My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
Today – February 14th – is the anniversary of the death of the great sailor and explorer Captain James Cook, who was killed in Hawaii in 1779 while on his third circumnavigation. The circumstances of his death illustrate how easily misunderstanding, expectations and raw emotions can escalate into a tragedy everyone regrets.
Hawaiians mistook Cook for Lono, their god of agriculture, rains and peace, when he first arrived in the islands on January 17th, 1778, and welcomed him with lavish hospitality and sales of food and supplies for his two ships, Resolution and Discovery. Lono was expected to return from across the seas – just as Cook was arriving.
Cook’s mission, on his third circumnavigation, was to explore for a westerly entrance to the fabled Northwest Passage across the top of the Americas. In the summer of 1778, he sailed far northwards in the Pacific, through what was later named the Bering Strait into the Chukchi Sea. But on August 17th 1778, he was surrounded by ice at almost 71° N and forced to retreat.
Cook decided to return to the Hawaiian islands to over-winter and anchored in Kealakekua Bay. Welcoming a returning god and supplying food for 200 men for several months were two very different expectations. Cook’s crews worked daily repairing their ships and sewing sails. Theft of small items from the ships was ongoing. Tensions began to rise, perhaps especially as Cook’s visit coincided with the period from October to February of special religious rituals during Makahiki, when war and unnecessary work were forbidden. The constant hammering of recaulking the ships’ hulls must have been particularly irking to nearby villagers.
Both the Hawaiians and Cook were relieved when sailing weather returned and he was able to depart to sail northwards once. Unfortunately, Resolution’s foremast was damaged in a storm and Cook was forced to return to Hawaii to effect repairs. Local people were not pleased; by now they’d figured out that Cook was not their god. Resentment increased. Stones were thrown, despite the official welcome from chiefs and priests. Cook and his men worked quickly as possible to convert a tree trunk into a mast. Thieving became bold and persistent – including diving under the ships to prize out the nails holding copper sheathing to the hulls. Sailors retaliated, though Cook refused to open fire with his guns.
On the night of February 13th, a large boat was stolen from her mooring near Discovery. Cook could not let this pass; the cutter was vital equipment and could not be replaced. If he failed to respond, theft would only increase. In the past, Cook had always dealt with serious theft by taking a chief hostage until the item was returned. He intended to do the same again. Boats were sent out to stop canoes leaving the bay, while he went ashore in full uniform and carrying his personal double-barrelled gun, supported by nine armed marines.
King Kalaniopu, who, it was clear, had nothing to do with the theft of the boat, agreed to return with Cook to Resolution. Two of the king’s sons ran ahead of him on the beach and jumped in Cook’s boat. Meanwhile, a large and excited crowd gathered on the beach and were alarmed by the sound of musket fire from sailors stopping some canoes leaving the bay. The king’s favourite wife begged her husband not to go with Cook. The crowd became menacing and people picked up stones.
Suddenly, voices shouted that an important chief had been killed out in the bay. The crowd roared with anger.
Cook realized he could no longer take the king hostage. A warrior in woven breastplate rushed up threatening Cook with a stone in one hand and a dagger in the other. Cook fired grape-shot from one barrel of his gun. The pellets bounced off the breastplate and the warrior laughed and yelled defiance and attacked Cook with the dagger (if contemporary accounts are accurate). Cook fired the other barrel of his gun and the warrior fell.
The crowd retaliated with stones. The marines opened fire. Warriors attacked the marines, killing four of them.
Cook biographer Alan Villiers, who’s written a brilliant sailor’s appreciation of Cook, reports:
“For a moment Cook stood there, facing the shouting, suddenly blood-hungry crowd: while he faced them none struck at him. He did not reload.
“He turned to make for the boats, raising a hand to command a cease-fire. What he said could not be heard though he had reached the water’s edge. As he turned away a warrior rushed at him from behind, clubbing him violently. He sank to his knees, half in the water. The warrior stabbed, and stabbed again. A ghastly roar broke from the maddened mob as Cook went down. Men rushed into the sea, stabbing, clubbing, holding him under water…They dragged his body ashore and stabbed and stabbed in frenzy, seizing the daggers from one another’s hands as if each must assure himself that the blood flowed.
“This desperate business took seconds only – a ghastly, irretrievable flare-up, unpremeditated, utterly unnecessary.”
part two coming on February 19th
Join me as I set out this summer (July 2016) on a multi-year solo circumnavigation to explore and retrace what happened to Captain Cook’s ships & crew after his death in Hawaii. Phase One will be a double crossing of the Atlantic from Labrador (where Kuan Yin is now) to the Azores, Canaries and Cape Verde Islands (all of them visited by Cook), then west to Panama and the Pacific.