The Demise Of
by Betty Fullard-Leo
Captain Cook Monument
in Kealakekua Bay.
The bay at Kealakekua is so translucent, so placid,
that scores of novice snorkelers slip into the water
daily, arriving by boats from Kailua-Kona, which anchor,
bobbing peacefully, just beyond the obelisk that marks
a far more violent episode in Hawaiian history. It was
here that the great navigator Captain James Cook was
killed on February 14, 1779.
Cook and his crew had sailed through the Hawaiian Islands
little more than a year earlier when they anchored off
Kaua'i to re-provision his flagship Resolution and a
smaller vessel, Discovery. This was Cook's third Pacific
voyage, but his first to explore the North Pacific.
It was the voyage that earned him credit as the first
westerner to discover the Hawaiian Islands.
When the British ships sailed past O'ahu to Kaua'i
in January 1778, they were met by a fleet of canoes
filled with Islanders prepared to do battle. Luckily,
Cook and his men had learned a bit of Tahitian months
earlier. Tahitian was close enough to the Hawaiian dialect
so the two groups could communicate, and when Cook gave
gifts, the Hawaiians realized he had come in peace.
The boats had been anchored for three days at Waimea
Bay, Kaua'i, where the crews had discovered that Hawaiian
women gave freely of their sexual favors. While there,
the High Chief Kaneoneo returned from across the island
to board the Discovery and meet Captain Charles Clerke
before the two English ships left Waimea, headed for
Alaska and Canada. Cook had anchored off Kaua'i during
the time of makahiki, a period of months set aside for
the collection of taxes in the form of produce, crafts
and other goods, while war was suspended and ceremonies
and games were the order of the day. There are, however,
no notations in Cook's logs that indicate he knew anything
about the makahiki season or its peaceful traditions.
Ten months later, he returned from the north, badly
in need of provisions and a safe harbor to repair his
ships. It was November; once again it was the makahiki
season. Cook dropped anchor first off Maui, where a
meeting with King Kahekili went well. The Hawaiians
were pleased to obtain valuable iron nails to fashion
into fishing hooks, as well as iron tools, in trade
for food and water.
An interpretation of
Hikiau Heiau, the temple at Kealakekua Bay, based
on 1779 descriptions Painting by Herb Kawainui Kane.
Near Hana, Cook's ships were met by King Kalaniopu'u,
who had been warring against Kahekili, but because of
the makahiki, the fighting had been suspended. Eight
of Kalaniopu'u's chiefs (among them the young Kamehameha)
remained on board to direct Cook to the Big Island.
From his reception, Cook surmised that swift canoes
had raced across the channel to forewarn the Big Islanders
of his arrival. Off the northern shore of the Big Island,
near Waipi'o Valley, canoes laden with men waving white
banners paddled out to greet them. During makahiki,
white kapa banners were always hung for ceremonies and
displayed at heiau around the islands. Next came young
women dressed in their finest kapa, and canoes loaded
with "pigs, fruit and roots."
The ships were re-provisioned, but unable to make landing.
Cook chose to circumnavigate the Big Island around the
windward side, extending his journey far beyond the
few days it would have taken for him to reach Kealakekua
Bay sailing to the lee. The Islanders, and presumably
King Kalaniopu'u, were happy with the decision, as at
each seaside village canoes paddled out to trade for
valuable western goods. By the time the Discovery and
the Resolution, with torn sails and rotting lines, were
able to enter Kealakekua Bay for repairs, they were
surrounded by possibly 1,000 canoes and thousands of
people swimming or on surfboards.
Captain William Bligh, Cook's sailing master, who would
later go down in history as captain of the mutinous
crew of the Bounty, was sent ahead to check the depth
of the bay and to find fresh water, thus becoming the
first European to actually set foot on Hawaiian soil.
Cook invited one of the Hawaiian elders to dine with
him and received a pig and a red tapa cloak in return.
Lieutenant James King kept detailed journals of the
proceedings. When Cook went ashore, with King in the
retinue, King wrote, "...[We] were received by
3 or 4 men .....who kept repeating a sentence wherein
the word E Rono was always mention'd, this is the name
by which the Captn has for some time been distinguish'd
by the Natives."
Early historians determined that Cook had been mistaken
for the god Lono, most closely associated with the makahiki,
but later scholars and Hawaiians cast doubt on the idea.
One theory sometimes advanced is that Hawaiians were
saying, "E rono," translated as "listen"
or "attention," which they called out to attract
the crowd's attention to Cook's presence and his important
Cook was led to a heiau, the same rock temple called
Hikiau that can be found at Kealakekua Bay today, to
take part in an elaborate ceremony, at the conclusion
of which he was made to bow to the ground and kiss an
image of the war god Ku.
Cook was not the only one to be treated with honor;
Captain Clerke was also led to the temple, and a small
pig was sacrificed to him, accompanied by an elaborate
ceremony and chanting.
Nine days passed before the Big Island king appeared,
accompanied by a long line of sailing and paddling canoes.
The British were surprised that the king was none other
than their old friend Kalaniopu'u, who had settled in
the village where about 125 dwellings were occupied
by chiefs. This is the same area that holds the monument
to Captain Cook today.
The following morning, the king boarded the Resolution
from his own 70-foot canoe. He was surrounded by chiefs
attired in bright red-and-yellow feather cloaks and
helmets and accompanied by canoes carrying chanters,
feather idols, and provisions.
While their ships were repaired, the British camped
in a nearby sweet potato field, and some attempted to
learn about the Hawaiian culture; others, like Surgeon's
Mate David Samwell, learned lascivious songs from the
young Hawaiian women and enjoyed feasts and boxing exhibitions,
typical makahiki past times.
When Cook ordered the king to purchase the wooden railings
atop the heiau they were freely given, possibly because
the makahiki season was drawing to a close and the ceremonial
structures would soon have been dismantled anyway. The
British ships sailed away on February 4, but within
days a gust of wind had broken the Resolution's main
mast and Cook had to return. By then the time of peace
The mast was hauled ashore; all the while, Islanders
continually pilfered from Cook's ships. When an Islander
was spotted making off with a pair of blacksmith's tongs
from the Discovery, British sailors rowed ashore in
pursuit of his canoe. They tried to confiscate his canoe
to hold until their tongs were returned, but the canoe's
owner came out and was struck with an oar. Hawaiians
retaliated by throwing stones.
Cook, with Lieutenant King and a marine, came down
the beach to intervene, and the three Britishers set
off in pursuit of the man with the tongs, but they were
misled and laughed at by the Hawaiians. Cook ordered
the sentries to reload their fine-shot to the more deadly
When a boat was discovered missing from the Discovery
on February 14, ill feelings escalated. The British
fired cannons at canoes in the bay and Cook went ashore
with some sailors to try to bring Kalaniopu'u back to
the Resolution as a hostage. A crowd had gathered by
the water's edge when, at the far end of the bay, a
shot rang out from one of the British boats, and the
chief Kalimu, standing in his canoe, was killed. The
Hawaiians began to don their war clothing and, when
a challenging motion was made toward Cook, he turned
and fired his musket. Then his marines fired. When the
king's guards charged, the marines, who had no time
to reload, headed for the water. Many of the men, like
Cook, could not swim.
The death of Cook, February
14, 1779. Painting by Herb Kawainui Kane.
The recorded details are not exact, but it is thought
that Cook was struck with a club from behind, then stabbed
repeatedly with an iron dagger that had been obtained
from the British in trade by a chief named Nua.
Following Cook's death, five British sailors were killed,
and four Hawaiian chiefs and thirteen kanaka maoli (commoners)
died, before cannon fire from the British ships forced
everyone to leave the beach. Captain Clerke, suffering
from tuberculosis, took command and had repairs completed
to the foremast on deck. He asked repeatedly for Cook's
body, only to learn through friendly Hawaiian priests
that it had been cut into pieces and the bones stripped
of flesh; as was the Hawaiian custom in the treatment
of the remains of a high chief. Islanders believed that
the keeper of such bones inherited the mana, the spiritual
power, of the deceased.
Animosity continued, with Hawaiians on shore taunting
the British sailors, until three days later. On the
17th of February, Clerke fired cannons toward the shoreline.
Two chiefs came to the ships to discuss peace, but that
same evening, British sailors who came onshore to replenishing
their fresh water, were pelted with rocks. The sailors
burned an unprotected village and cut off the heads
of two Hawaiians, displaying them on poles, until Captain
Clerke had them deposited into the ocean to show that
the British were not cannibals.
The following evening, a truce was declared. Some of
the remains of Captain Cook were returned to the British,
which Clerke deposited in a weighted box and sank in
Kealakekua Bay. Kalaniopu'u is said to have kept Cook's
long bones and jaw, and the young warrior Kamehameha
was given the hair.
The Hawaiians questioned what the British would do
and they wanted to know when Erono would return. In
early history books, these questions were often said
to indicate that the Hawaiians considered Cook the god
Lono, while others say it only indicated they feared
retribution from Cook's ghost, as ghosts were very real
Clerke and his men sailed north after further provisioning
off Kaua'i, but Clerke died off Siberia before returning
to his native land. In England, the story of Cook became
a legend, and he was immortalized in books and in a
French stage play: "La Mort du Captain Cook".
The story that Hawaiians believed Cook was their god
Lono was commonly accepted. With the blurring of history,
it is a question that probably never will be settled
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