when Cook first came upon the Hawaiian Islands they had been inhabited for roughly two thousand years. They seem to have been colonized by two waves of Polynesian immigrants, an earlier group from the Marquesas Islands and a later group from the Society Islands, which include Tahiti. The Tahitian influence in particular left its imprint on the Hawaiian social order in the form of a rigidly hierarchical system of class differentiation. As in Tahiti, the most important division was the one that separated a class of hereditary nobles or chiefs, known in Hawaii as the ali'i, from a class of commoners, known as the maka'ainana. As the English visitors were quick to recognize, the ali’i were ranked in a way somewhat similar to the European nobility, with the rank order culminating at its apex in the paramount chief, or king, the ali'i nui.


When Cook arrived, most of the eight inhabited islands in the Hawaiian chain accommodated more than one ali’i nui, although the island for which the entire chain was eventually named, Hawaii, was under the control of a single paramount chief, Kalani'opu'u. On every island the paramount chiefs controlled the distribution of land among the population, although they delegated administrative power over districts and sub-districts to appropriately ranked members of the subordinate nobility. The basic unit of land, the 'ili, was occupied by an extended family of commoners who had the right to use it for fishing and for cultivating such crops as taro, yams, coconuts, breadfruit, and bananas. Yet the right was not permanent. It existed only as long as the family met its responsibilities in tribute and labor to the district chiefs and in military service to the king. In addition to the two major classes of nobility and commoners, there may also have been a middle class comprised of priests and skilled artisans. Finally there may have existed an underclass of pariahs may that supplied slaves to commoner families and sacrificial victims for religious ceremonies. (The existence and nature of a middle class as well as an underclass remain a topic of dispute among experts.)


The ideological justification of the class hierarchy was supplied by what we can only call the Hawaiian “religion.” As in most of the pre-capitalist world, however, it is important to keep in mind the fact that this word does not refer to a specialized institution, but to beliefs and practices that permeated all of social life. According to the traditional religion in this broad sense of the term, the nobility belonged to the same genealogical line as the gods. As a consequence of their semi-divine status, nobles were charged with a spiritual power known as mana.


Mana has always appeared paradoxical to anthropologists. It is both a quasi-physical substance, a quantity that can be accumulated through a variety of procedures and transmitted from one person or object to another, and an abstract quality equivalent to efficacy, success, or luck. But however difficult it may be to grasp its objective meaning, its social function is quite clear. Mana could be tolerated by the highborn, but it had disastrous consequences for any commoner who came into contact with it. The system of kapu (taboo) was developed in order to prevent this powerful invisible force from being communicated from superior to inferior. In the famous if somewhat unusual example, if even the shadow of an ali nui fell on the house of a commoner, then the house had to be destroyed. In a more pedestrian example, commoners were required to fall on their faces when the higher nobles passed before them lest the mana of their godlike superiors be discharged by means of a shared glance. But it was not just the body of a noble that was kapu to the lowborn. So were all of the noble's privileges. Here the social significance of kapu becomes evident. Its underlying purpose was not at all to protect the commoner from the dangerous mana of the noble, but to protect the noble from the even more dangerous claims to equality on the part of the commoner. In terms of the kapu system, such potential egalitarian impulses were not so much social impertinences as transgressions against a spiritual power that had its ultimate origin in Kahiki, the home of the gods. For the traditional religion, the class system of Hawaii was not a transient human creation. It was part of the invariant order of the cosmos.


The Hawaiian chant, the Kumulipo, was composed and sung to mark the birth of the ali’i nui, Kalaninui`iamamao. It affirms the legitimacy of the infant prince by reciting his genealogy and, at the same time, describes the origins of the cosmos. These two themes are intimately connected because people, as represented by the nobility, share a common origin with the gods. In the first epoch of cosmogenesis, Po (Night), neither personified gods nor human beings are present. At this time more ancient than any other, the heavens warm the earth by rubbing against it, producing walewale, a generative slime or sap that gives rise to Po. In turn, Po transforms itself into a double manifestation as the male principle, Kumulipo and the female principle, Po`ele. The coupling of these two pre-personal divine forces results in the birth of the most primitive of biological species, including corals and mollusks. The coupling of a second dual male and female manifestation of the generative principle, Po, produces fish; that of a third manifestation, insects and birds; that of a fourth, amphibians; that of a fifth, pigs; that of a sixth, rats; that of a seventh, dogs; and that of an eighth, human beings. The appearance of humankind signifies the transition from the first cosmic epoch, Po, to the second, Ao (Day). The second epoch belongs, not to impersonal forces, but to personified beings, both human and divine. The same coupling that engenders the primordial human pair produces two of the principal gods of the Hawaiian pantheon, Kane and Kanaloa.


Born was La`ila`i a woman.

Born was Ki`i a man.

Born was Kane a god.

Born was Kanaloa the hot-striking octopus.

It was day[24]


Both the gods and the human male need the woman, La`ila`i, in order to engender children. The man, Ki`i, however, is the first to gain access to her reproductive powers. According to the chant, then, the first gods and human beings are siblings, but the lineages they found differ by order of priority. The lineage of human beings is actually older then, and therefore superior to, that of the gods.


In his interpretation of the Kumulipo, Valerio Valeri points out that this open expression of human superiority is exceptional in Hawaiian theology.[25] The relationship between human and divine beings is actually ambivalent. The myth that proclaims human superiority demonstrates by its very existence that people cannot do without the gods. There is a kind of shifting balance of power between the two in which now one and now the other seems to have the upper hand. People need the gods for a variety of reasons, including the utilitarian ones of ensuring success in farming, warfare, childbirth, and so on. But gods need human beings as instruments of their own personalization. In this respect, the name of the first human male is significant. Ki`i is the Hawaiian word for the images of the gods, either in wood or featherwork, that stand at the center of worship and ritual. The essential function of human beings from a religious perspective is to produce these images, for the images are the vehicles by means of which the impersonal divine forces of the first cosmic epoch transform themselves into the personified gods of the second one, and so enter into the individuating light of Day.


In its original sense, theosophy is a description of the dynamic unfolding of the divine life as represented in the West by the work of mystics, philosophers, and poets such as Jacob Boehme, Friedrich Schelling, and William Blake. Only subsequently did it come to refer to a rather crude form of nineteenth century occultism.[26] If we take the word in its original meaning, then the Hawaiian art of making images of the gods has a theosophical significance. It is part of the inner life-process in the course of which an Absolute Reality that is undifferentiated at the outset expresses itself in the form of a well defined multiplicity of personal deities.


Naturally, the artists responsible for creating such images were also ritual specialists. The kahuna in general were priests, experts empowered to officiate at religious ceremonies. The makers of divine images were a subcategory of that group, kahuna kahai, priest-sculptors. They were trained in the crafts of carving and featherwork in the course of which they mastered both technical skills and the language of bold volumetric forms characteristic of Hawaiian sculpture. They were also taught the prayers and rituals necessary for focusing the divine life into determinate, anthropomorphic shapes, thereby putting an end to its anonymous diffusion. They were not only artists, but representatives of humankind in its most essential, theosophical capacity.


The ritual formality that accompanied artistic activity was especially pronounced with respect to the carving and decoration of the central image of the luakini, a temple that was devoted to Ku, the god of war, and could only be built at the command of the ali’i nui. According to early accounts by Hawaiian informants, when the time came to make the central image, the king led an entourage of nobles and priests to the most elevated mountain slopes where they located a suitable 'ohi'a tree. After one of the priests said a prayer consecrating the adze that would be used to fell the tree, the king dashed a pig to the ground, offering it as a sacrifice. That offering was followed by another, more significant one when a criminal violator of kapu was brought forth and beheaded. After the tree was felled, the criminal's body was buried at its root, while the kahuna kahai set to work carving the image of the god into the trunk of the tree. The completed sculpture was then carried in solemn procession to the luakini temple, where another kapu violator was sacrificed and thrust into the hole reserved for the image. The following morning, a girdle of braided coconut leaves placed around the belly of the statue as an umbilical cord was cut by a priest while he recited prayers. The ritual came to a conclusion as the statue was girded with a loincloth of  beaten bark. In this fashion, by means of ritual observances the god, Ku, was born in the form of a work of art. We need to take this formulation literally. The image was not a sign, an indicator that referred the attention of the viewer away from its own material presence toward the very different, invisible being of the deity. It was the god himself in one of his concrete manifestations.


Cook discovered the Hawaiian Islands accidentally on his third voyage. In two ships, the Resolution and the Discovery, he and his contingent of scientists and sailors embarked on the long and tedious journey from Tahiti to the northwest coast of America in early December 1777.[27] About a month later, after crossing the equator into northern waters, the party sighted a chain of volcanic isles. On nearing land, they were met by canoes filled with people whom Cook immediately recognized as Polynesians, relatives of the Tahitians, Maoris, and so forth previously encountered in the southern Pacific. Some of the people came on board, though Cook allowed no women into the ships in an attempt to protect the Hawaiians from the “venereal distemper” that his men had already carried to Tahiti and the other Society Islands. After anchoring off Kauai, he went ashore where he was received with great veneration. Wherever he walked, people prostrated themselves before him and did not rise until he signaled them to do so.


The first visit lasted only two weeks, though the Englishmen returned to Hawaii in November 1778, after having explored the Arctic Ocean. On this occasion, Cook ordered the ships to cruise off the islands for seven weeks before he finally allowed them to anchor at Kealakekua Bay on the island of Hawaii. His purpose in the delay was once again to prevent the spread of venereal disease. But the unhappiness of his crew, combined with the remarkably insistent overtures of the Hawaiian women, made this impossible. He had to allow his men ashore and even permitted women to sleep with the sailors on board. Cook himself resisted these erotic enticements and was sometimes taunted by disappointed women for his decision to abstain. But such momentary disrespect did not prevent him from being received with the same veneration that characterized his first visit. He was greeted with considerable fanfare by chieftains and priests, and the common people continued to fall on their faces whenever he happened to pass by.


Cook was unaware of the reason for his veneration by the Hawaiians. On both of his visits, he arrived during the Makahiki season in which the land is renewed by the southern rainstorms of winter, marking the transition from the old to the new year. In Hawaii, the revitalization of nature was associated with the return to earth of the god, Lono, from his celestial home in kahiki. According to the myth, Lono once fell in love with a beautiful mortal woman and married her after descending from the sky by traveling along the arch of a rainbow. Though the two lived happily for a while in Kealakekua, the god's jealousy soon brought disaster upon the couple. Believing that his wife had been unfaithful with a human male, Lono beat her so badly that she died, but not before she had time to convince him of her innocence. Driven mad by grief and remorse, the god traveled throughout Hawaii, boxing with the men he encountered along the way. When he had finally traversed every district in the islands, he boarded a canoe which the people had filled with provisions. As he departed, he promised to return one day bearing coconuts, pigs, birds, and other foods. With a complicated series of rituals, the three month Makahiki season marked the return of Lono and the fertilization of his new bride, the land.


The Hawaiians saw Cook as a human manifestation of Lono. It is easy to see why. To begin with, he arrived from the sea, reversing the direction of Lono's departure. He also landed at Kealakakua, where the ill fated couple once resided. And there was yet another astonishing concordance. The masts of Cook's ships resembled the image of Lono that was carried around the island during the Makahiki festival, repeating the god's original circuit in the period of his madness. Each year the image made its first appearance after a night of celebration that ended in an orgy meant, no doubt, to evoke the generative powers of the god. When the people finished making love to one another in the ocean's surf, they turned to behold the statue of Lono standing higher up on the shore. The statue was in the form of an akua loa, a “long god.” It consisted in a pole as much as seventeen feet in length, the top of which was carved in the image of the deity. Though the image may sometimes have consisted in a full anthropomorphic figure, the sole surviving example of an akua loa depicts only the god's head, and this at the comparatively minuscule length of two and a half inches. From a crosspiece attached to the pole hung the skins of migratory birds, species that were counted among Lono's “myriad bodies” since they returned with the southern storms that revived the earth in winter. The skins were accompanied by feather streamers and pieces of bark cloth. Not only did Cook's masts resemble the pole and crosspiece of the statue, but his sails corresponded to the streamers and bark cloth which, like them, sometimes billowed in the wind.


In a rite conducted at a luakini temple shortly after his arrival at Kealakakua Bay, Cook's body was also assimilated to the image of Lono. According to the journal kept by Lt. James King, when Cook first went ashore he was greeted by four priests holding wands tipped with dog hair. The priests led him and his small party on a procession past commoners who lay face down on the ground, while the priests repeated a short sentence in which the Englishmen could discern only the word, Orono, which was the way they heard the name, Lono. The procession led to a temple complex consisting in a large, tiered platform of stone surrounded by a wooden rail on which were fixed the skulls of captives who had been sacrificed on the deaths of their chiefs. The priests brought Cook through the entrance, where two wooden images stood guard, and into the interior of the complex, where twelve more images were arranged in a semicircle. Cook was draped in a red cloth similar to the one worn by the central image, which he kissed in imitation of the head priest, Koah. He was then led into another part of the complex, where he descended into a square space sunken three feet into the ground. There he was seated between two additional statues. As Koah held one of his arms and Lt. King supported the other, Cook's body was made to assume the shape of the long god, the Makahiki image of Lono.


In his journal, Lt. King confessed his ignorance concerning the precise meaning of the ritual. Still he understood that it endowed Cook with an exalted religious significance.


The meaning of the various ceremonies, with which we had been received … can only be the subject of conjectures, and those uncertain and partial: they were, however, without doubt, expressive of high respect on the part of the natives; and, as far as related to the person of Captain Cook, they seemed approaching to adoration.[28]


Cook also surely knew that he was being treated like a god. But the odd fact is that he exhibited so little curiosity about the precise meaning of that treatment. Nor did he make any attempt to resist a deification whose significance ultimately escaped him. He blindly played the role he had been allotted by his hosts. The reason for his passive attitude in this regard is clear. He was happy in the knowledge that the natives were well disposed to him and his crew. That complacency was his undoing.


The Makahiki festival was built on the rivalry between Lono and the ali’i nui. At the beginning of the festival, the king relinquished his power to the image of Lono by placing his whale tooth pendant, symbol of royal authority, around the statue's neck. He then confined himself to his house until the festival was near its conclusion, abandoning his kingdom for the intervening period of time to the will of the god. Many of the usual taboos were suspended in the carnival atmosphere that ensued, including prohibitions against indiscriminate sexual contact, as well as demands that commoners exhibit respect for the nobility. But these taboos were replaced with different ones concerning access to the bounty of the land. The harvesting of fruits and vegetables in a district was prohibited until a portion of the crop was given to Lono and found acceptable by his priests. At such time, the long god, or akua loa, was turned face downward, and replaced with a similar image, called an akua pa`ani. Celebrants used the substitute image to preside over sports and dancing, including ritual boxing between representatives of the god and those of the people. The Akua loa was then moved to the boarder of the next district where the same sequence of events was repeated. When the entire island had been traversed, the king came out of seclusion. He boarded a canoe that headed toward the ocean and then reversed its course to shore. When he stepped onto land, a group of Lono's attendants barred his way to keep him from reaching the god. One of these men threw a spear at the king, which was warded off by one of the latter's champions. A second man touched the body of the king with another spear, thereby symbolically killing him. But the king was also reborn. After a mock battle between his party and that of the god, the ali’i nui brought the images of Lono used in the festival into the temple from which they had originated. There they were taken down and stored, symbolically killing the god, who, of course, would be reborn the following year. In this way, the king completed the process through which Lono was driven from the land after renewing it, thereby liberating its bounty for the use of human beings.


Lt. King remarks in his journal that, after the Englishmen had stayed for three weeks on Hawaii, the priests began to inquire anxiously as to when they would be ready to depart the island. Unbeknownst to Cook and his men, it was now near the conclusion of the Makahiki festival when the god must be banished, the king reassume political power, and the fruits of the earth return to the people. Cook obliged his hosts by setting sail on February 4. But as luck would have it, only three days later the Resolution's foremast was sprung, leaving the ship with the use of only half her sails. The Englishmen returned to Kealakaua Bay and set to work making repairs. But this time, the attitude of the natives had become decidedly unfavorable. They were dissatisfied when told the reason for the return, and began to express contempt for the visitors who were now out of phase with the ritual cycle. Innumerable acts of theft occurred. When the Discovery's cutter, which served as its lifeboat, was stolen one night, Cook reached the limits of his patience. He decided to use a ploy that had been successful on other islands by taking and holding a hostage until the cutter was returned. With a party of marines, he went ashore in search of the ali’i nui, Kalei'opu'u. However, when he tried to convince the king to accompany him back to the Resolution, a hostile crowd of two or three thousand people gathered. At this late stage in the game, a victory of Lono over the ali’i nui would have been a catastrophe of cosmic proportions. The landing party retreated to the water's age as the crowd threw stones. Cook fired his pistol and killed a man. In the melee that followed, he was clubbed and stabbed from behind. He fell face down in the water, where he was held while dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people continued to assault him. In such fashion, Lono was killed once again. But this time, Cook also died, victim of his failure to understand the role that he played in the religious life of the Hawaiians.




Cook's death created only a momentary crisis in British - Hawaiian relations. His second in command, Captain Charles Clerke, decided to make no reprisals, provided that one condition was fulfilled. Cook's body had been burned on a pyre, and his bones distributed to superior chiefs who sought to possess the mana with which they were charged. Clerke demanded the return of the remains so they could be buried at sea. After some hesitation, the Hawaiians fulfilled his wish by presenting him with a bundle of bones accompanied by Cook's mummified hands, easily identified by their distinctive scars. Clerke made good on his promise to refrain from military action, and consigned his commanding officer's bones to the waters of Kealakakua Bay.


Over the course of the next forty years, the English deepened their connection with the Hawaiians, even though the islands became an international port of call. Spanish, French, Russian, and American ships began to anchor in Kealakakua Bay in transit to the fur-rich Northwest Coast of America, as well as to participate in the Hawaiian sandalwood trade. These new foreigners played an important role in the warfare that engulfed the islands after Kalei'opu'u's death. They supplied rivals to the succession, as well as the kings on other islands, with ships, weapons, and military personnel. The English, however, managed to cultivate a close relationship with Kamehameha, the nephew of Kalei'opu'u. With their assistance, he was eventually able to unify all of the islands under a single monarchy which he declared to be a British protectorate.


By this time, four decades of contact with Europeans had weakened the kapu system. One of its most important elements was the prohibition against men and women eating together. Because they bled during menstruation and in the act of giving birth, women were considered unclean. Men who broke bread with women subjected themselves to pollution. This was the case even for commoner men who possessed no mana, but whose relative purity placed them in a relation to their women analogous to that between nobility and commoners. Commoner women were the first to break the taboo against eating with men on a large scale. They not only slept with Cook's sailors and scientists, they shared meals with them as well. When divine punishment failed to result from their criminal acts, the old traditions began to lose their hold. That process was also accelerated by the arguments the English lovers made against “superstitions.”


Kamahameha remained a stalwart supporter of the traditional religion until his death in 1819. But he was succeeded by his son Liholiho who had no such resolve. The young king ruled with the active council of two women, his mother, Keopuolani, and the dowager queen, Kaahumanu. They took up where the commoner women had left off by convincing Liholiho to eat in public at a table of females shortly after his father's death. The dramatic act was more than the violation of one taboo among many. It signified the overthrow of the whole kapu system, and, with it, the ancient religion. Upon completing his meal, Liholiho ordered the temples destroyed and the images of the gods burned. So thorough was the conflagration that only one hundred and fifty wooden sculptures escaped the flames. They have survived to the present day thanks to the traditionalists who risked the king's wrath by hiding them away.[29]


The Enlightenment was expressed in a unique fashion by this cultural revolution. The oppressed gender demanded emancipation through the dismantlement of an “irrational” religious prohibition. In so doing, they opposed the priests who stood in the way of equality, a familiar Enlightenment motif. At the same time, the process they initiated freed all Hawaiians from apparent moral and intellectual subjugation by statues made with their own hands. Had he lived to see the day, de Brosses would have been pleased to watch the islanders abandon savagery by recognizing that no magical retribution would follow from the destruction of their fetishes. With this insight, they reached that threshold of scientific thought that Weber named "disenchantment." What makes the whole event especially remarkable is that it was not a result of missionary activity. At least for a while, it did not replace one spiritual framework with another, but an old time religion with no religion at all.


However, like nature, cultures abhor a vacuum. The triumph of the Enlightenment in Hawaii was short lived. In 1820, Puritan missionaries arrived from New England. As commercial interests robbed the Hawaiians of their land, the missionaries consoled the people, not with reason's austere empire, but with the promise of a heavenly home for the meek.

[1] Voltaire; Zadig/L'Ingenu, John Butt, tr. Penguine Books: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1964, 160.


[2] Quoted in Discourse, 45-46.


[3]  Perhaps Voltaire sensed future historical events between the words of the text. After all, the revolutionary mobilization of the sans cullottes lay only four decades off.


[4] Ibid., 68.


[5] Ibid., p. 90

[6] Ibid, 115.

[7] See Levi-Straus' celebrated discussion in Trieste Tropique.

[8] See the editor's note in Du culte des dieux fÀ)_Àtiches, p. 6

[9] Hume, p. 27. The passage is part of a long unattributed excerpt from Hume's book that extends from 104 to 107 of Du culte. The passage concerned is reproduced on page 106 of de Brosses' book.


[10] Ibid., p. 28

[11] Ibid., p. 26

[12] Du culte, p. 96

[13] Ibid., p. 33

[14] Ibid., p. 15

[15] Ibid., p. 19

[16] It is true that de Bosses suggests that contemporary savages may have degenerated from more advanced peoples as the result of divine retribution for sin. But, in light of the general conception of causality he shares with Hume, it is difficult to take this suggestion as anything more than a mythologizing metaphor for the consequences of the breakdown of social and moral reasonableness.

[17] To be precise, two forms of naturalism are involved here. The first consists in the rejection of transcendent principles of explanation. The second identifies indigenous peoples with the condition of animals. However, for the Enlightenment thinkers concerned, these two versions of naturalism were never clearly distinguished.


[18] Quoted in The Fatal Impact, p. 47

[19] Diderot, Denis; Supplement to Bougainville's Voyage in This Is Not a Story and Other Stories by Denis Diderot; P.N. Furbank, tr. University of Missouri Press: Columbia, Missouri, 1991. p. 108.

[20] The masculine formulation is an artifact of contemporary linguistic usage. Like Voltaire, Diderot argued for women's equality. (?) The natural sexuality of savages is as much a matter of female as male pleasure.

[21] Ibid., p, 107

[22] Supplement, p. 67


[23] Quoted in Fatal Impact, p. 71

[24] Quoted in Valeri, Valerio. Kingship and Sacrifice; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985, p. 6


[25] Kingship and Sacrifice, p. 7

[26] Major Trends, p.

[27] See Beaglehole, J.C. The Life of Captain James Cook. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1974. PP. 637-672.

[28] The Explorations of Captain James Cook in the Pacific As Told By Selections Of His Own Journals, A. Grenfell Price, ed. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1969. p. 259


[29] There is a good account of this event in Kuykendall, Ralph S. The Hawaiian Kingdom, 1778-1854: Foundation and Transformation; Honolulu: The Univerity of Hawaii Press, 1957. Pp. 61-70.