The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas, by Anne Salmond, Penguin Press, 2003, 506 pages

The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas, by Anne Salmond

The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas, by Anne Salmond

Whether Anne Salmond’s history can be turned into a screenplay directly, or whether it requires a fictional treatment first, the subject matter cries out for (or blows a Maori conch shell for) Peter Jackson’s talents.  Mel Gibson, with his Apocalypto, gave us a mysterious jungle society — a new skin over familiar feelings – but could never shake free of the contemporary, or make us feel as though we’ve left a recognizable humanity behind, as does, say, the 1992 Mexican movie, Cabeza De Vaco, set in a similar time and place.

Jackson, however, could pull it off – not with 16th-century South America and the Conquistadores, but in the 18th-century conquests of the South Pacific with the peerless Captain Cook.  The primordial island scenery, the volcanoes and breadfruit, the fleets of canoes, the war dances, shootings, spearings, lashings, kidnappings, beheadings, human sacrifices, half-eaten body parts, cannon balls that skip across the surface of the sea, fireworks and water-rockets, icebergs and storms and illnesses, “lusty” naked (and sometimes pugilistic) nymphs, the greed for the power of guns and red feathers and sex and nails and mana, the pull and anguish of discovery, the families and rivalries and aristocracies that energize cultures as far apart as Tonga and London – Jackson could capture it all without allowing us to ever feel quite comfortable amongst the tribes we meet and the discoveries we make.  This, of course, is the thrill of all great adventures and all great art.

Salmond catalogues a tremendous amount of voyaging and I suspect she wearied at times of writing phrases like “shot a musket ball through the bow of the canoe” or “traded yams and a pig for a nail and a cloak.”  But we grow used to it, like waves at sea, and the lull of repetition, of waiting, recording, measuring, sounding, charting, bartering, of anchoring in quiet harbours, of floating on pinnaces, canoes and tall ships and hardly ever standing on solid ground, makes the encounters with the abrupt, abrasive substance of people so much more fascinating. Like the sailors at sea, we grow to crave and relish the human touch.

Captain Cook himself stands as aloof, dogged and unintelligible as any of history’s greatest figures. An early ethnographer and man of many mistakes, he found three weeks of a secure, well-paid country life in England — after many years at sea — more than he could tolerate and quickly returned to his South Sea adventures, not for the laurels (which he’d already received), or the lithesome lasses (for whom Joseph Banks so yearned), but for the sweeter flesh of scientific pleasure.  That such a man, the son of a farmer, was chosen by committee — as opposed to some freak of fate — to pilot the Endeavor and lay down his weapons, undress and bow before alien chiefs (or, contrarily, to plunder an entire Mo’orean village in revenge for a stolen goat), inspires us not just to appreciate Cook’s role in history, but to acknowledge the astonishing range of consideration of which a society is capable.

Salmond’s Cook is boyish, fastidious, passionate and detached, creative and sterile and reminds one of Abraham Lincoln in his inability to turn off the sub-woofer bass of his higher-calling which reverberates in his every word and action.  In Tahiti a group of importuning beauties jeered at his refusal to sleep with them – impotent old man! – but their mistake was simple: Captain Cook was not a man.  And he wasn’t really a captain, either; and when, while in New Zealand, he’s mistaken for a slave (taurekareka) – because he didn’t avenge the killing, and eating, of ten of his companions – the Maoris are perhaps more correct in their presumption than history credits them.  Cook was slave to his convictions.

Salmond does as best she can to present both sides of these cultural encounters (though she generally rides, like most her sources, inside the officers’ cabins of Cook’s ship), and amongst the islanders we find, in a kind of looking glass world, the mirror images of Cook and Banks and Webber and many other of the European big-wigs.  The islanders, too, have their own philosophers and philanders, their thieves and theists, crooks and kings, artists and adventurers – some of whose journeys, epics in themselves, Salmond allows us to closely follow; and their performance of taio, or name-exchanging, with Cook and his crew provides an apt anchorage that holds these repellent symmetries, however briefly, together.

O how great our enchantment when nothing is as it seems!  What differentiates a boat from an island?  On viewing Cook’s ship, the Hawai’ians gaily clambered aboard and started tearing off the iron bits, just as Cook’s men feasted on their island fruits and felled their trees.  And some of the island men even mistook a few members of Cook’s crew for ladies and jauntily pursued them to a secret place for coupling only to emerge bewildered yet wiser and more careful in formulating assumptions next time – like all great scientists and historians, amongst whom Anne Salmond sails with the same sense of endeavour and endurance, skill and passion for knowledge as Cook himself.

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