Dako was taken prisoner from an island off New Guinea in 1830 by Captain Benjamin Morrell, who took him back to America where he became something of a celebrity, appearing at New York’s Bowery Theatre. This sealed Morrell’s reputation as an adventurer, allowing him to fund another expedition and return Dako to his island. Reduced to these scant details, the tale might have been written by Defoe, but the fuller story is somewhat darker. Dako was not the only prisoner taken on that voyage; a second had an unhappier time of it, and when he died of tuberculosis in New York, Morrell sold his head. As for the captain, his desperation for fame has a contemporary ring: his stated ambition was to become known as ‘the American Captain Cook’, and to this end there were newspaper interviews, tours of the country, and a stream of letters seeking financial backing.
It’s those commercial motives which provide the backbone of the story: ‘the ripe fruits of profit’ hung waiting for the first westerners who arrived in the South Pacific. The more genuine relationship that Dako formed was with an American journalist, Theodore Dwight, to whom he described the customs of his people, providing Dwight with evidence of a common origin in the far-flung cultures of the world. Fairhead draws on Dwight’s records to allow for as complete a picture as possible to emerge of Dako, and in doing so fleshes out a time when the world was growing both smaller and more varied.
THE CAPTAIN AND THE CANNIBAL: An Epic Story of Exploration, Kidnapping and the Broadway Stage by James Fairhead, Yale University Press, £25 (hardback)
This book review was published in the April 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine