“Dear Sir,” the letter from Lord Sandwich to the English naturalist Joseph Banks began, “poor Captain Cooke is no more.” That was about all the Earl or anyone else could say with certainty, since word of the explorer’s demise had only just reached England’s shores, nearly a year after he died on the black-sand beach of Kealakekua Bay, on the island of Hawaii, on Valentine’s Day, 1779. Yet the passage of time did not clarify the matter: although thousands witnessed Cook’s death, exactly how he died is a matter of dispute to this day.
According to Cook’s journal, and to diaries kept by crew members aboard the Resolution, Cook first reached Hawaii in 1778, while searching for the Northwest Passage. When he returned, a year later, circling the islands for a few weeks before making landfall, the Hawaiians were celebrating Makahiki, a months-long harvest festival that honors Lono, a god who brings rain, peace, and prosperity. Like Cook, Lono travelled by sailing vessel and, before landing, circled Kealakekua—a coincidence that, the sailors later concluded, led the Hawaiians to call the Captain by the god’s name, take him into Lono’s temple, carve a ceremonial idol of him, and serve the crew feasts every day for nearly three weeks.
By the end of their stay, however, Cook and his men had worn out their divine welcome, spreading venereal diseases among the Indigenous population, quarrelling about ships and supplies, and destroying part of a burial ground. When they tried to leave, a storm forced the Resolution back into Kealakekua Bay, and the Hawaiians attacked. Later, some said that a chief named Nuaa stabbed Cook with a knife in the chest, or maybe in the back; others said that a chief called Kana‘ina struck him in the head with a shark-toothed club; and still others claimed that attendants of King Kalani‘ōpu‘u killed him with stones that they picked up along the beach. The story among Christian missionaries, meanwhile, was that Jehovah dealt the fatal blow, punishing Cook for allowing the Hawaiians to worship him.
But whether anyone actually worshipped the explorer is unclear. Was Cook killed because the Hawaiians finally concluded that he was not really Lono, or because they’d known that all along and decided that the reappearing foreign chief was a mortal nuisance who would never go back to his own kingdom? For every artist who engraved an image of Cook in the empyrean or playwright who staged a pantomime of him ascending from Polynesia into Heaven, there is someone else who insists that the English merely imagined that the Hawaiians deified Cook, a fiction that functioned as propaganda for a self-mythologizing empire that portrayed its agents as gods and its distant subjects as simpletons.
Who can make a god is as fascinating a question as who can kill one, and Anna Della Subin tries to answer both in her new book, “Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine” (Macmillan). Setting Cook alongside the likes of Haile Selassie, Hernán Cortés, Prince Philip, General Douglas MacArthur, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and even President Donald Trump, she considers why some men are made into gods, by whom, and—the most interesting of the mysteries about Cook and all of his putatively divine kin—to what ends.
“Accidental Gods” is not so much a chronology as an atlas of deification, but Subin nonetheless begins by tracing a history of the idea of apotheosis. In ancient Greece, only gods made other gods, mostly through procreation, but sometimes mortals were deified, too, in a kind of social climbing that could be accomplished through luck (e.g., Glaucus), feats of strength (e.g., Herakles), or marriage (e.g., Ariadne, Psyche, et al.). Shintoists once believed that the emperors of Japan were divine, and Confucianists in China regarded their rulers as sons of Heaven; Egyptians worshipped the pharaohs as gods. Apotheosis was easy, if bureaucratic, in ancient Rome (the Senate made Julius Caesar a god simply by passing a series of laws) but miraculous in Judea, where a prophet named John baptized a man named Jesus on the banks of the Jordan River, whereupon a voice from Heaven declared him the son of God.
The earliest of Subin’s man-god case studies arrives fourteen centuries later, announcing his own divinity. “They threw themselves into the sea swimming and came to us,” Christopher Columbus wrote of the Taíno men and women he encountered on the island of Guanahani, “and we understood that they asked us if we had come from heaven.” He recorded the same thing in his journal basically everywhere he landed, certain that any hand gesture conveyed worship, that every gift was intended as a religious offering, and that speech in languages he could not understand proclaimed his godliness.
In the age of exploration, sailors and missionaries trailed such self-justifying stories of divinity wherever they went. Although Cortés never claimed to have been mistaken for a god, his secretary made the case on his behalf, writing about how the conquistador was seen as a “white god” by the Mexica. With no Indigenous accounts to contradict it, the myth metastasized; the version handed down to schoolchildren today has Montezuma quivering before a man he has mistaken for the feathered god Quetzalcoatl and surrendering his entire empire to a few hundred Spaniards. Similarly, the Spanish insisted that Francisco Pizarro was heralded by the Incas as the second coming of the bearded, fair-skinned god Viracocha; the English maintained that Francis Drake was perceived as a god by the Miwoks in San Francisco Bay and Walter Raleigh by the Algonquians who met him on Roanoke Island; and the Dutch swore that Henry Hudson, who sailed for the East India Company, was taken for the great Mannitto by the Lenape who lived on the island of Mannahatta.
Sometimes man-gods protested such adulation, as the East India Company officer John Nicholson did when a few hundred Sikh sepoys began following him around Punjab. Nicholson had distinguished himself as a soldier in the First Afghan War, but, in the two decades before his death, in 1857, he became a derring-do deity for men who called themselves Nikalsainis. They prayed at his feet and chanted adoring hymns; they were undeterred when he whipped them with his riding crop or cursed them for their devotions. Nicholson led the invasion of Delhi during the Indian Mutiny and died eight days later from a gunshot wound, but his cult survived his death, and some Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus identified as Nikalsainis well into the twentieth century.
Nicholson apparently tried to persuade his followers to worship Christ instead, but other man-gods weren’t sure what to do when offered veneration. During the Second World War and in the years after the armistice, General Douglas MacArthur was deified across three continents: by the Guna people on the island of Ailigandi, near the Panama Canal; by some Shintoists in postwar Japan, who saw him as the replacement for Emperor Hirohito or the reincarnation of the country’s very first emperor; by various Hwanghae-do shamans in South Korea, who claimed to channel his spirit while drinking whiskey, chain-smoking, and wearing American military uniforms; and by villagers on the island of Biak, off the coast of New Guinea, who believed he was the scabby old god Manarmakeri, who could slough off his skin to become the Manseren Mangundi—the Lord Himself. For his part, MacArthur might have needed his soldiers to worship him, but he admonished the countries whose armies he defeated to worship democracy.
Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, took a different tack when he was told that villagers on the South Pacific island of Tanna, in Vanuatu, believed he was the Messiah. With guidance from anthropologists, he sent the villagers autographed pictures, accepted their ceremonial gifts, and eventually helped fulfill one of their prophecies by welcoming a delegation of five Tanna men to Buckingham Palace. Subin observes how collaborative the Duke’s divine status always was, with the Tannese encouraged by the British: “The religion of Philip is real because it has been told and retold, by South Pacific priests and BBC storytellers, by journalists and palace press officers, in a continuous, mutual myth-making over the course of forty years.”
There are man-gods who aren’t white, of course. Subin recounts how a sixty-eight-page feature in National Geographic on the coronation of Tafari Makonnen as His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, King of Kings, Elect of God, and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, became sacred scripture for thousands of Rastafarians. And she explores the worship of Gandhi by some of those who opposed the British Raj, noting that it was supposedly the theosophist Annie Besant who first called Gandhi “Mahatma,” from the Sanskrit for “great soul,” though he hated the title. Both Gandhi and Selassie denied their divinity—their insistent refrains of “I am not God” are two of the epigraphs for Subin’s book—but each inspired colonial independence movements in his lifetime and posthumously in communities around the world.
If Subin’s book consisted of nothing except these and other biographical sketches, “Accidental Gods” would still be fascinating. But Subin also argues that these deifications came in waves, ushered in by civil wars, conquests, and revolutions, and she observes that some of these men were deified at the same time that the very ideas of religion and race were being reified. Imperialism sent travellers and missionaries into the wider world, and they in turn sent back travelogues, cultural reports, and foreign relics and manuscripts, from which scholars began formulating new theories, often of their own superiority. Other countries and races were thought to be less evolved than white Europeans, and Christianity was seen as the rational faith against which the emerging science of religion measured all other beliefs and practices.
Take the German philologist Friedrich Max Müller. He was heralded as an expert on India despite never having been there, Subin points out, and he helped create the discipline of religious studies, in the late nineteenth century. Previously, Europeans had divided the world into four religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Paganism. Müller added others, among them Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. He could make a religion out of “anything that sufficiently resembled Christianity,” Subin writes, whether or not the culture it came from regarded it as one faith or, for that matter, as a religious faith at all.
So it was that one of the world’s oldest, most varied systems of thought became “Bramanismo” and “Gentooism” and “Banian Religion,” then finally the exonym Hinduism, a single label applied to the diverse beliefs of all the people living around the Indus River, who were then declared with Procrustean zeal to have a trinity and to be in need of a pope. “African” religion was reduced to fetishism, with allegedly arbitrary objects deemed sacred by believers who were seen as superstitious rather than devout. Any kind of ritual observance in any part of the world was made to conform to belief of the creedal kind, and every pantheon was contorted to fit categories like prophet or saint, with rigid distinctions like deity and mortal imposed where they had never existed before.
The same subjects who knelt before their kings and sang hymns of praise to their queens looked elsewhere and diagnosed all ritual practice as worship, reducing every instance of veneration to deification. The very scholars who were doing that diagnosing were also drawing new distinctions between the religious and the secular, justifying political adoration while judging religious zealotry. Post-Reformation Europe had forced Catholicism and Protestantism into an uncertain truce, with Enlightenment ideas of tolerance banishing spiritual beliefs to the private sphere while public life focussed on politics.
In this new order, Subin argues, deification would become, at best, heretical and, at worst, nonsensical. “With the rise of nationalism and liberation movements in the twentieth century come the politicians and activists, secularists and modernists, who were dismayed to learn of their own apotheoses, as tales of their miracles contradicted their political agendas,” she writes. Such people expected political fealty, not religious faith. Their discomfort was born partly of experience: Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Narendra Modi were worshipped as Vishnu, but so was Adolf Hitler. Leadership cults were both agents of empire and agents of its destruction, and they were perceived as dangerous by those for whom the preferred objects of devotion were entities like the state or ideas like human rights. It is in this same spirit that present-day political commentators argue that Americans should exalt the Presidency, not the President.