The Death of Cook

It had all been just a terrible mistake. Things got out of hand. It was tragic. Really. An accident. A fatal one. Today a lonely monument stands in solitary salute, isolated across a small bay, on the location of the tragic event.


James Cook was undoubtedly the most famous navigator of the 18th century. Indeed, his name is still revered as a paragon of exploration, navigation expertise and accomplishment. Called ‘Captain Cook’ he was but a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Yet because he commanded a ship he was entitled to be called ‘Captain’. He was not a British aristocrat nor did he have much in the way of political influence. But he was a steady and accomplished British naval officer who was, at first, charged with a relatively minor task: sail to Tahiti and observe the transit of Venus.


The Royal Navy had a problem with navigation. In the 18th century navigation was still an inexact science and the Navy paid a huge toll in shipwrecks as its ships piled up on both charted and uncharted reefs. Some men of science proposed that if the transit of Venus across the face of the sun could be plotted from different locations on the globe, they would be able to more accurately plot the circumference of the earth. This, in turn, would help them determine longitude. Not true, as is turns out. But the effort gained unexpected results. During his journey Cook would explore and map many previously unknown Polynesian islands. His scientists would bring back exciting new discoveries, titillating the world by the display of previously unknown floras and faunas, all magnificently exotic. Cook would be sent three times to the Pacific to explore and map. His discoveries would confirm the presence of a continent called Australia. He would bring back the first maps of a place called New Zealand.


In his third voyage he was asked to do the impossible – find the mythical ‘Northwest Passage’. The northern way around North America, the Northwest Passage, was the Holy Grail of exploration. The only problem was that it didn’t exist. Nobody knew that for sure so Cook was sent to confirm or deny its existence.


So Cook returned to the familiar waters of Tahiti. He spent some time refitting his two ships, Resolution and Discovery, and charting islands with their attendant bays and possible anchorages. He then departed to the north, headed for Canada and the pursuit of the Northwest Passage. However, a strange thing happened enroute. About a month north of Tahiti land was sighted. But there was no land here. At least none plotted on Royal Navy charts. It appeared to Cook to be a series of islands. And it was. Cook and his crew were the first men to sail from Tahiti to Hawaii in over 500 years. As Cook approached the island of Kauai canoes came out to greet him, offering fruit and fish for trade. The language that was shouted from the canoes sounded much like the Tahitian language Cook had mastered. He would constantly wonder how these people, so similar to Tahitians, had arrived in these islands over 2,000 miles from the nearest land. He would never know the answer to that riddle.



As Cook coasted around these strange islands he arrived off the Big Island, Hawaii. His arrival was mistaken by the Hawaiian priests as the coming of the god Lono. He was treated with reverence and pomp, his two ships loaded with fresh food. Cook and his crew ventured ashore and formed acquaintance and friendships with many of the Hawaiians. Cook would write in his log that he was surprised by the relative wealth and organization of this new society. There was obviously a royal court complete with king and courtiers, a priestly class and a common people accomplished in a variety of trades. His relationship with the Hawaiians was one of mutual exploration, neither side understood the other. But the Hawaiians, a Stone Age people, understood the superior technology of the westerners and the clear implication of their metals and tools. Nothing of metal was safe around any Hawaiian. They wanted it all.


Despite the serendipitous finding of these islands Cook was not to be deterred from his main mission of seeking the Northwest Passage. The small expedition headed north into the Pacific, the ships groaning under the gifts of food supplied by the Hawaiians. Only to return. A storm at sea had sprung the main mast of one of the ships. It was foolish to continue in such condition so Cook returned to Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island for repair.


The coast of the Big Island is not the creamy sand beaches that many imagine for Hawaii. Instead the beaches, if they exist, are black sand and rocky. Many are small with little protection from ocean waves. Kealakekua Bay offered modest protection from the ocean swell and access to forests for timber for repairs.


But the Hawaiians were troubled by the return of Cook. If, as they supposed, Cook was a god, why did he return? It was not his season. He had left - he should remain gone until his time of coming next year. And why would a god need help in repairing his strange canoe? A certain uneasiness crept over the Hawaiians and their relationship with the strangers. Perhaps they weren’t gods at all, perhaps they were something else? While Cook and his crew struggled ashore to find and shape a tree with which to repair their main mast, trouble broke out.


Early one morning the officer of the watch reported to Cook that one of the ship’s boats was missing. The Resolutions’ two boats had been tied off behind the ship overnight. Some one had cut one of the boats loose overnight and stolen it. This was a very serious matter to the British. The boats were the only way for the crew to get ashore for water and supplies. Without his boats Cook knew he was in serious difficulty. Cook knew he must act immediately to recover the boat.



He ordered out a landing party of Marines, armed with muskets and bayonets. Leading the landing party, in two boats, he landed on the rocky beach on the north side of Kealakekua Bay. As this was the area where the Ali’i lived he was greeted by a welcoming committee. He brushed aside the greeters and headed for the king’s house. Kalaniopuu was the Ali’i nui, king of kings, of the Big Island of Hawaii. Kalaniopuu and Cook had formed a respectful friendship as Kalaniopuu recognized Cook as, if not a god, at least the Ali’i or chief of the strangers. He was honored by Cook’s sudden appearance but surprised that he would appear unannounced. Which was Cook’s whole intent. Cook had dealt with theft by locals in a variety of islands in his explorations. A show of force, sometimes even the use of force, had inevitably resolved the problem. Another strategy had been to seize a head man and hold him hostage against the return of the stolen item. This method had worked equally well for Cook. Cook intended to take Kalaniopuu on board his ship and hold him hostage for the return of the stolen boat.


Little did Cook know that his action was too little too late. A sub-chef had ordered the theft of the boat during the night. The boat had been hauled ashore and burned for its nails. Metal fasteners were more valuable than gold to the Hawaiians.


Cook began insisting that Kalaniopuu accompany him to his ship, immediately. Kalaniopuu was an elderly man and the king of kings. He was usually sheltered from this type of sudden activity by his court. He had no wish to offend his fellow chief, Cook, by refusal but was confused as to Cook’s insistence and urgency. Cook’s animated behavior also alarmed the court, who urged the king not to go. The sight of the red coated Marines with bayonets fixed did nothing to calm the members of the court. Cook managed to get Kalaniopuu started down the path toward the beach over the loud objections of the court. The sound of an altercation near the king’s home brought other Hawaiians running to investigate. Confusion reigned. With Kalaniopuu in Cook’s close company there was no one to issue orders to the court. Various commands were shouted among the Hawaiians. Some tried to block the route of march to the beach. Pushing and shoving with the Marines began. The Marines made threatening gestures with their bayonets toward the Hawaiians. The Hawaiians were not intimidated. They knew nothing of firearms but did know they had the contingent of Marines greatly outnumbered. They demanded the release of the king. Cook refused. The beach was in sight. His boats waited just offshore. But the press of the Hawaiians was too much. Rocks were thrown. A musket fired, then another. Clubs and stone daggers appeared in the hands of the Hawaiians. Cook ordered the king released and his men to fall back to the beach. Too little. Too late. By now the melee had become general, men struggling, stabbing, falling. Marines, offshore in the boats, began to fire into the crowd. Cook turned his back to the shore and began waving to his boats. Some would say it was a signal to cease firing. Others would say it was a signal to come in immediately and take them off. Much would be written about the actions of the officer in command of the boats that day. The writings would not compliment him.


Cook, on that rocky beach with his back to the shore, was struck from behind by a club. He fell to his knees. He was then stabbed with a stone dagger as he disappeared under a mass of attackers. Their leader down, their boats still offshore, the press of the Hawaiians too great, the surviving Marines dropped their muskets and swam for the boats. The struggle was over. The boats would pull for the safety of the ships, which by now had run out their cannon. There was nothing to do now but count the dead. On both sides.


The British were stunned by the death of their leader, a legendary man. The Hawaiians were equally stunned. What had happened? Nobody had felt ill will toward Cook. The King thought of him as a fellow leader. He admired him. The King mourned. When the King mourned, everyone mourned.


Overnight the British licked their wounds. The Hawaiians buried their dead. Including Cook. Since the King regarded him as an Ali’i, he would be buried as an Ali’i. The Hawaiians believed that a man’s spiritual power, or mana, reposed in his bones. The rest was just so much flesh. Therefore they only buried the bones of their kings; the rest of the body was disposed with. And they buried their kings in secret so that no one would steal the bones and their mana.


Charles Clerke would assume command of the expedition. One of his first orders was to demand of the Hawaiians the body of Cook. The British wished to give their leader a proper burial. They had no idea that the Hawaiians had already seen to that. After much delay the Hawaiians would turn over some of Cook’s bones. What happened to the rest of them will never be known. But the return of the bones would give rise to an ugly rumor: the Hawaiians had not only killed Cook but eaten him too. False. The Hawaiians, and most Polynesians, were not cannibalistic. On special occasion they may indulge in human sacrifice, but they did not eat people. Instead they had returned to the British that part of Cook which the Hawaiians regarded as sacred. They had sent this strange Ali’i back to his people, his mana intact.


The lonely monument on the small bay is accessible only by foot or by boat. The foot path runs two miles downhill. And two challenging miles back uphill. One may also kayak over from the state park on the other side of the Bay. It is just as the Hawaiians had accessed the bay those many years before. For a man who would have towns, rivers and islands named after him, it is small enough tribute. It is mournful, standing in isolation all alone. When the King mourns, everyone mourns.




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