Wednesday, May 02, 2018

I Read Books: The Trial of the Cannibal Dog

In The Trial of the Cannibal Dog, Anne Salmond notes that traditionally the Europeans have been studied by historians, while Polynesians have been in the realm of anthropologists. It was her aim in this book to examine the interactions between groups during Cook’s three voyages to the Pacific with a little more history for the islanders and some anthropology for the explorers.

Hence the titular incident; putting an animal on trial was something that Europeans did, and doing so as a proxy for a serious complaint well known. (In this case Cook’s failure to respond to the killing and eating of some of the crew of the Adventure during the previous visit to New Zealand). However roasting and eating the dog was not a typical European action, while dogs were on the Polynesian menu and eating someone to take on their mana or power was precisely what the Maoris had done.

The heart of the book is detailed accounts of every encounter between the various peoples of the South Seas and Cook’s crews. This can be a little overwhelming, and occasionally, when things go well and they meet chief after chief and exchange gifts (usually iron or red cloth for food) repetitive. Fortunately I was reading this for research* so the day to day routine was of help to me in getting a feeling of how the voyages went on.

Read This: For an excellent account of how Cook emerged in Polynesia, and in return how the Pacific Islanders influenced him and his crews.
Don’t Read This: If lengthy discussions of the details of relatively mundane encounters are not of interest. Also, the paperback edition I read had a quite small font; perhaps it’s because I’m getting older but I sometimes found it not easy to read after a day of staring at the computer screen.

* Occasionally while making notes for Age of Sail Fantasy stories I found myself shaking my head at, for example, the ships being chased by windspouts of New Zealand. It’s the kind of ridiculous encounter that would be considered TOO MUCH in fiction.

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