On this day in 1779, the crew of HMS Resolution buried what remains of their beloved captain were left to them at sea. The place was somewhere east of Hawai’i and the commander was James Cook. He had died seven days before at the age of 50.
The mechanics of Cook’s death at the hands of Hawaiian natives are not really in question. What remains up for debate is why the islanders killed a man who they had once welcomed as something akin to royalty.
Cook, arguably one of the greatest European explorers of the Great Age of Sail, had visited what was then known as the Sandwich Islands on more than one occasion. He had anchored Resolution and HMS Discovery there early in February of 1779 after exploring the coasts of modern day Canada and Alaska. There he had taken soundings in what is now known as the Cook Inlet which is only a stone’s throw from where I sit typing. Contrary to the opinions of modern Native Alaskans, Cook did not “colonize” Alaska and may, in fact, never have left his ship while mapping the area. The Russians were way ahead of the British in exploration of the Alaskan interior.
Cook and his crews did interact closely with the Native Hawaiians, however. Some biographers, such as Marshall Sahlins, have hypothesized that Cook was associated with the Polynesian god Lono by the islanders and that his unexpected return to Hawai’i in mid-February jarred their sensibilities, leading them to test their theory by killing Cook. Later writers such as Vanessa Collingridge call this into question as based on Cook’s own view of his interaction with the Hawaiians.
In fact, the whole incident may have been as simple as a misunderstanding over a “borrowed” boat. Cook, who was familiar with Polynesian views on ownership and their differences from European ideas, seems to have over-reacted when the Hawaiians took one of his ship’s boats. He ordered one of the island chiefs, Kalaniopu’u, taken hostage to hold as leverage for the return of the little craft. The taking of the chief seems to have been botched and Cook and his men were forced to retreat to their ships. In the process, probably while helping to launch another of his ship’s boats, Cook was clubbed over the head. He was stabbed to death where he lay in the surf and though all his men managed to retreat with the loss of two Marines, Cook’s body was left on shore.
The curious issue arises, to my mind, in what the Hawaiians did with the body of their erstwhile enemy. Treating it as they would the remains of anyone of high rank among them, the islanders cremated Cook’s body. They carefully cleaned and enshrined his bones and would not turn over these relics in their entirety to Cook’s crew. Only some of the bones were given to Resolution’s new commander. These were formally buried at sea as Resolution and Discovery left the Hawaiian Islands for good. Both ships were back in England by October of the following year.
Why James Cook met his end on that beach in what we now consider a little corner of paradise remains a bit of a mystery. For better or for worse, the world lost one of its most accomplished seamen in a place that he seems to have loved.
Header: The Death of Captain Cook by Johann Zoffany c 1795