Captain Cook

Captain Cook

[Illustration: Captain Cook]


Captain Cook lived to sail the world’s oceans and discover new lands.  While searching for the elusive “Northwest Passage,” a northern route from the Pacific to the Atlantic, Cook became the first known European to come to the Hawaiian Islands.

Captain Cook was born in Yorkshire, Britain in 1728.  He died in 1779 at Kealakekua Bay when he was attacked on the beach by native Hawaiians who were angry that members of Cook’s crew had killed one of their chiefs.


Navigator and Explorer

British navigator and explorer, James Cook is considered one of the world’s greatest explorers.  He sailed around the world twice, commanding three major Pacific exploratory expeditions for Great Britain between 1768 and 1779.

Cook made many discoveries during his expeditions, collecting a great deal of information about native people as well as native flora and fauna.


First Contact

The crews of Captain Cook’s two ships, the HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery, first sighted the Hawaiian Islands of O‘ahu and Kaua‘i in the dawn hours of January 18, 1778.  Conditions kept them at bay until the next day, by which time they had also sighted Ni‘ihau. 

When Cook’s ships approached Kaua‘i’s southeast coast on the afternoon of January 19, 1778, natives in canoes paddled out to meet them—and so began Hawai‘i’s contact with Westerners. 

This first encounter with the Hawaiians took place in the waters near Kīpū Kai.  The Hawaiians traded fish and sweet potatoes for pieces of iron and brass, which were lowered down from the larger ships to the Hawaiians canoes.

Cook sailed along Kaua‘i’s southeastern coast searching for a suitable anchorage.  Cook’s ships remained offshore, but Cook allowed a few Hawaiians to come on board on the morning of January 20 before continuing on in search of safe anchorage.

On the afternoon of January 20, Cook anchored his ships near the mouth of the Waimea River, and went ashore with three boats accompanied by 12 armed marines.  As they stepped ashore, Cook and his men were greeted by hundreds of Hawaiians who offered gifts including kapa barkcloth, pigs, and bananas. 

Cook went ashore three times that day, walking inland where he saw Hawaiian hale (houses), heiau (sacred places of worship), and agriculture.  Cook’s crew continued to trade iron and other items to the natives, receiving in return the various food items mentioned above as well as chickens and taro corms.

Though some speculative evidence (including a Hawaiian legend) exists that Spanish ships visited the Hawaiian Islands in the 1500s, it remains uncertain.  The Hawaiians did have two small pieces of iron when Cook arrived, and claimed it “came from the sea,” perhaps meaning that it floated ashore on ocean debris.

At this time the total population of the eight main Hawaiian Islands was about 300,000 (estimates vary from less than 300,000 to more than 700,000).  Cook’s men estimated that about 30,000 people lived on Kaua‘i at the time.  Cook named the islands the Sandwich Islands in honor of his patron, the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Sandwich.


Cook Leaves and Returns

After a fruitless journey north in search of a Northwest Passage (a northwest route from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean), Cook returned to the Hawaiian Islands.  On January 17, 1779, he sailed into Kealakekua Bay on the island of Hawai‘i.  Cook’s intention was to restock his ships and let his men recover from their journey so they could press on for further exploration.

Cook was unaware that he was visiting the Islands during the during the ancient Hawaiian harvest festival known as Makahiki, which began with the first appearance of the crescent moon following the new moon after the appearance of the constellation Makali‘i (Pleiades) rising in the east after sunset (around the middle of October), and lasting several months.

During the Makahiki, time is taken away from work for feasts, sports games, and other events in honor of Lono, the god of agricultural fertility.  

When Cook arrived on the island of Hawai‘i during the Makahiki festival, he was greeted by processions and celebrations unlike any he had encountered before.  Many historians state that Cook was received as the god Lono, but others disagree (see Appendix 1).  Hawaiian beliefs held that Lono had long ago departed from Kealakekua Bay, promising to return. 

While accounts vary on whether Cook was indeed thought by the natives to be the god Lono, it is clear that Cook was given preferential treatment.  Cook was brought to Hikiau Heiau, a sacred temple where kāhuna (native priests) put sacred red kapa cloth on him and offered sacred chants.


Fatal Encounter

Cook left Kealakekua Bay on February 4, 1779 to survey the other Hawaiian Islands before heading off again on his explorations.  However, soon after leaving Kealakekua Bay, a foremast of the HMS Resolution broke, requiring Cook and his men to return to Kealakekua Bay. 

On the evening of February 13, one of Cook’s boats (a cutter, the Discovery’s largest boat) was stolen.  The next morning Cook went ashore with nine of his men to retrieve the boat.  Cook planned to find the ruler of the island, Kalani‘ōpu‘u, and take him hostage in order to demand the return of the boat for the return of the chief.

Cook and his men went ashore and awakened Kalani‘ōpu‘u, and compelled him to come to the ship.  Meanwhile, members of Cook’s crew had blockaded the harbor so no one could escape. 

When a canoe attempted to pass the blockade, Cook’s crew fired on the natives, killing a chief.  Learning that one of their chiefs had been killed, the natives gathered in a large crowd near shore.  Just then, Cook’s group, including Kalani‘ōpu‘u, reached shore to take their small boat out to the main ship. 

In an encounter with the angry native Hawaiians on the shore, Cook and his men fired upon the natives.  When Cook’s men paused to reload they were attacked.  Cook yelled for his men to “take to the boats!,” but it was too late—Cook was stabbed in the neck and killed, and floated face down in the water.  At least four of Cook’s men were also killed. 

The rest of Cook’s group escaped in their boat that was near the shore.  Cook’s men retreated to the main ship, leaving Cook behind along with the other members of his crew that had been killed.

Four marines and an unknown number of native Hawaiians died in the fighting during the following days as hostilities escalated.  A stalemate existed over the return of Cook’s remains, which had been taken inland.

Eventually Cook’s remains were returned by a procession of Hawaiians bearing white flags and beating drums.  The remains were wrapped in kapa barkcloth, and covered by a feather cloak. 

Within the kapa, however, were only some of Cook’s remains, the rest still being in the possession of native chiefs.  Cook’s hands and feet had been preserved with pa‘akai (sea salt), and the rest of his flesh had been stripped from his bones and burned.  [Historians have noted that this treatment was normally reserved for ali‘i nui (high chiefs).]

Cook’s crew then held a naval burial service.  The ship’s cannons were fired in salute, and Cook’s remains were lowered into Kealakekua Bay.  Pressure from the British government eventually resulted in Cook’s remains being returned to his homeland.

After Cook’s crew left the Hawaiian Islands, no other Europeans sailed to Hawai‘i’s shores until 1786.  Then an increasing number of foreign ships began to visit Hawai‘i, including British Captain George Vancouver’s expeditions in 1792, 1793 and 1794, followed by many others. (See Chapter 11, Complete Timeline of Hawaiian History, Chapter 11.)

[Photograph: HMS Discovery or HMS Resolution]