Captain Cook In Our Kitchen

Here’s an intersting quote I found. In 1770, the explorer Captain James Cook wrote this about the unfamiliar races of Pacific Islanders he encountered on his historic voyage.  

From what I have said of the Natives of New Holland they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a Tranquility which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life; they covet not.

This is an expression of an archetype in history and literature called the Noble Savage — a clumsy but well-meaning oaf whose primitive lifestyle must be met with paternalistic tolerance. "Oh, look at the Polynesians. Aren’t they cute?"  

Where is this kind of condescension appearing today? A lot of places if you look for it.  

  • Among the rich: “Those Africans. They live such beautifully simple lives." 
  • Among the poor: “Look at those one-percenters. They don’t have a care in the world, do they?" 
  • Among skeptics: “Those religious people are so earnest. I wish I could believe in fairy tales." 
  • Among the faithful: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”  

We can even see this in the way we dress and decorate. It’s no coincidence that "lumbersexuals" and "cottage chic” are trends now that almost no one knows a real lumberjack or lives in a real cottage. We have a tendency to idealize and objectify categories of life with which we aren’t familiar. To assume that farm life or liberal thought are simple and pitiable — that the woodcutter’s or Pacific Islander’s experience of life can’t be as complex and frustrating as ours.  

This is where the Christian message can inform a diverse society. A story that casts us all as moral savages leaves no room for any Captian Cooks. A religion of reconciliation can inspire a fellowship of differents. A worldview where God is sovereign and none are innocent can remove our patronizing belief that we are powerful and others are ignorant.  

Captain Cook could have used that perspective in 1770. We could certainly use it in 2015. 

Ryan SandersComment