In 1776, James Cook was renowned for his seamanship, surveying and exploring. He had commanded two great voyages of discovery around the world and become the first European to visit many parts of the Pacific. Now promoted to captain, he set out on his third and final voyage of exploration with two ships, the Resolution and Discovery.
After so many years spent exploring, Cook was a confident commander and experienced in meeting with people of different cultures. Yet there is evidence in some of his officers’ journals of Cook showing violent behaviour and poor judgement during this third voyage, both towards his own men and towards the people they met. He burned towns and sank canoes in reprisal for minor thefts by the islanders during his visit to Tahiti in 1777.
In 1778, Cook and his crew became the first Europeans to visit Hawaii. However, he risked wrecking his ship while navigating unexplored territory in thick fog in his search for a northern passage between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Was Cook tired or ill after all his years of voyaging? Did this affect his judgement? We don’t know for sure.
James Cook was born in Marton, Yorkshire on 27 October 1728. In 1746 he moved to Whitby, went to sea on a collier (a ship for carrying coal), and, in time, qualified as a master’s mate. He joined the Royal Navy as an ordinary seaman in 1756 and his abilities meant that he rapidly rose in rank. He came to the notice of his superior officers in 1759 when he surveyed the St Lawrence River in Canada (during the Seven Years War).
Cook’s first voyage around the world in the ship Endeavour lasted from 1768-71. After observing the transit of Venus from Tahiti, he went on to explore and map the Society Islands, New Zealand, the east coast of Australia and part of New Guinea. During 1772-75 Cook made a second voyage round the world in the ships Resolution and Adventure, visiting many Pacific islands and sailing around the southern oceans to disprove the existence of a huge southern continent. These expeditions found out lots of information about Pacific islands and peoples, and the artists on the voyages recorded the places and animals they saw.
In January 1778 Cook and his crew became the first Europeans to visit Hawaii (which they called the Sandwich Islands). They returned to Hawaii the following November and spent the next weeks sailing around the islands, making scientific observations and getting supplies, finally anchoring in Kealakekua Bay. Cook’s arrival coincided with a big festival and it is possible that he, without realising, was acting out a Hawaiian legend – the return from the sea of the ‘god’ Lono. Maybe this was a reason why the islanders welcomed him with great friendliness.
However, friction soon developed between the crew and the islanders. It was hard on the locals to feed the crew of two ships. There was a misunderstanding when the crew took wooden images from a sacred area. After the crew had been there a while, the islanders may have become more used to the men, less in awe and more suspicious. The festival was ending, quarrels became frequent and Cook decided to leave. Unfortunately, the poor condition of his two ships had caused problems throughout the voyage. Within a week the foremast of the Resolution was sprung and Cook was forced to return to Kealakekua Bay to repair it. After Cook’s death parts of his body were returned by the islanders and buried at sea, and his crew completed their journey back to England.
James Cook left Britain a great legacy of knowledge about foreign lands, solved the question of the southern continent and provided a map of much of the Pacific for those that followed him. His exploration of places that were formerly unknown in Britain, and his territorial claims, made a major contribution to the growth of the British empire. In doing these things he showed his ability in managing three key tasks:
- navigation and seamanship
- leading his men through sometimes difficult conditions
- meeting with the indigenous peoples of the Pacificbut with tragic results on his third voyage.
There exist several accounts of the last hours of Cook’s life – the theft of the cutter, the attempt to kidnap the chief, the murder. These reports, such as Rickman’s, come from officers who were in the bay, but were not actually on the shore with Cook at the time.
Illustration: Portrait of Captain James Cook by John Webber, 1776 (National Portrait Gallery, London: NPG 26; picturelibrary@.npg.org.uk)
Source 1: Drawing of Kealakekua Bay, 1779 (ref: MFQ 1/566)
Source 2: An account by John Rickman, Lieutenant on Resolution, of the murder of Captain Cook on 14 February 1779 (ref: ADM 51/4529)
The Captain Cook Memorial Museum
The Museum is in the 17th century house on Whitby’s harbour where the young James Cook lodged as apprentice. It was here Captain Cook trained as a seaman, leading to his epic voyages of discovery.