The Death of Captain James Cook


The native is carrying a feather helmet and cl...

The native is carrying a feather helmet and cloak that are in the Vienna museum (Zoffany borrowed them for the painting) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was always thought that Captain Cook was killed by the Hawaiians because he mistreated them (that is what I was always taught), thinking they were inferior to Europeans. Then, years later, I began to read the diaries and journals of Captain Cook and many of the men who were part of his three expeditions. There have been many misunderstandings on both sides, however, Captain Cook treated the natives he encountered with respect, and received their chiefs with respect and honor. It appears that the natives liked Captain Cook, and he them.

When Captain Cook left the Hawaiian Islands, for what he thought was the last time, there was an exchange of honor and ceremonies between the Hawaiian King Kamehameha. Soon after leaving safe harbor, the ships were caught in a gale and the foremast of the HMS Resolution was broken. Upon their return, Captain Cook received King Kamehameha with an exchange of gifts and honors, shortly afterwards several of the Hawaiian chiefs also boarded the ships for an exchange of gifts and honors.

While in harbor on several occasions, there were thefts of metal objects by the natives. These events usually resulted in marines and sailors going ashore to retrieve the items. A Hawaiian chief would meet them on the beach, and find out what was the problem. The chief would them retrieve the items, sometimes bringing back items that had been stolen but not yet missing by the sailors.

On one of these trips, Captain Cook accompanied his men. There was a crowd of natives around Cook and his men. Cook asked one of the chiefs to go back to his ship with him and the chief agreed. The crowd seemed hostile and he wanted to leave the area. When they arrived at the beach many of the natives decided they did not want the chief to go with Captain Cook. The chief acquiesced to their desires, but appeared upset at not going with Captain Cook.

When Captain Cook was the last man still ashore one of the natives walked up behind him stabbing and hitting him with a rock. The men left Captain Cook’s body ashore. When they returned for Captain Cook’s body, they found the natives had removed his internal organs and baked his body to remove the flesh and preserve his bones. The Englishmen (in every written account from the time) were appalled by this and found it barbaric. They were able to get the king to return to them some of the remains of Captain Cook, which they buried at sea.

English: The Statue of Captain Cook near the L...

English: The Statue of Captain Cook near the Lion Brewery in Auckland City, New Zealand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I looked at this, I realized that the Hawaiians, far from being barbaric, were honoring Captain Cook and had prepared his body as they did their own Hawaiian kings. In some respects, it reminded me of the Egyptians. King Kamehameha and his chiefs were a moderately influence on the Englishmen and the natives, frequently stepping between the two groups and resolving an issues that appeared.

I have condensed the events surrounding Captain Cook’s death in this article. However, when I was researching this, I wrote down what happened systematically so I could analyze the events. I tried to look at the events from the side of the English, the natives, and finally from the standpoint of a neutral observer. What I discovered was considerable misunderstandings on the part of the English, natives, and some historians.

History is not dates and places, or events that happened between faceless groups of people. History is the real life of living breathing human beings. Often, as in our own lives, there are misunderstandings and miscommunications, which can have disastrous consequences to those individuals. Consequences that both parties would have liked to have avoided. This was the case in the death of Captain Cook. As always, I invite you to research the written accounts of the day, and arrive at your own conclusions.

We can learn something from Captain Cook and his death. Even when we treat others with respect, it is no guarantee we will avoid disaster. Captain Cook chose to retreat, but waited too long, perhaps relying too much on the respect the English and natives had for himself, the chiefs and King Kamehameha. As a participant in the events, he also may not have realized the grave misunderstandings that existed that morning between the two groups of men. The end result was the death of Captain Cook.

English: Death of Captain James Cook, oil on c...

English: Death of Captain James Cook, oil on canvas by George Carter, 1783, Bernice P. Bishop Museum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Death of Captain James Cook

  1. P>K> Lynn

    Oops! Once again I suggested your growing up Southern articles to someone. How do we find them once we get to your page? They are a reminder that tough times don’t have to mean bad memories. Thanks!