James Cook


James Cook : biography

27 October 1728 (O.S.) – 14 February 1779

Cook returned to Hawaii in 1779. After sailing around the archipelago for some eight weeks, he made landfall at Kealakekua Bay, on ‘Hawaii Island’, largest island in the Hawaiian Archipelago. Cook’s arrival coincided with the Makahiki, a Hawaiian harvest festival of worship for the Polynesian god Lono. Coincidentally the form of Cook’s ship, HMS Resolution, or more particularly the mast formation, sails and rigging, resembled certain significant artefacts that formed part of the season of worship. Similarly, Cook’s clockwise route around the island of Hawaii before making landfall resembled the processions that took place in a clockwise direction around the island during the Lono festivals. It has been argued (most extensively by Marshall Sahlins) that such coincidences were the reasons for Cook’s (and to a limited extent, his crew’s) initial deification by some Hawaiians who treated Cook as an incarnation of Lono. Though this view was first suggested by members of Cook’s expedition, the idea that any Hawaiians understood Cook to be Lono, and the evidence presented in support of it was challenged in 1992.


After a month’s stay, Cook got under sail again to resume his exploration of the Northern Pacific. Shortly after leaving Hawaii Island, the foremast of the Resolution broke and the ships returned to Kealakekua Bay for repairs. It has been hypothesised that the return to the islands by Cook’s expedition was not just unexpected by the Hawaiians, but unwelcome, because the season of Lono had recently ended (presuming that they associated Cook with Lono and Makahiki). Tensions rose, and a number of quarrels broke out between the Europeans and Hawaiians. On 14 February 1779, at Kealakekua Bay, some Hawaiians took one of Cook’s small boats. As thefts were quite common in Tahiti and the other islands, Cook would have taken hostages until the stolen articles were returned. He attempted to take hostage the King of Hawaiʻi, Kalaniʻōpuʻu. The Hawaiians prevented this, and Cook’s men had to retreat to the beach. As Cook turned his back to help launch the boats, he was struck on the head by the villagers and then stabbed to death as he fell on his face in the surf. Hawaiian tradition says that he was killed by a chief named Kalanimanokahoowaha or Kanaina. The Hawaiians dragged his body away. Four of the Marines with Cook were also killed and two wounded in the confrontation.

The esteem in which he was nevertheless held by the Hawaiians resulted in his body being retained by their chiefs and elders. Following the practice of the time, Cook’s body underwent funerary rituals similar to those reserved for the chiefs and highest elders of the society. The body was disembowelled, baked to facilitate removal of the flesh, and the bones were carefully cleaned for preservation as religious icons in a fashion somewhat reminiscent of the treatment of European saints in the Middle Ages. Some of Cook’s remains, disclosing some corroborating evidence to this effect, were eventually returned to the British for a formal burial at sea following an appeal by the crew.

Clerke took over the expedition and made a final attempt to pass through the Bering Strait. Following the death of Clerke, Resolution and Discovery returned home in October 1780 commanded by John Gore, a veteran of Cook’s first voyage, and Captain James King. Cook’s account of his third and final voyage was completed upon their return by King.

David Samwell, who sailed with Cook on the Resolution, wrote of him: "He was a modest man, and rather bashful; of an agreeable lively conversation, sensible and intelligent. In temper he was somewhat hasty, but of a disposition the most friendly, benevolent and humane. His person was above six feet high: and, though a good looking man, he was plain both in dress and appearance. His face was full of expression: his nose extremely well shaped: his eyes which were small and of a brown cast, were quick and piercing; his eyebrows prominent, which gave his countenance altogether an air of austerity."