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Friends and Enemies: The third and final voyage of Captain James Cook, 1776-1779

Captain James Cook (Part V)

by Dr Michelle Ann Smith

On his return to England in July 1775, Cook accepted a position with the Royal Hospital at Greenwich, claiming his sailing days were over, probably to the relief of his wife. Before long, the lure of the ocean had Cook agreeing to lead a two-ship expedition to the North Pacific. He would again command Resolution, with the assistance of John Gore and William Bligh (of Bounty fame), and Charles Clerke would take the helm on Discovery.1 The aim of this ambitious voyage was to find a ‘navigable north-west passage’, which would make the journey from Britain to the Pacific shorter while simultaneously providing the country with a new trade route ‘free from the interference of foreign powers’.2

Cook left England in July 1776 with Clerke, who had been imprisoned for his brother’s debts, meeting him at the Cape of Good Hope three months later. After brief stop-overs at the Kerguelen Islands in the south Indian Ocean and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), the Europeans finally reached the familiarity of Totara-nui, where Cook obtained information about the deaths of his men three years earlier.3 As was customary, Maori fully expected retribution. Cook, believing the blame lay with his own men, and that he should take an enlightened approach, did nothing. Many who wanted revenge felt Cook ‘favoured ‘the savages’’ over his own men.4 After Cook had the quartermaster flogged for his ‘insolence and contempt’, the crew held a mock court martial with a dog, which was then roasted and eaten. Such a parody ‘of naval discipline . . . turned the world upside down – a fitting thing to do in the Antipodes’.5 Maori equated Cook’s inaction with a lack of mana (spiritual power), and any respect they had for him, disappeared. Cook was immensely hurt, and the episode ‘proved to be a key turning point in his relationships both with his crew, and with the Polynesians’.6

Cook’s behaviour became erratic, and his attitude towards the Polynesians changed. Rather than ‘brave’ or ‘noble’ he now described them as cruel, wicked, aggressive, and unfriendly.7 Minor misdemeanors, which he usually ignored, resulted in severe punishments such as cutting off ears or the destruction of property. He flogged his crew and islanders alike, believing little action was worse than no action. He was imitating the chiefs of Tonga and Aotearoa who showed little respect for those ‘who allowed themselves to be insulted with impunity’, and whose violence was a sign of mana. A myriad of reasons have been given to explain the deterioration of Cook’s behaviour. Anne Salmond believes the main cause was the shattering of his self-belief, and the belief his men had in him.8

On the long journey to the arctic circle, Cook made stops at Tahiti, Tonga, Huahine, and Ra’iatea. Friendships were rekindled, brisk trade undertaken, and cultural misunderstandings occurred; a familiar pattern of all three voyages. The ships landed at Kauai, Hawaii, in mid-January 1778, to the astonishment of the islanders. Hawaiian sources describe a ‘floating island’, containing a large number of men ‘with white foreheads, sparkling eyes, wrinkled skins, and angular heads, who spoke a strange language and breathed fire from their mouths’.9 As had occurred in other parts of the Pacific, Cook was initially held in great reverence, and his men believed they were regarded ‘as superior beings’. Over the next two weeks gifts were exchanged, friendships developed, and trading commenced.10

From Hawaii the ships sailed north where Cook explored the Alaskan and Aleutian coastlines, narrowly avoided shipwreck, and raised the British flag in Anchorage. Trading was peaceful and friendly with only one occasion of violence, when Cook shot some locals for stealing. Long gone were the days of turning a blind eye. The ships sailed through the Bering Strait but were stopped by a massive ice sheet at latitude 70o 41’ north, which Cook realized extended from the western coast of north America to the east coast of Asia. As winter approached, he decided to return to Hawaii. Northern exploration could wait until the following summer. Despite failing to find the north-west passage, Cook correctly concluded Alaska was joined to the mainland and, with valuable input from Russian fur traders, he created accurate charts of the northern Pacific.11

The beautifully lush island of Maui was sighted on 26 November 1778. The Europeans’ arrived in Hawaii at the start of Makahiki, a religious festival celebrating the god Lono, who brought ‘peace, prosperity and fertility to his people’.12 Cook went ashore at Kealakeua Bay, and was taken by the priest Koa’a to the Temple of Hikiau, where the locals ‘prostrated themselves before him’.13 Was Cook believed to be the god Lono, or at least a powerful chief? Opinion is divided, although Salmond argues that evidence from various sources, including early Hawaiian accounts, overwhelmingly points to this being true.14

By way of ritual and ceremony, friendship between Hawaii’s high chief, Kalani’opu’u, and Cook was formally made. Unsurprisingly, relationships quickly soured. Some of the islanders took to thieving, for which they were punished, and the sailors treated their hosts with disrespect.15 True to form, with trouble brewing, Cook prepared to depart, leaving the island on 4 February. However, Resolution was damaged not long after setting sail, and Cook was forced to return to Kealakekua Bay, which violated the islanders’ sacred customs. Kalani’opu’u, was displeased, and tensions between the Hawaiians and Europeans escalated relatively quickly, especially after a young Hawaiian chief was shot. When Cook tried to take Kalani’opu’u as hostage, the situation worsened. Cook, who now believed the islanders’ behaviour ‘oblige[d] him to use force’, shot at a warrior brandishing an iron dagger. He missed, killing another young chief. A general attack ensued, during which a number of Hawaiians were killed, and Cook was clubbed on the head, stabbed and ‘beaten to death’.16

The Hawaiians ritually ‘stripped and dismembered’ Cook’s body, and the pieces were ‘ceremonially distributed’.17 Such an incident reminds us of the fragility of relationships between indigenous people and their European visitors who regularly misunderstood their customs and rituals, or simply treated them with disdain and disrespect. Cook’s return to the Bay at the wrong time was one of a number of reasons he was killed. As Salmond maintains, the Europeans, including Cook, became ‘increasingly violent’ during this third voyage. It was unsurprising that ‘local people often wanted to try and take their revenge’, and was a ‘key factor on this occasion’.18 Cook’s men played their part failing to help their commander in his time of need and his death can be therefore attributed to ‘a cross-cultural combination of forces’.19

A piece of Cook’s thigh was returned to his men. Unsatisfied, they fired their guns at anyone on the beach, promising to stop if the rest of Cook’s body was returned. Most of his remains were given back and buried at sea. On 20 February 1779 the ships left Hawaii, and James Cook, behind. Clerke took over the expedition which returned to the Bering Strait to continue the search for the north-west passage. Nothing was found and the ships were again turned back by ice. Clerke died of consumption and John Gore, who had sailed with Cook before, assumed command. On 7 October 1780 Resolution and Discovery dropped anchor in the Thames.20

Continued belief in European superiority and the corresponding use of firepower, played its part in the events that occurred across the length and breadth of the Pacific Ocean, and ultimately cost Cook his life. Cook actively took on the role of ethnographer during this voyage. His journals give detailed and descriptive accounts of ceremonies and customs he witnessed firsthand, and even participated in. Moreover, he recognised the similarities between the Hawaiians and the people of Tahiti, New Zealand and Easter Island; building on connections noted on his second voyage. Cook acknowledged the sudden appearance of the Europeans at various Pacific islands caused uncertainty and unease in their inhabitants. He was sure that over time and through acquaintance they would be convinced otherwise, and they would all be friends rather than enemies.21 With so many meetings underpinned by tension and violence, it is unlikely the Pacific islanders shared this sentiment.

  1. Clerke was joined by first lieutenant James Burney, who had been on Adventure during Cook’s second voyage to the Pacific, and mid-shipman, George Vancouver. The latter would ‘later chart much of the west coast of Canada’.
    William Frame with Laura Walker, James Cook: The Voyages, Auckland, 2018, p. 164; Anne Salmond, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas, London, 2003, pp. 303-304; bl.uk/the-voyages-of-captain-james-cook/timeline.
    Note: I have relied heavily on the work of Anne Salmond in this article, as I feel she gives a fair and balanced view of a series of complex events.  

  2. Frame with Walker, p. 159.
    Britain had sent 2 previous expeditions to search for the north-west passage in 1765 and 1773, but both had faltered. 

  3. Salmond, pp. 304-305, 307-311, 314-315; Frame with Walker, pp. 164, 168; John Wilson, ‘European discovery of New Zealand – Cook’s three voyages’, teara.govt.nz/en/European-discovery-of-new-zealand/page 5, updated 1 May 2016; bl.uk/the-voyages-of-captain-james-cook/timeline 

  4. Salmond, pp. 312, 314-315 (quote p. 315). Salmond, p. 312; Frame with Walker, p. 172.
    Salmond outlines the details of what Cook was told in her text, which is too lengthy to reproduce here. 

  5. Salmond, pp. 316-317 (quote, p. 317). 

  6. Salmond, pp. 312, 317 (quote p. 317); Frame with Walker, p. 172.
    Islanders also viewed ‘his chastity and refusal to use maximum force’ as weakness. Salmond, p. 363. 

  7. Salmond, p. 318. 

  8. Salmond, pp. 319, 324, 338, 366-367, 371, 393-394 (quote p. 338); Frame with Walker, pp. 178-179. 

  9. Salmond, pp. 324-350, 380-381 (quote p. 380); Walker with Frame, pp. 168-169, 174; bl.uk/the-voyages-of-captain-james-cook/timeline 

  10. Salmond, pp. 381-385 (quote p. 381); Frame with Walker, pp. 182-183. 

  11. Salmond, pp. 386-389 (quote p. 386); Frame with Walker, pp. 186-187, 190-203; bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/captaincook_01.shtml 

  12. Salmond, pp. 389-391 (quote, p. 391); Frame with Walker, p. 204; bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/captaincook_01.shtml 

  13. Salmond, pp. 394-396; Frame with Walker, p. 205. 

  14. Salmond, pp. 403-405.
    Some thought Cook was human by way of his shooting of a Kauaian man and the introduction of VD. Others thought he was Ku, the god of war. Salmond, p. 391. 

  15. Salmond, p. 405. 

  16. Salmond, pp. 406-407, 4100-414 (quotes p. 411, 414); Frame with Walker, p. 204-206; bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/captaincook_01.shtml 

  17. Salmond, p. 414. 

  18. Salmond, p. 415. 

  19. Salmond, p. 415- 416 (quote p. 416). 

  20. Salmond, pp. 421-425; bl.uk/the-voyages-of-captain-james-cook/timeline 

  21. Cook also saw similarities between the Maori marae and the Hawaiians’ place of worship.
    Walker, pp. 149, 176-178, 183; Salmond, pp. 276, 346-349, 359-361, 385. 

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