It is from Crash Course World History. It is at around 9 minute and 18 second. Here it goes:

So if we cast Cook's death as a part of a native ritual, we are implying that Hawaiians were just performing a ritual script, which takes away all their agency as human beings.

I can understand what agency means itself, but I have difficulties getting what it means there.

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    what does "agency" mean by itself. A quote from a dictionary would help this question.
    – James K
    Jun 6, 2018 at 10:31
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    As a director of Private Tutor Agency, this is interesting.
    – user17814
    Jun 6, 2018 at 13:08
  • I suggest you read about agency on Wikipedia. It means: ability to act here. Not stage acting. Perform acts as a human being.
    – Lambie
    Jun 6, 2018 at 14:10

4 Answers 4


Although agency has long had the meaning of "the capacity to act with intention" in philosophical and legal contexts, it has recently found new life in American academic and political discourse in contexts where the subject is oppression of minorities. There it becomes used rather like a synonym for self-determination.

native ritual has connotations of trance-state, where people may act without awareness.

  • I am sorry, but I am confused. Does it mean that by taking away their agency as human beings they cannot decide for themselves or that they cannot act like human beings? Jun 6, 2018 at 15:41
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    It is saying neither of those things. The statement is not about Hawaiians. The statement is about interpretations of that event that involved Hawaiians. To cast (i.e. to portray) Cook's death as the result of a native ritual would be to treat those Hawaiians as having no free will in that instance, as mere puppets of the cultural ritual.
    – TimR
    Jun 6, 2018 at 15:59

I'm not sure about this but I think that the meaning that apply here is

According to Merriam-Webster


2: the capacity, condition, or state of acting

In the eyes of the speaker it seems that primitive Hawaiians can not be considered humans because they killed Captain Cook following a ritual.

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    Agency comes from the Latin word agere which means to do or to act, by the way. Jun 6, 2018 at 13:05
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    @MichaelRybkin Good point. But as stated in en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/agency it may be closer to agens/agentia, the noun. agere is the verb. I guess that they both share the same root.
    – RubioRic
    Jun 6, 2018 at 13:58

To me, the two words of importance here are "ritual" and "script". The on-line Oxford Dictionary defines "ritual" as:

a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order

Likewise, a "script" can be understood to be:

a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order,

It seems that the author is suggesting that Cook's death was the result of some sort of ceremony and, once that ceremony began, it would play out step by step to the finish. There would be no need for individual thinking or volition (i.e. the exercise of personal agency), as every participant simply went through the steps required by the ritual. By participants, I mean the Hawaiian Islanders; no doubt the British sailors would have preferred not to take part in this ceremony.

From my reading of the events (e.g. see link below) this appears to have been a simple act of retribution, and not any form of ritual. In which case, the participants were in possession of their agency, and Cook and his sailors got what they deserved.


Rather pedantic… but:

"• [ count noun ] a thing or person that acts to produce a particular result: the movies could be an agency moulding the values of the public.' (Oxford Dictionary of English).

I suspect this is political correctness.

As a free-thinker I should say 'victims' instead of 'agency' for I do not care about Hawaians' potential recriminations about their ancestors bloody customs.

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