Between Worlds: A new musical theatre work reimagining James Cook’s encounter with the Hawai’ians
by Nick Higginbotham
James Cook’s 18th Century voyages of discovery brought home an unparalleled wealth of Oceanic material culture that continues to give life to contemporary understandings of Pacific Peoples. Observations by Cook, his officers, crew and scientists form an essential part of the European record of many Pacific societies during early encounters with European voyagers.
While James Cook’s journeys to Hawai’i opened island culture to the outside world—over time bringing pressure for rapid social change and loss of a fragile natural environment—they provided written and artistic documentation of a complex society thriving in the vast Pacific.
For a decade, I’ve been working with composer Gareth Hudson on Between Worlds, a musical reimagining Cook’s encounter with Hawaiians at Kealakekua Bay. Here, on Hawai’i’s Big Island, he was welcomed as a form of Lono-i-ka-Makahiki; god of peace, harvest and nature’s renewal. Lono, identified with the earliest settler Hawaiians, processed clockwise along the island coast during the Makahiki New Year festival (as did Cook’s sloops) bearing white kapa cloth draped upon a sail-like crosspiece, receiving offerings to fructify the land (Sahlins, 1981; Thomas, 2003). Our story explores how the desires and tensions brought to that encounter shaped the joyous and tragic moments that unfolded.
Between Worlds reveals an unexpected side of James Cook’s personality: his openness to embrace Polynesian culture, and single-minded ambition to go ‘farther than… I think it is possible for man to go’ in the quest for immortality. During those intense days at Kealakekua, everyone — officers, crew, royalty, priests, commoners — became caught between both literal and figurative ‘worlds’ in a whirlwind of time. Cook’s willingness to be accepted as a Hawai’ian god set the course for his own fate.
Staging the show offers potential for representing known historical artefacts in costumes, body ornaments, musical instruments, and religious and ceremonial objects used by our story characters. One scene alone is rich with possibilities. At their first meeting, King Kalani’opu’u boarded HMS Resolution off Maui, led (no doubt) by a royal standard kahili and the blare of a conch trumpet (pū). He gave Cook a great feathered cape (‘ahu’ula) and (later) received in return a fine linen shirt and Cook’s naval sword. A priest would have held aloft a red and yellow feathered image (ki’i hulu manu) of the King’s war god Ku-ka-‘ili-moku. Most likely, the King would be wearing a breast ornament (lei niho palaoa) made of finely plaited and braided human hair with a carved sperm whale tooth, and a feathered helmet (mahiole).
I had the privilege of seeing several of these sacred treasures (possibly received by Cook) held by the Australian Museum (AM) in their Cook-Banks collection comprising 148 Hawaiian artefacts. The shell trumpet (pū) comprises two attached shells, a carrying cord, and human hair tassel. The AM has the wickerwork base for a mahiole, much prized because it reveals how feathers can be attached to wicker foundations. The double-gourd hula drum (ipu heke) was sourced from Honolulu’s Bishop Museum.
The lei niho palaoa, one of two at the museum, is also seen in the Cook-Forester Collection, among others. These symbolically potent breast ornaments were worn by high chiefs (men and women) asserting their noble birth and divine right to rule. The exquisitely carved whale ivory evokes the presence of the ocean god, Kanaloa, while the braided hair embodies the ‘mana’ or spiritual power of one’s godly ancestors (Maia Nuku, Curator, Metropolitan Museum of Art). For commoners, the outwardly pointing ivory hook may have suggested a more chilling awareness, that life and death were in the chief’s hands.
It would be an adventure to populate the stage with representations of selected objects belonging to the Kealakekua society Cook encountered. Native Hawai’ian advisors would need to be consulted about which representations can be used, and their respectful stage presentations. Some may be felt to stir powers that are best left undisturbed. However, that adventure awaits a future full production of Between Worlds.
In late June, we will hold a three-week development workshop led by award-winning Sydney theatre-makers Jason Langley and Michael Tyack. The workshop, with 17 actors, will be followed by our first public showing – a staged ‘workshop presentation’ — at the Australian Theatre for Young People, Walsh Bay Wharf, Sydney, on July 15 (3pm & 8pm) & 16 (3pm). Blake Erickson has the role of James Cook (shown on HMB Endeavour replica).
OAS members are warmly invited to join us at the staged workshop performances. Your reactions to the show will help us develop it further. Please visit our website for ticketing and other information (see also OAS website ‘Events’ link):
To help pay for the large cast of professional actors, we have a crowdfunding campaign underway through the Australian Cultural Fund. All donations are tax deductible.
See you on the wharf!
Sahlins, M. (981). Historical metaphors and mythical realities: Structure in the early history of the Sandwich Island kingdom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Thomas, N. (2003). Discoveries: The voyages of Captain Cook. London: