Cook's death in Hawaii

Cook's third voyage ended in tragedy, prematurely bringing to a close an exceptional career.

After an unsuccessful search for the Northwest passage the Resolution and Discovery arrived back in the Hawaiian Islands (then known as the Sandwich Islands) in 1779.

Although welcomed at first by the indigenous people, relations later became strained and Cook left Hawaii on 4 February 1779. However, gales forced the ships back for repairs on 11 February, when the voyagers were subject to a hostile reaction from the local peoples.

Within a short while the cutter from the Discovery went missing and it was presumed by the crew of the Discovery to have been stolen by the Hawaiians. Cook expressed great uneasiness in relation to the stolen cutter and he was quoted as saying "I am afraid…that these people will oblige me to use some violent measures…they must not be left to imagine that they have gained some advantage over us" (Cook, 1842, Vol II, p. 385).

Cook then made the fateful decision to lead a landing party to retrieve the cutter. A fight developed which resulted in multiple deaths, including that of Cook himself and several of his marines.

Cook’s death came as a huge shock to the expedition: "How sincerely his loss was felt and lamented by those who had for so long found their general security in his skill and conduct, and in every consolation, under their hardships, in his tenderness and humanity, it is neither necessary or possible for me to describe; much less shall I attempt to describe the horror with which we were struck, and the universal dejection and dismay which followed so dreadful and unexpected a calamity" (Cook, 1842, Vol II, p. 387).

A fascinating account of Cook's death from the perspective of the Hawaiians is found in 'Tour through Hawaii' by William Ellis, 1827. "After his death, we all wailed. His bones were separated - the flesh was seared off and burnt, as was the practice in regard to our own chiefs when they died" (Ellis, 1827, p. 117).

Cook's remains were buried at sea in Kealakekua Bay in February 1779.

Charles Clerke took command of the expedition after the tragedy at Kealakekua Bay but he too was to die an untimely death six months later. After Clerke’s death, John Gore commanded the expedition on its homeward journey to England in 1780.

The Macmillan Brown Library holds a number of editions of the seminal work 'The Journals of Captain James Cook 1768-1771'. In addition to the original and edited publications of Cook's journals, the Macmillan Brown Library also holds a number of key reference works relating to Cook's voyages, including "The Captain Cook Encyclopaedia" (John Robson ed) which provides a comprehensive overview of the three expeditions.

  • Voyages of Pacific Discovery
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