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Situational Overdetermination in “The Apotheosis of Captain Cook” by Gananath Obeyesekere



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    Situational Overdetermination in “The Apotheosis of Captain Cook”
    by Gananath Obeyesekere

                With authority from the English monarch, Captain Cook and his crew left Plymouth on July 12, 1776 on board in Resolution and the Discovery. The primary motive of the journey was to determine whether there was a passage above the North American continent. Captain Cook sailed to Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Tahiti. He also “discovered” and named Christmas Island and went to the Hawaiian Islands. After which, he sailed to Alaska.

                On his way back to Plymouth (a part of the thirteen colonies), Captain Cook returned to the Hawaiian Islands to resupply his ships. He named the islands “The Sandwich Isles” after his longtime friend, John Montague, the Earl of Sandwich. While searching for a safe harbor, Cook landed in the so-called “Kealakekua Bay” on the coast of the Big Island. The natives were surprised to see Captain Cook. The natives held a feast for Captain Cook which they regarded as the representative of Lono, the god of fertility and harvest.

                It was also during Cook’s arrival that all wars ceased and competitions were held to show respect and honor to the “representative of Lono.” The natives gave special items to Cook and his crew (Cook here was treated as a god). Ceremonies were held to uphold the divinity of Captain Cook and to hope for a better future. In addition, the natives offered sacrifices to other gods, considered to be “affiliates” of Lono. The natives hoped for continued blessings of the gods.

    Definition of Situational Overdetermination

                Thus, when Captain Cook returned to Plymouth, his ships were filled with goods given by the natives. In addition, Captain Cook was rewarded by the English monarch wealth and position in the British Empire. In Captain Cook’s dealings with the natives of Hawaii, there was what Gananath Obeyesekere called “situational Overdetermination.” Situational Overdetermination is a “particular conjunction of events renders appropriate a specific definition of the situation” (Obeyesekere, 1992: 97). The conjunction of events here included Cook’s arrival in the Hawaiian Islands, the activation of ancient religious rituals to honor the arrival of a “god”, the cessation of Maui wars (in honoring the gods, there was a need to cease human activities that destroy relationship with the divine), and the assumption of leadership of the chief priest of Lono in the spiritual activities.

    Significance of the Encounter Between Cook and the Natives

                The encounter between Captain Cook and the Hawaiian natives was according to the author, “a continuation of Western mythological tradition.” To put it in simpler terms, the encounter was a form of voluntary renunciation of the old religion and morality and acceptance of the new one. However, with the “onslaught” of Western missionaries in the Hawaiian Islands, and the destruction of the old religion, “arrival” acquired a new meaning. It means relative acceptance of new beliefs by covering it as a continuation of past beliefs or values (Obeyesekere, 1992:97). This hypothesis though remained unverified. As noted in Obeyesekere’s book, anthropologists had long debated over the validity of the concept, due perhaps to the different interpretations of data gathered.

                The encounter between Captain Cook and the precolonial Hawaiians can also be viewed as a form of domination of mindset. The author explicitly said that European mythmaking in the Pacific in the 18th century was characterized by exploitation of existing religious rituals, designed primarily to “appease” the gods. The Europeans exploited this opportunity to subdue or at least bring a positive image to the natives. This was done in an overestimated situation. Nevertheless, the term “determination” here connotes a devalued significance of positivistic meaning of culture; a show of cultural domination (Obeyesekere, 1992).

    Specific Application of the Concept

                 Obeyesekere (1992) identified some authors who presented some hypothesis to explain the concept. Sahlins (an anthropologist) argued that the concept was really a uniform triangulation of existing customs; a way to “formalize and universalize” existing religious customs (Obeyesekere, 1992: 98). For him, the commencement or initiation of the main festival (the Makahiki) was marked by the sighting of the Pleiades. He argued that the festival could only occur if such sighting occurred (the arrival of the representative of Lono). Thus, according to him, the landings of Cook in the islands coincided with the festival. This was also observed during the Vancouver’s visit of some islands in the Pacific.

    Some anthropologists argued that the concept was used to regulate wars in the islands. True, fiefs in the Hawaiian Islands were militaristic; however, when important festivals were called by the chief priest, wars should cease. In addition, although the natives viewed war as necessary (according to some anthropologists, resources in the islands, were very limited during that time – a form of adaptation), it should not cover the periods when gods or representatives of the gods returned to the islands.

    Instances of Situational Overdetermination

                There are generally five situational overdetermination observed by the author during Captain Cook’s encounter with the natives. Here are as follows: 1) Cook’s arrival in the islands, 2) activation of old religious rituals to honor the arrival of a representative of a god, 3) cessation of all wars in the island, 4) the assumption of leadership of the chief priest of Lono, and 5) the endowment of honor by the natives of the god’s representative.

                Each of these instances was cloaked with meaning, according to the author. The arrival of Captain Cook marked the beginning of the main festival in the islands. The activation of old religious rituals or customs was an affirmation of their much-cherished culture (a form of worship to their culture and values). The cessation of all wars in the island was generally a form of respect to the celebration (also a form of respect to their prevailing culture). The assumption of the chief priest of Lono was an affirmation of their cultural proximity. Even if the Hawaiian Islands were divided into “petty kingdoms”, they were “culturally related.” The endowment of honor or prestige to the god’s representative was really a form of showing honor to their culture.


    Obeyesekere, Gananath. (1992). The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific.  Princeton University Press.

    Situational Overdetermination in “The Apotheosis of Captain Cook” by Gananath Obeyesekere. (2016, Jun 23). Retrieved from

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