Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Our feet of clay

Men have felt compelled to explore this vast planet ever since they first set one foot in front of the other. Legends and histories of humankind are full of adventurers whose travels and expeditions opened up new territories and opportunities for human development.
In the annals of exploratory expeditions by so-called civilized nations, it would be difficult to find a leader whose accomplishments are more impressive than Captain James Cook.
As an English sea-captain, he lead three voyages of discovery around the world during the 1700s, in wooden sailing ships.
In 1776, after he had already conducted two global circumnavigations, the energetic Captain Cook was ready to embark upon another. Some men can never get enough of adventure; he was one of them.

Captain Cook's exploits probably have little to do with our American struggle for independence from George III's reign. But (I notice, coincidentally) it was eight days after our famous Declaration, that on July 12, 1776, the vigorous expedition leader lifted anchor to depart from Plymouth, England and sail around the world yet again. This came during a restless age of brave expansions for human enterprise, while at the same time an era of bold political experiments.

Long story short. After Captain Cook had guided his two ships, the Resolution and the Discovery, all the way southward through the Atlantic, around the treacherous currents of South America's contenental tip, and then northward in the Pacific, he arrived at the Hawiian Islands, which is where I am now writing this 233 years later.

Captain Cook did not linger long there. After touching upon the westernmost island, Kauai, his two crews continued northward. They explored the North American coast in the areas of present day Seattle and Vancouver, then proceeded along the (now) Canadian coast toward Alaska, upward through the Bering Strait. Their attempts to make northern progress and discover the long-sought-after Nothwest Passage back to England were stopped cold by Arctic ice. So they turned around, followed the Russian coast southwestward along Kamchatka, then southward back into the Pacific. Eventually they hit upon, again, the Hawaiian archipelago, which were called by the English at that time the Sandwich Islands.

What a long, rigorous voyage that was, a very impressive accomplishment for a bunch of men in two rickety sailing ships propelled only by the wind and their own fortitude. Their southward return brought the ships Resolution and Discovery back to Hawaiian shores.

Here is curious a characteristic of human nature. In initial encounters between civilized and uncivilized people groups, it has been oftern reported that the so-called savages greet the civilized men with respectful awe that borders on veneration, and leads in some cases to a kind of worship. This is what Captain Cook eperienced in Hawaii. He and his men were greeted as gods.
Dumbstruck by the glitters of European gold, the strength of forged steel swords, the wonders of sailing ships and billowing sails, and the authoritative behaviour of the swaggering English sailors, the Hawaiian primitives responded with reverence. On many occasions, they prostrated themselves before the strutting sailors who had traveled from a technologically advanced society.

When residents of the big island, Hawaii, first encountered Cook's entourage at Kealakekua Bay, they prostrated themselves before the newcomers, then showered the hapless explorers with copious gifts of meat and fruit. All was well for a few weeks, and the strutting sailors from afar basked in the glow of their newfound divinity. But it wasn't long before the lustre of their godhood began to tarnish around the edges, and the Hawaiian King, Kalani'opu'u, suggested to the good Captain that maybe his band of merry men should be moving along.

So the English drew up their anchor and sailed away. But very soon, the foremast of Captain Cook's Resolution broke. They had no choice but to turn back and repair the damage. So they returned to Kealakekua Bay on the big island of Hawaii to repair it.

This time, however, the natives' reception was less obsequious. In fact, the Hawaiians were by this time a little weary of their new alien supermen. Their was tension in the air. A few of the Hawaiians had begun to view the amazing white man wondermnts more as potentially useful implements instead of objects of mysterious power. Some of the natives managed to abscond a small boat (called the pinnace.) The English, men of military inclinations, became quite alarmed.. A confrontation occurred. Men stared; tempers flared. One irreverent Hawaiian spotted a chink, as it were, in the superior English armored facade. He might have even discerned, beneath the techno-civilized countenance of Captain Cook, a mere man, like unto himself.

As events are commonly wont to do in human skirmish, a minor altercation suddenly and unexpectedly became the impetus for a lethal act. A knife--a knife wrought of English craftsmanship, but now wielded without warning in the hand of an Hawaiian protective of his King--put an end to the life of the legendary Captain James Cook. The great explorer's powerful implements of wood and iron, his golden mantle of authority, were not sufficient to ensure his power over men, nor to extend his life beyond a sudden disagreement's violent outcome.

Among the race of men, these things happen. Great forgers of human progress die; explorations falter; institutions crumble; empires fall, in spite of the reverence and awe lavished upon them. Ultimately all men are vulnerable in some way or another. Though the mighty and the great among us are given golden opportunities, silver adornments and iron-like authority, they are struck down by the great equalizer of death, and exposed as unsustainable, mortal men. Their inherent feet of clay will topple their lives, their institutions, their empires of gold, silver and iron.

In the ancient empire of Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar was a man not unlike like Captain Cook. Though not a great explorer, he performed that role which is among men the most revered--conquering king, But one strange night he had a dream that he didn't understand, and it worried him. He summoned an aide, a captive prophet, who interpreted the dream. Daniel explained to Nebuchadnezzar that his great empire, with him as the golden head of it, would one day crumble and fall, because of those vulnerable feet of clay, which are the fallen nature, the fallible genetic heritage, of every homo sapiens who has ever stood on God's earth.

Whether you are a conqueror of nations, or an explorer who has sailed around the world three times,or a pretty nice guy, or a drunk who sleeps in a storefront, your feet of clay infallibility will topple you someday. It may be that another savage like yourself will cross your path in a barfight or on a freeway and put an end to your deal.

Little had Captain Cook known, when he made that landfall at Hawaii, it was his last one.

Glass half-Full

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