The Demise of Captain Cook

by Betty Fullard-Leo

Captain Cook Monument in Kealakekua Bay. photo credit: Betty Fullard-Leo

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. photo credit: Herb Kawainui Kāne

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 stature.

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 was past.

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 ball ammunition.

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. photo credit: Herb Kawainui Kāne

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 to them.

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 completely.

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