The relationship between culture and history, structure and event is one of those questions to which every school of social science has an answer. Marshall Sahlins belongs to that vanishing species: the historically minded anthropologist. Like his mentor, Leslie White, and his colleague, Elman Service, Sahlins has dedicated much of his career to discovering the significance of cultural change. While White and Service concentrated on the old problem of evolutionary stages, Sahlins has taken to philosophizing about the nature of things—a questionable practice for an anthropologist, but by no means unusual (cf. Clifford Geertz, Levi-Strauss, and the pop philosophe, Marvin Harris). For all his quirks and oddities (likes Marx, hates sociobiologists), Sahlins may be the most interesting of the lot.

Islands of History is a series of essays, not quite integrated into a book, on the meaning of history in Polynesia. In one way or another, most of them touch upon the strange circumstances surrounding the death of Captain Cook on 14 February 1779. Sahlins demonstrates that Cook was received by the Polynesians as the god Lono, but, through a complex process of transmutation, he came to be seen as a sacrificial victim. The mystery—for there is a mystery which Sahlins approaches like a detective—is a tangle of many threads: Polynesian religious beliefs, sexual behavior, and the conflicting expectations of commoners and kings. To understand Cook’s last days, we must understand how his arrival and subsequent actions fit into the cultural preconceptions of the natives. What seems at first sight a simple act of political assassination turns out to be part of a cultural process in which the past becomes present. Put crudely, culture is prior to politics.

In a perplexing and sometimes brilliant concluding chapter, Sahlins tentatively explores “the relation between structure and event,” beginning with the proposition that “the transformation of a culture is a mode of its reproduction.” He repudiates the “basic Western distinctions” between history and structure, stability and change and argues for culture as a synthesis of both. “Every practical change is also a cultural reproduction.” The Hawaiian chiefs were able to deal productively with Cook, precisely because they could fit his arrival into a mythological scheme that included past and present: ‘The irruption of Captain Cook from beyond the horizon was a truly unprecedented event. . . . But by thus encompassing the existentially unique in the conceptually familiar, the people embed their present in the past.”

For Sahlins, culture is the key: “the organization of the current situation in the terms of a past.” Happenings are only historical events, because culture makes them so. Repeatedly he alludes to a Maori uprising during the 1850’s. What the British saw as a political rebellion against their presence in New Zealand was actually a war against the flagpole, which represented—to the Maori and even to the British—conquest and dispossession (the same flagpole was attacked by Maori protestors in 1982-83). But it does not take an anthropologist or cultural historian to realize the significance: Americans and Europeans, no less than Maori and Hawaiians, are constantly engaged in reproducing and reinterpreting their culture. The political process—all the gimcracks and chicanery of electioneering and legislating—derives its meaning and relevance from the underlying culture. In the long run, what matters is not what “happens” but how that happening is incorporated into the mythology that shapes our social life. At the lowest level, control of the White House and the Congress counts for less than control of schools and churches. If you really want to change the world, forget about politics and start talking back to your minister and your children’s teachers.


[Islands of History, by Marshall Sahlins; The University of Chicago Press; Chicago]