Tag Archives: Hawaiian Islands

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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The Third Voyage of Discovery of Captain James Cook

English: Captain Cook, oil on canvas painting ...

English: Captain Cook, oil on canvas painting by John Webber, 1776, Museum of New Zealand Tepapa Tongarewa, Wellington (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Captain James Cook and four of his me...

English: Captain James Cook and four of his men with natives. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Captain Cook’s third and last voyage was, as announced publicly, to return Omai to Tahiti. The real (and secret) mission of the voyage was to look for the fabled Northwest Passage. Cook left in 1776, with Omai, who had returned to England with Captain Cook on the earlier voyage. Omai was quite the celebrity in London during his visit to England. After returning Omai to Tahiti, Cook turned north becoming the first European to visit the Hawaiian Islands. Cook named the islands the Sandwich Islands after the Earl of Sandwich (at the time the Earl was the acting First Lord of the Admiralty).

1785 Cook - Bligh Map of Hawaii - Geographicus...

1785 Cook – Bligh Map of Hawaii – Geographicus – Hawaii-cook-1785 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After leaving Hawaii Cook next made landfall on what is today the Oregon coast at approximately 44°30’ north. Cook named this area Cape Foulweather because of the foul weather he encountered there. Something he failed to discover was the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Then he sailed on to Vancouver Island where Cook spent a month trading with the natives on the island.

A statue of James Cook stands in Waimea, Kauai...

A statue of James Cook stands in Waimea, Kauai commemorating his first contact with the Hawaiian Islands at the town’s harbour on January 1778 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From there, Cook sailed to the Bering Strait. Though he tried several times, Cook failed to sail through the straits. He did discover yet another inlet in Alaska, which is known as Cook Inlet. Most important, Cook filled in the blanks on nautical charts that existed between Spanish California and Russian Alaska.

Cook next turned south, arriving in Hawaii in 1779. Cook stayed in Hawaii for a month. Then just as they were to leave, a skirmish took place between the Hawaiians and Cook’s men. During this skirmish, Captain Cook was killed (I will write about this in the fourth and final Cook article).

Captain James Cook statue, Waimea, Kauai, Hawa...

Captain James Cook statue, Waimea, Kauai, Hawaii. According to the legend on its base, this statue is a replica of the original in Whitby, England, made by Sir John Tweed. Captain Cook’s dates are 1728-1779. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Charles Clerke took over the expedition and made yet another failed attempt to get through the Bering Straits. Clerke then died, and Captains John Gore and James King took over command of the HMS Resolution (Cook’s ship) and HMS Discovery (Clerke’s ship). In October 1780, the ships began their return voyage to England. During the return voyage, Captain King finished Captain Cook’s account of the third voyage.

Captain Cook had been sent, on three voyages, to discover a non-existent continent, and a sea passage that would not be discovered for another 150 years (and is impossible to sail through most of the year). Both of these were believed, by the best scientific minds of the day, to exist. Instead, Cook made more scientific discoveries than any explorer, while creating charts that, due to their accuracy, are still in use 250 years later. No small feat when you considered the crude (by modern standards) instruments he used. Just think what he could have done if he would have had GPS. Though he began life as the unknown son of an unknown merchant, when he died at age 51, he was arguably the greatest explorer Europe ever produced.


Filed under history, navy, ships