Hawaiian History: How Captain Cook Met His End

Statue of the King Kamehameha I of Hawaii, built in 1878 to commemorate the 100 year discovery of Hawai’i by Captain Cook. Born at Kokoiki in North Kohala on the island of Hawaii, Kamehameha descended from chiefs of Hawaii and Maui. Kamehameha met Captain Cook on Maui and was wounded in the scuffle that resulted in Cook’s death at Kealakekua Bay. ©Photobulb, Dreamstime.

The Hawaiian islands remained forgotten for almost 500 years until the indomitable English seafarer, Captain James Cook, sighted O‘ahu on January 18, 1778, and stepped ashore at Waimea on Kaua‘i two days later. At that time Hawaii’s isolation was so complete that even the Polynesians had forgotten about it. The Englishmen had arrived aboard the 100-foot flagship HMS Resolution and its 90-foot companion HMS Discovery. The first trade was some brass medals for a mackerel. Cook provisioned his ships by exchanging chisels for hogs, while common sailors gleefully traded nails for sex. Landing parties were sent inland to fill casks with freshwater. After a brief stop on Ni‘ihau, the ships sailed away, but both groups were indelibly impressed with the memory of each other.

Almost a year later, when winter weather forced Cook to return from the coast of Alaska, the Discovery and Resolution found safe anchorage at Kealakekua Bay on the kona coast of the Big Island on January 16, 1779. By the coincidence of his second arrival with religious festivities, the Hawaiians mistook Cook to be the return of the god Lono. After an uproarious welcome and generous hospitality for over a month, it became obvious that the newcomers were beginning to overstay their welcome. During the interim a sailor named William Watman died, convincing the Hawaiians that the haole were indeed mortals, not gods. Inadvertently, many kapu (taboos) were broken by the English, and once-friendly relations became strained. Finally, the ships sailed away on February 4, 1779.

Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island, Hawaii. Photo © evork, CC-BY-SA.

After plying terrible seas for only a week, Resolution’s foremast was badly damaged. Cook sailed back into Kealakekua Bay, dragging the mast ashore on February 13. The natives, now totally hostile, hurled rocks at the sailors. Confrontations increased when some Hawaiians stole a small boat and Cook’s men set after them, capturing the fleeing canoe, which held an ali‘i (a nobleman) named Palea. The Englishmen treated him roughly, so the Hawaiians furiously attacked the mariners, who abandoned the small boat.

Next, the Hawaiians stole a small cutter from the Discovery that had been moored to a buoy and partially sunk to protect it from the sun. For the first time, Captain Cook became furious. He ordered Captain Clerk of the Discovery to sail to the southeast end of the bay and stop any canoe trying to leave Kealakekua. Cook then made a fatal error in judgment. He decided to take nine armed mariners ashore in an attempt to convince the venerable King Kalani‘opu‘u to accompany him back aboard ship, where he would hold him for ransom in exchange for the cutter. The old king agreed, but his wife prevailed upon him not to trust the haole. Kalani‘opu‘u sat down on the beach to think while the tension steadily grew.

Meanwhile, a group of mariners fired on a canoe trying to leave the bay, and a lesser chief, No‘okemai, was killed. The crowd around Cook and his men reached an estimated 20,000, and warriors outraged by the killing of the chief armed themselves with clubs and protective straw-mat armor. One bold warrior advanced on Cook and struck him with his pahoa (dagger). In retaliation Cook drew a tiny pistol lightly loaded with shot and fired at the warrior. His bullets spent themselves on the straw armor and fell harmlessly to the ground. The Hawaiians went wild. Lieutenant Molesworth Phillips, in charge of the nine mariners, began a withering fire; Cook killed two natives.

Overpowered by sheer numbers, the sailors headed for boats standing offshore, while Lieutenant Phillips lay wounded. It is believed that Captain Cook stood helplessly in knee-deep water instead of making for the boats because he could not swim. Hopelessly surrounded, he was knocked on the head, then countless warriors passed a knife around and hacked and mutilated his lifeless body. A sad Lieutenant King lamented in his diary, “Thus fell our great and excellent commander.”

Kevin Whitton

About the Author

Avid surfer and nature-lover Kevin Whitton has traveled extensively throughout Mexico, Indonesia, and Australia. He’s volunteered as a trail guide in a private Costa Rican rain forest preserve and as a snowmobile guide in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. When confronted with the choice between living in the mountains and visiting the beach, or living at the beach and visiting the mountains, Kevin refused to choose, deciding to call O’ahu home instead. Now when he waits for a wave at one of his favorite windward or North Shore surf breaks, he can gaze at the verdant mountains and revel in the best of both worlds.

Kevin is the author of the award-winning Green Hawai’i: A Guide to a Sustainable and Energy Efficient Home and A Pocket Guide to Hawai’i’s Botanical Gardens. He writes for Hawai’i’s most notable publications, is active in the island’s surf media, and is the co-founder and editor of GREEN: Hawai’i’s Sustainable Living Magazine.

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