The Captain and “The Cannibal”: An Epic Story of Exploration, Kidnapping, and the Broadway Stage
by James Fairhead, Yale University Press, 377 pages
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.