Captain Cook is a name well known to many British schoolchildren. The 18th century explorer, navigator and Royal Navy captain was famous for his expeditions to the Pacific, of which he made three during his lifetime.
Born in 1728 in Yorkshire in northern England, he joined the merchant navy while still a teenager, and at the age of 26 he joined the Royal Navy. His timing was perfect, as much was being made of British naval skills and there was a lot to be discovered out there over the seas.
In 1768 the 39-year-old James Cook was given his own commission, a ship which was to become synonymous with the great explorer. As Drake had his Golden Hind and Darwin would later become inextricably linked to the Beagle, so Cook captained the Endeavour.
With this ship, Cook made his three famous voyages. The first, purely scientific, was to make astronomical observations and, under secret orders from the Admiralty, to search for the fabled lost continent of Terra Australis.
Cook was the first European to contact the Māori of New Zealand, and very likely the first to have ever encountered the eastern Australian coastline. Cook landed at Botany Bay. And with this landing British interests in Australia started, a road which would lead to the colonization of the entire continent.
Cook returned to the south seas in a second voyage, where with the rank of commander he circumnavigated the globe aboard the Resolution. But it would be his third voyage, the first where he held the true rank of captain, that opened the book on the most gruesome chapter of his life.
Cook had secret orders for his last voyage too: he was to search for the fabled Northwest Passage, a navigable trading route through the far northern seas around Canada which, it was hoped, would link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. For this, Cook needed to travel to Hawaii.
The Last Voyage of James Cook
Captain Cook took to his new orders with gusto. His expedition was the first to map the Alaskan coastline and the area around the Bering Strait in any detail, and the Resolution, again his ship, forced itself northwards into the great unknown until finally forced to turn back by sea ice.
Returning to Hawaii in 1779, the 50-year-old captain and his crew made landfall at Kealakekua Bay on the largest of the islands. There is some evidence that Cook was seen as a sort of god by the natives, and he was welcomed to the island, where he stayed in comfort for a month, restocking.
There is some evidence that the islanders were starting to become resentful of Cook and his men. The Hawaii season had moved from the harvest festival of Makahiki to the season for battles, ruled over by the god of war, Kūkaʻilimoku. The Hawaiians had also stolen two boats from the Resolution, perhaps to see what Cook’s response would be.
Cook’s plan, however, was foolhardy in the extreme. On Valentine’s day 1779 he launched from his ship in the company of armed marines, who attempted to take the ruling chief Kalaniʻōpuʻu hostage. Although the chief left with Cook and returned to the beach without violence, there they were confronted by the angry relatives of Kalaniʻōpuʻu.
Incensed by the kidnapping, the natives attacked Cook and his men, James Cook was clubbed to the floor and stabbed, dying face down in the water of the beach. His body was then dragged up the slope to the local village, where it was torn to pieces.
Rumors persisted for many years afterwards that Cook had been eaten by his killers. While there is some anecdotal evidence of cannibalism, this comes from highly dubious sources there were no western eyewitnesses to this. A young William Bligh, later famous as the captain of the notorious Bounty, was said to observed Cook’s body being torn up through a telescope, but there is no clear evidence as to what happened next.
And so ended the life of the great explorer James Cook. So secure was he in his sense of superiority over the natives and so casual with their hospitality that it cost him his life, and maybe led to him ending up as dinner.
Top Image: The death of Captain Cook, his body being dragged away from the beach by his native killers. Source: Johann Zoffany / Public Domain.
By Joseph Green