Tag Archives: James Cook

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.


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Captain James Cook – Part Two

In the navy, the commander of a ship is always referred to as Captain, regardless of his/her actual rank. Captain Cook, after his first world voyage, was promoted from lieutenant to commander. On his first voyage, Cook had shown that New Zealand was an island and, by charting the east coastline of Australia, he had shown that Australia was continent sized. However, the Royal Society did not believe that Australia was the fabled Terra Australis. The scientists at the time believed that the landmasses in the northern hemisphere were countered by landmasses of equal mass in the south. This was the Royal Society’s basis for believing that Terra Australis existed. Finding this fabled continent was the reason for Cook’s first voyage, and the reason the Royal Society and His Majesty’s Navy sent Cook on his second voyage (1772-1775).

Cook set sail in command of the HMS Resolution, with Tobias Furneaux commanding the HMS Adventure. This voyage he circumnavigated the world at a higher southern latitude. Cook also became the first man to sail below the Antarctic Circle, reaching 71 degrees and 10 minutes South. Cook turned back before reaching the Antarctic mainland, and became separated in fog from the HMS Adventure. Furneaux then sailed the HMS Adventure back to England.

Before leaving the Pacific, Cook visited Easter Island, Norfolk Island, and several other islands. Then he sailed round Cape Horn and across the South Atlantic, claiming islands (for Britain) while exploring, surveying, and mapping; before turning north for South Africa and England.

Cook’s reports in England put to rest the belief in the fabled Terra Australis, he was made a fellow of the Royal Society, promoted to post-captain and retired. Once again, Cook was honored and praised upon his return, painted by noted portrait artist Nathaniel Dance-Holland, awarded medals, and praised by Parliament. Cook resisted retirement, but had little choice.

Cook’s greatest accomplishment, for the seafaring community at least, was his use of Larcum Kendall’s copy of a John Harrison marine chronometer. In Cook’s day, finding a ship’s latitude, north or south, was a simple act of taking a sighting on the sun (daytime) or star (at night) and performing the mathematical calculations to arrive at your ship’s north or south position. East and west longitude was not so easy to calculate. The common way mariners navigated was to steer a course for an island with a known longitude and latitude, upon sighting the island they would sail for another known island. This way the navigator could do a fair job of plotting his ship’s progress. This method caused ship’s captains to sail much longer routes. What navigators needed was an extremely accurate timepiece, a chronometer. Many kingdoms around the world were offering prizes for the first person to create just such a marine chronometer, one that was portable and would stand up to the rigors of life at sea.

The way a marine chronometer is used to find the ship’s longitude is a simple matter. The chronometer is set to the time at a known place, on English ships this was Greenwich, England (known as Greenwich Mean Time or GMT). The ship would sight the sun with a sextant at the local noontime for the position they were in, this is the time when the sun is at its highest peak in the sky. The time for local noon would be noted, and the ships clocks would be reset to local noon, all clocks except the marine chronometer that is. Then the difference between local noon and Greenwich noon would be noted and the difference would be the difference in longitude.

If the local noon happened when it was 1 PM in Greenwich, then the ship was 60 minutes west of Greenwich, which is also 1 degree west of Greenwich or at a longitude of 179⁰ W. Latitude and longitude are divided into degrees, 180⁰ of west and 180⁰ of east longitude. Latitude is divided into 90⁰ north and south latitude. Time on a clock and position in latitude and longitude is directly proportional. One hour in time equals one degree in distance, minute for minute, and second for second. Each degree is divided into 60 minutes, and each minute is divided into 60 seconds; so that 23⁰ 45’ 8” N 119⁰ 17’ 11” W is read, “23 degrees 45 minutes 8 seconds north 119 degrees 17 minutes 11 seconds west.” What the marine chronometer did was to free ships to sail the most direct route from any point on the earth to any point on the earth, in some cases shortening sea voyages by months. This was a huge savings in supplies a ship would have to carry, and for the merchant marine, less travel time meant more voyages and more income. This also meant that ships could now sail anywhere in the world, and know precisely where they were, something never possible before.

A year later, a voyage was planned to find the fabled Northwest Passage. Cook, chafing in retirement, volunteered to lead the expedition. This was Cook’s third and last expedition, one from which he would never return. But, oh what an expedition it was. For now though, we will leave Cook in his unwanted retirement.

Have a great week and take care of yourself,

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Let’s Cast-Off for the Great Pacific Ocean … Who’s With Me?

Portrait of Captain Cook

Portrait of Captain Cook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love the ocean. I like being on the beach, but for me being on the beach just does not quite get the job done … I have to be at sea. Walking on the beach almost gets it done. But it is still second best to having my feet firmly planted on a heaving deck with a salt spray in my face. Today I am going to share with you one of my maritime heroes. This man inspired me to go to sea; he was the last great nautical explorer. I admire men like John Paul Jones and Sir Francis Drake, both great tacticians who frequently started and won battles others would have avoided. These two men never thought about odds, and never withdrew from a fight.

Some people would think that Sir Francis Drake (a relative of mine) would be the one who inspired me to go to sea. As our family’s genealogist, I have found a few inspiring people in our family tree. But, each and every one of us create our own life story based on the decisions we make in life. Our relationship to the famous or infamous has no influence on our successes or failures. A relationship to someone of note does not make us any better or worse than anyone else. One last point I want to make in this distasteful paragraph is that each and every one of us have black-sheep and heroes in our family tree if we go back far enough. It does not change who we are. We decide who we are by the choices we make in life.

It was the life choices of James Cook that made him into one of England’s greatest mariners and explorers. Captain James Cook was born on 27 October 1728. This was a time when the circumstances of your birth determined how far in life you were allowed to go. This was an age when commanding officers of His Majesty’s Royal Naval ships were gentlemen, by class and birth if not always by manners. The second son of a common laborer, born far from the ocean, could be an able seaman, but never a ship’s captain. However, that is exactly what James Cook became.

Official portrait of Captain James Cook

Official portrait of Captain James Cook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a teenager, James Cook first went to sea in merchant ships. From the beginning, he vigorously dedicated himself to the study of mathematics, navigation, and astronomy. He slowly rose through the ranks, and was within a month of becoming a commander of his own merchant ship when the Seven Year War broke out with France. James Cook quickly left the merchant marine for the Royal Navy. He had to start over again from the bottom, but he believed he would have the opportunity for more rapid advancement in the Royal Navy during wartime.

Cook saw action and handled himself well, but there was nothing to make him standout against his fellow officers. It was during the siege of Quebec that James Cook surveyed and mapped the mouth of the St. Lawrence in 1758. General Wolfe used Cook’s maps for his famous surprise attack on the Plains of Abraham in 1759. His work during the siege of Quebec revealed Cook as a talented surveyor and cartographer.

After the siege of Quebec, Cook was sent to survey and map Newfoundland. Cook’s work in Newfoundland in the 1760’s was the first large scale, scientific hydrographic survey of Newfoundland’s coasts. His charts of Newfoundland’s coast were so accurate they were still being used 200 years later, well into the 20th century. Cook’s achievements as a surveyor and cartographer were duly noted by the Admiralty and the Royal Society.

In 1766, the Royal Society ordered Cook to the Pacific Ocean to observe and record Venus transiting across the sun. He left England on 26 August 1768 and rounded Cape Horn; arriving at Tahiti on 13 April 1769. It was in Tahiti that Cook made his Venus observations. After this was completed, Cook opened his sealed and secret orders from the Admiralty for the second part of this his first great voyage to the Pacific. Cook was to search for the fabled continent of Terra Australis.

Statue of Captain James Cook at Admiralty Arch...

Statue of Captain James Cook at Admiralty Arch, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cook left Tahiti and mapped the entire coastline of New Zealand. He also became the first European to discover the eastern coastline of Australia, and the first European to meet indigenous Australians, Aboriginals of the Gweagal tribe. Making landfall in Australia at Kurnell Peninsula, he named the area Stingray Bay, because of the numerous stingrays. After the many unique plant specimens discovered by his botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander he renamed Stingray Bay, Botany Bay.

Captain Cook returned to England by the Cape of Good Hope and the isle of St. Helena, arriving 12 July 1771. It would be five years before his second voyage to the Pacific. During this time, his journals were published, Cook became a hero in the scientific community. His charts of the east coast of Australia clearly showed Australia was a continent, but it was believed Terra Australis was further to the south.

It is impossible for me to do justice to Captain Cook’s voyages in the context of my blog. Any one of the accomplishments of this first voyage (that have unfortunately been left out due to time and space) is worthy of a book length treatment in its own. If you are interested in finding out more about Captain Cook and his voyages, I highly recommend downloading his journals from your favorite e-book store (they can be found as a free download on Amazon.com) or your local library.

Map showing the first voyage of Captain James ...

Map showing the first voyage of Captain James Cook. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In future articles on Captain Cook I will discuss his next two voyages to the Pacific, his exploration of the northwest coast of North America (the area that is today Washington State, Oregon, and the west coast of Canada), and his death. The death of Captain Cook and his relationship with the Hawaiian people has been somewhat misunderstood and misrepresented in our modern times; I hope to give you a greater insight to this incident so you may come to your own conclusions.

As always, take care of yourself,

Love those dear to you,

And have a good week.


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