James Cook was born into a farm laborer family in Yorkshire, England, and only lived to be 51, yet in that short life, he rose from being his father’s farmhand to becoming a distinguished Royal Navy officer and remembered in history as one of the world’s greatest explorers.
His brilliant career ended on Feb. 14, 1779, in a picturesque bay in Hawaii when violence suddenly erupted because he made an error in judgment that cost him his life.
In 1768, Cook, a surveyor in the Royal Navy, was commissioned a lieutenant in command of the HMS Endeavour and led an expedition that took scientists to Tahiti to chart the course of the planet Venus. In 1771, he returned to England, having explored the coast of New Zealand and Australia and circumnavigated the globe.
Beginning in 1772, he commanded a major mission to the South Pacific and during the next three years explored the Antarctic region, charted the New Hebrides, and discovered New Caledonia.
Then he retired — but not for long. Inside, he felt the call of the sea, and quietly made it known at the Admiralty that he might consider another assignment.
He had already circumnavigated the world twice and was offered a third opportunity. It would be his last.
He was given two reconditioned ships — HMS Resolution, his flagship and HMS Discovery. Their main mission was to explore and map the Pacific and to find a northern sea passage linking the Atlantic with the Pacific — bringing European trade with Asia vastly closer.
Leaving England at the same time the American colonies were declaring their independence, Cook headed for the Cape of Good Hope and waited there for a month for the Discovery, commanded by Charles Clerke to join him.
The two ships then headed west for the Pacific.
The expedition had enormous potential for glory, but it also was to be checkered with tragic events and dark conduct by the esteemed captain himself.
Cook made a brief trip to again explore Antarctica, landing on some islands at the voyage’s southernmost point.
Then they headed for Tahiti to return a Tahitian man named Omai who had been taken to England in Cook’s second voyage, and had become quite a curiosity in London.
But before Tahiti, Cook would stop at Tonga.
There, the highly respected but taciturn naval officer treated the natives harshly — particularly for thievery. Likewise, he became increasingly punitive toward the men under his command.
That behavior would continue in Tahiti and Hawaii — much to the consternation of his officers and crew — and may possibly have led to his death.
Leaving the South Pacific, Cook’s two ships headed north and unexpectedly found the Sandwich Islands — now Hawaii. Cook named them after his patron, John Montague, the Earl of Sandwich.
They stopped first at Kauai and Niihau, where the natives were fascinated by the ships and by the many things the visitors had that were made of iron. That helped in bartering from replenishing ship provisions: One nail bought a day’s supply of pork.
Their visit was only two weeks — possibly short because Cook may have become concerned about his crew swapping iron nails for sex.
Heading up the North American West Coast, Cook carefully mapped the coastline and collected specimens and artifacts.
They missed seeing the mouth of the Columbia — that honor awaiting American sea merchant Robert Gray in May 1792.
While looking for a safe harbor along the Washington Coast, bad weather prevented Cook from seeing the entrance to San Juan de Fuca Strait, but further north they found anchorage at Ship’s Cove in Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Cook is credited as the first European to set foot on the island, claiming the territory for Great Britain.
They stayed there for a month making repairs, re-provisioning, exploring and trading with the Nootka Indians for sea otter furs — highly prized in Asia and Europe.
Years later, that news of valuable furs in the Pacific Northwest would inspire the fur trade that helped open up the Pacific Northwest.
In April 1778, Cook was again underway, heading toward Alaska to look for the fabled “northwest passage.” By August, they crossed the Arctic Circle in the Bering Sea at latitude 70 degrees 41 minutes north — the farthest north in all of Cook’s travels.
They hunted the plentiful walruses to stock up on meat and on oil for lamps.
Then a wall of ice forced them to quit, so Cook set the sails for returning to Hawaii, arriving there in December.
Cook spent a month exploring around the Big Island before returning to Kealakekua Bay on Jan. 16, where they were greeted by 1,000 canoes filled with joyous revelers in the midst of a religious celebration, and treated Cook with great reverence.
For a month, the mood was festive, but the reverence the Hawaiians showed for their perceived god-like visitors suddenly changed when one of the crewmembers died — thus revealing their earthly mortality.
While the Hawaiians were bringing celebration of one god period to end and preparing for the next god’s turn, Cook sailed away to resume the search for the northwest passage.
Days later however, a strong gale damaged a mast and the two ships returned to Kealakekua for repairs.
When they sailed into the bay, the timing appeared to interfere with the ongoing religious rituals, and the earlier mood of hospitality changed to hostility. The welcome mat was no longer out.
While the mast repair was underway, skirmishes broke out.
On Sunday morning, Feb. 14, the watch officer on the Discovery noticed that the ship-to-shore rowboat had been stolen. Cook swiftly jumped in to resolve the matter with a plan to kidnap his friendly host Kalei’opu’u — king of all the islands — and hold him for ransom until the boat was returned.
Backed up with 10 armed marines, Cook rousted the great chieftain out of bed in the village of Kaawaloa on the bay’s northern shore early in the morning and escorted him down to the beach. Their captive sat down and refused to be rowed out to the ship.
The natives soon realized what was happening and a restless mob gathered at the scene.
Cook ordered his men to load their muskets with balls instead of shot.
One account explained what happened next:
“Word reached the gathering crowd that an important chief had been killed on the other side … Stones were thrown, men knocked down, muskets fired, and then a panic-stricken retreat to the boats was made by Cook’s men.
“At some point Cook, who had been walking slowly to the water … was stoned, clubbed, and then a dagger — ironically, one that had been traded to the natives — came out and struck him in the back of the neck.
“The frenzied crowd descended. Williamson, who was the closest in the launch, might have attempted to save his captain but refused to aid in his defense and kept off the shore.”
At least 30 Hawaiians were killed by musket and cannon fire. Four marines also lost their lives — their bodies and Capt. Cook’s left ashore as the rest of the crew with their wounded rowed swiftly back to their ships.
Watching all this through a spyglass aboard the Resolution was a young officer who would later be known as the notorious Capt. Bligh in “Mutiny on the Bounty.”
By mid-day, Bligh and an assault party burned down a village on the bay’s southern shore in revenge.
Charles Clerke, taking over command of the expedition, demanded that the Hawaiians return Capt. Cook’s body. To their credit, they treated the remains with the same dignity and honor as they would their own chieftains.
Tribesmen removed his body from the beach, disemboweled it, baked it and then distributed the bones among their villages — a traditional funerary ritual honoring important people in their culture.
Several bones were cleaned and turned over to the British who held a burial at sea ceremony for them with cannons and bells in the deep part of the bay on Feb. 22, 1779.
Then, the two ships headed back to England — arriving on Oct. 4, 1780.
Capt. James Cook was a great mariner and explorer, and for the next hundred years his maps were the best in the world.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The friendly Nootka Indians…
On Vancouver Island, “the men enjoyed the new sights and sounds (so many diverse birds), visited the Indians’ log-framed settlements, and cooked abundant fish. When they cast off their moorings on April 26, the local chief gave Cook a full-length beaver cloak and received, in turn, a broad sword with a brass hilt.”
— Princeton University study
After Cook’s death…
Before his voyages with Cook, Captain Charles Clerke spent time in a Fleet prison in London as the guarantor of another person’s debts. He developed tuberculosis in prison and suffered weak health thereafter. When he took command of the expedition after Cook’s death, he decided to make one more attempt to find the Northwest Passage. He failed — facing the same obstacles Cook did — as his health worsened. Just before reaching port at Kamchatka on the way back to England, his body “reduced to almost an absolute skeleton,” he died at age 38.
What happened to Cook’s ships?
Back in England in 1780, Cook’s flagship HMS Resolution was converted into an armed transport and sailed for the East Indies, was captured by the French who used it in battle against the British off India, then sent to Manila and never seen again. The Discovery returned to a Thames dockyard and was converted to service as a transport ship, later languishing in dockyards before finally being broken up in Chatham Dockyard in Kent in 1797.
Connecticut Yankee on board…
The only American who served aboard ship in Captain Cook’s last expedition was John Ledyard from Connecticut, a sailor and adventurer who became the first American to visit Hawaii and Alaska. Later a friend of Thomas Jefferson, his amazing story will be told in another History Corner column soon.
Bligh after Cook…
Captain Cook recruited William Bligh to be ship master (navigator) on the HMS Resolution, where his skills were honed by Cook. Returning to England after the Captain’s death, he served on many ships, rose through the ranks to vice admiral, became famous for a mutiny on the HMS Bounty; cast adrift by the mutineers in a small open boat accompanied by loyalists, he made an amazing voyage navigating to the East Indies, returned to England, was appointed governor of New South Wales, and tracked down 10 of the Bounty mutineers for trial — with three hanged. He died in London in 1817.
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