Gary Krist  is the author, most recently, of “Empire of Sin.”

An Epic Story of Exploration, Kidnapping, and the Broadway Stage

By James Fairhead

Yale Univ.
377 pp. $40

A New Yorker wandering into Peale’s Museum on Broadway in September of 1831 would have encountered a vast compendium of exotic items — an Egyptian mummy, a stuffed Bengal tiger, the dried, tattooed head of a New Zealand chief — all testifying to the young American nation’s expanding role in world exploration. But amid this collected evidence of 19th-century globalization, one exhibit in particular would have stood out: a “Cannibal Show” featuring two South Sea islanders found during a recent American expedition to New Guinea. Not only did these men come from one of the least-familiar places on the globe, they were also very much alive. And for a public interested in titillation as much as education, they provided a welcome frisson: “Any gentlemen or ladies who desire to see how people look who eat each other up,” the New York Commercial Advertiser wrote about the show, “will now have an opportunity of gratifying their curiosity.”

But as James Fairhead points out in “The Captain and ‘The Cannibal,’ ” his superb new cultural history masquerading as an adventure tale, New Yorkers had additional reasons to be curious about these two young men. The question of human origins was a hot topic in mid-19th-century America. Opinions differed starkly on whether all peoples of the globe had descended from Adam and Eve, or whether God had made separate acts of human creation in different parts of the world. “Sunday” and “Monday” (as the islanders were fancifully called) had also arrived on these shores at a particularly volatile time, just when these religious issues were becoming highly political, thanks to the growing controversies around slavery and Native American genocide. As Fairhead writes, “The dominant white Americans debated how to treat minorities: Were Africans, Native Americans — and now Pacific Islanders — equal in the sight of God or lesser peoples to be exploited?”

‘The Captain and "the Cannibal: An Epic Story of Exploration, Kidnapping, and the Broadway Stage’ by James Fairhead (Yale Univ.)

Well, we all know how that question was answered, at least for a large number of Americans in the 1800s. But what makes Fairhead’s story especially intriguing is that, in the case of at least one of the captive islanders, the exploitation was not entirely one-sided. For Dako (the more accurate name of the man billed as “Sunday”) was able to parlay his four-year residency among the “civilized” whites into a political and economic asset once he was returned to his native land. His journey to America may not have been voluntary, but it did end up materially improving his life back home.

Fairhead, a professor of social anthropology at Sussex University in Britain, makes much of this paradox in his description of the evolving power relationship between Dako and his captor, an American sea captain named Benjamin Morrell. Commanding a speedy commercial clipper Morrell had originally sailed to the remote archipelago east of New Guinea in 1830, after abandoning a seal-hunting expedition that had proved fruitless. The clipper’s reception by the local population was hostile, to say the least, and so Morrell felt no qualms about commandeering two of their number and bringing them back to New York. His motivations were less scientific than economic. For one thing, he hoped that by charging American audiences to see these alleged cannibals (and by publishing a book about the expedition that led to their capture), he might defray some of the enormous personal debt he’d incurred as a result of his failed seal-hunting mission. More important, he intended to use his prisoners to attract investment in a return journey to their homeland, touting them as invaluable commercial ambassadors to a rich new trading territory that would doubtless yield great profits for everyone involved.

Morrell’s instincts proved to be sound. Thanks in large part to the fame he acquired from his book and his traveling “Cannibal Show,” he was by 1834 able to finance another Pacific journey during which he planned to install Dako as a trade intermediary on his home island. (“Monday” had by this time died of tuberculosis.) By vouching for the expedition’s good intentions, Dako would persuade the islanders to put down their weapons and cede a virtual monopoly on commerce in the region. Dako was thus potentially worth (by Fairhead’s calculations) hundreds of thousands of dollars to Morrell — a fact that was not lost on the bright young “savage.”

The saga of Morrell’s 1834 expedition is too long and complex to recount here. Suffice it to say that the journey ends well for virtually no one except Dako, whose imported personal supply of muskets and cutlasses — and his privileged relationship with the white strangers, whom the islanders persist in regarding as powerful figures from the spirit world — lend him a fabulous prestige among his fellows. Morrell, on the other hand, meets with shipwreck, lost cargo and a reputation destroyed by allegations of fraud and misconduct. It’s all a fascinating glimpse into the sometimes ruthless Realeconomik of the early 19th century, which Fairhead delivers with great storytelling flair. And if the story of Morrell and Dako is not a particularly important chapter of American history, it did leave a lasting mark on American literature: Dako, Fairhead informs us, served as the real-life model for Queequeg, the unforgettable tattooed harpooner in Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.”