Tuesday, December 27, 2011

87. Hawaiian Feather Helmet (NOT ON DISPLAY)

Cultural Misunderstanding.
Here’s a gorgeous helmet which would have required the feathers plucked from some 2500 birds of Hawaii, made into an amazing ceremonial helmet that was presented to Captain Cook when he first landed on the big island of Hawaii. That first landing was during the month devoted to the god of peace. When he returned later, during the month devoted to the god of war, Cook received something of an entirely different nature from the Hawaiians: the spear-thrust that killed him. Don’t ask me why they had a month devoted to the god of peace, and then a month devoted to the god of war; I’m reminded of the old Peanuts cartoon, where Linus asks at Christmastime “Why do we only feel and share thoughts of love and joy and Christmas? Why can’t we be like this all year long?” and Lucy responds, “What are you, some kind of fanatic?”

Cook has long been a great hero of mine, in terms of that Ishmael-like need for a quest: “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.” Who knows what inner dissonance impels such spirits ever to map the unknown regions: men like Richard Burton (another personal hero), who was so completely at sea in London society. It’s not wisdom. Wisdom might help, if you want to make it back in one peace; you might even be in quest of wisdom, as I suspect Ishmael is, when you set out. But Cook’s ultimate failure in Hawaii indicates a lack of wisdom, in some degree; a poor choice that then backfired. In this case, apparently, some islanders had stolen a small boat from his ship, probably (in the spirit of the god of war) trying to push it, try out a little aggression, see where that got them. Cook tried to kidnap the king from the beach, to hold him for ransom until the boat was returned, but the king’s bodyguards killed him as they walked along the beach. It was an unusual but fatal miscalculation, for a man who had finished mapping the globe, filled in all the remaining white spaces, and done so (in Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific) with remarkably few hostilities and fatalities.

Yet the main takeaway is that, even if he was good at setting up amicable relationships centered on trade and barter, at bottom there was always huge misunderstanding, based on fundamental ideas so central to the miscommunicating cultures that they could barely be expressed. Example: one of MacGregor’s experts, on this podcast, was a Hawaiian intellectual who spoke of Hawaii’s eventual independence from the United States. Is there a movement afoot, for them to secede? News to me. I can see why they’d want to be their own nation, their association with this country is probably more advantageous to us than it is to them. But as a mainland American who occasionally does business in Hawaii but doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the state, it would never occur to me that there was a movement afoot to separate. Cultural misunderstanding, 21st century, alive and well.

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