The Cap­tain and “The Cannibal”: An Epic Story of Ex­plo­ration, Kid­nap­ping, and the Broad­way Stage

by James Fair­head, Yale Univer­sity Press, 377 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - — Jonathan Richards

I made him know that his name should be Fri­day. ... I like­wise taught him to say Master, and then let him know that was to be my name.

— from Robin­son Cru­soe (1719) by Daniel De­foe

In the dash­ing world of Er­rol Flynn’s movie swash­buck­lers of the 1930s, Cap­tain Blood turned to piracy in much the same way Robin Hood turned out­law; forced by evil cir­cum­stance, Blood played the pi­rate to bat­tle the cor­rupt au­thor­ity forces who preyed upon in­no­cent, de­cent men. And in time he pre­vailed, re­turned to the fold of hon­est folk, and turned the ta­bles on the abusers of power. These were tales of ad­ven­ture and right­eous­ness, pure and sim­ple.

A hun­dred years ear­lier, real ad­ven­tur­ers prowled the seas, and their tales and their char­ac­ters were sel­dom pure and never sim­ple. In his en­thralling ex­plo­ration into the story be­hind a Broad­way play­bill from a night in Fe­bru­ary of 1833, for a spec­ta­cle at the Bow­ery Theater with the blood-chill­ing ti­tle The

Can­ni­bals; or, Mas­sacre Is­lands, and with a per­sonal ap­pear­ance by a real spear-throw­ing cannibal, Bri­tish an­thro­pol­o­gist James Fair­head brings to life a slew of char­ac­ters who open up a rous­ing set of ad­ven­tures upon the high seas. And if you were cast­ing the prin­ci­pals, you would turn to a more con­flicted pres­ence than Flynn for Cap­tain Ben­jamin Mor­rell, the Cap­tain of the book’s ti­tle. You’d want some­one with the moral am­biva­lence of a Rus­sell Crowe to recre­ate this charis­matic ad­ven­turer who at one time claimed the ti­tle of “The Amer­i­can Cap­tain Cook,” who was the most cel­e­brated Amer­i­can sea cap­tain of his day, but who also fol­lowed hubris, reck­less­ness, im­pru­dence, pla­gia­rism, fab­ri­ca­tion, and a sea-chest of other flaws to a down­ward drift into the mael­strom of slave trade, piracy, and dis­grace.

The man who shares the book jacket with Cap­tain Mor­rell, the “cannibal” of the ti­tle, is Dako, a South Sea is­land prince from a re­gion then so re­mote that un­til re­cently an­thro­pol­o­gists did not credit it as hav­ing been vis­ited by Western­ers un­til some decades af­ter Dako’s cap­ture by Mor­rell. Fair­head, who de­scribes him­self as “a twenty-first-cen­tury an­thro­pol­o­gist whose whole aca­demic pur­suit has been to con­front such big­otry” takes care to place the word “cannibal” in quo­ta­tion marks, to gingerly dis­tance him­self from the cul­tural im­pe­ri­al­ism it con­notes. Still, it’s a hell of a story, one he can’t re­sist telling and one you wont be able to re­sist read­ing. “His­to­ries can and must be told,” he de­clares. “Plea­sures can be taken. In­dulge in irony, I de­cided, and feel the guilt.”

Dako was from Uneapa, an is­land off New Guinea. For the Broad­way show in which he was fea­tured, he was billed as Sun­day, and the other is­lan­der cap­tured and brought with him to New York was called Mon­day (Fri­day hav­ing been re­tired by Daniel De­foe a cen­tury ear­lier). To the is­lan­ders, New York seemed like the land of the dead, the mys­te­ri­ous other world to which their cul­ture be­lieved we all must travel when we die.

Dako ar­rived in this coun­try at a time when ar­gu­ments were com­ing to a boil about the ori­gin of man, about God’s cre­ation, about slav­ery and hu­man rights. “Were Africans, Na­tive Amer­i­cans — and now Pa­cific Is­lan­ders — equal in the sight of God or lesser peo­ple to be ex­ploited?” In New York, Dako was put on dis­play as a cu­rios­ity, but he was also be­friended by lib­eral thinkers who sought to un­der­stand and record as much about him and his ex­otic ori­gins as they could un­der­stand through the per­spec­tives of their own cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence.

Mor­rell’s show­boat­ing tac­tics and his sorry record of re­turn on the in­vest­ment of his back­ers cre­ated hur­dles to his se­cur­ing fi­nanc­ing for another voy­age to the South Seas, but even­tu­ally he was able to set sail, with Dako on board (Mon­day had died of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis in New York), and re­store the young prince to his is­land, where his re­turn from the dead gave him leg­endary celebrity and stand­ing. Ac­com­pa­ny­ing Dako on the voy­age back, be­friend­ing him and learn­ing his lan­guage, were two young boys of good New York fam­i­lies, Se­lim Wood­worth and Tom Ja­cobs. Wood­worth and Ja­cobs were ro­man­ti­cally en­twined and yearn­ing for ad­ven­ture, and their jour­nals pro­vided in­valu­able records for Fair­head to mine, as he fol­lows them into the bizarre cir­cum­stances of their later lives.

Ad­ven­ture was a dif­fer­ent prospect in the 19th cen­tury than it is to­day, as the world has shrunk and what was once ex­otic and un­known has been cat­a­logued and linked to our world by the in­ter­net and so­cial media. The real ad­ven­turer of our time may be some­one like Fair­head, a vi­sion­ary de­tec­tive who has dug into records that were crum­bling, dusty, and lost from view, and used them to recre­ate a story that is as amaz­ing now as it must have been to the peo­ple who lived it.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.