Captain Cook in Hawaii

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 1, Key stage 2, Key stage 3

Time period: Empire and Industry 1750-1850

Curriculum topics: Significant individuals, The British Empire

Suggested inquiry questions: What do these documents reveal about Captain Cook’s encounter with the indigenous people of Hawaii?

Potential activities: Students can find out more about the career of Captain Cook. How should we evaluate his role in history?

What happened on his final voyage?

In 1776, James Cook was renowned in Britain for his seamanship, surveying and exploring. He had commanded two voyages of discovery around the world and become the first European to visit many parts of the Pacific. During his first voyage (1768-1771), he was the first European to chart the eastern coastline of Australia and the coastline of New Zealand, leading to the British colonisation of these regions some years later. Now promoted to captain, he set out on his third and final voyage of exploration (1776-1780), with two ships, the Resolution and Discovery.

After so many years spent exploring, Cook was a confident commander. 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. Was Cook tired or ill after all his years of voyaging? Did this affect his judgement? We don’t know for sure.

In January 1778, Cook and his crew became the first Europeans to visit the Hawaiian islands. They went on to explore the west coast of North America, where Cook tried and failed to pass the Bering Strait in his search for a northern passage between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The crew returned to Hawaii, landing at Kealakekua Bay on 17 January 1779.

After leaving Hawaii for the second time, they unexpectedly returned just four days later, having suffered damage to the Resolution. Tensions had risen during their previous visit, and only grew worse upon their return. On 14 February 1779, Cook was killed in a confrontation with the Hawaiians. But why did tensions rise? And why was Cook killed?


Tasks

1. Look at Source 1. This drawing shows the two ships Resolution and Discovery at anchor with the cutter (a ship’s boat for carrying stores or passengers) alongside and a village in the background.

  • Find the ship’s cutter (small supply ship), the Resolution, and Discovery in the picture.
  • What other boats and people can you see?
  • What settlement can you see on the mainland?
  • What impression of the scene does this drawing give?
  • This is an artist’s drawing. What are the disadvantages/advantages for using this as evidence?

2. Read Source 2, an account by John Rickman, Lieutenant on the Resolution, of the murder of Captain Cook.

  • Who has written this document?
  • What does the writer suggest by using the words ‘our return to our old station’?
  • Now look at Source 1. Can you work out which is the Resolution?
  • How were attitudes from the islanders towards Captain Cook and his men different?
  • Can you explain why this might have happened?
  • How did Captain Cook set about repairing the Resolution?
  • How did his attitude and behaviour threaten and anger the islanders?
  • Who was responsible for happened to Captain Cook in the end?
  • Who do you think is the audience for this source?
  • What other sources would be useful to compare to this account?

Background

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). After failing to pass through the Bering Strait, 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 on 17 January 1779. Cook’s arrival coincided with a big festival and many historians have theorised 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. This idea has been contested by other historians, such as anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere.

However, friction soon developed between the crew and the islanders. It was hard on the locals to feed the crew of two ships. Cook’s crew took wooden images and fences from a sacred burial area for firewood, after their attempts to barter for it had been rejected. 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.

While it was anchored in Kealakekua Bay, a longboat was stolen from the Resolution by the Hawaiians. To demand it back, Cook attempted to kidnap the aliʻi nui (ruling chief) of the island of Hawaii, Kalaniʻōpuʻu. This method – of taking a chief hostage to demand the return of stolen goods – was one that Cook had used earlier in Tahiti and Raiatea. Together with his crew, he woke Kalaniʻōpuʻu on the morning of 14 February 1779 and urged him to come to the ships. As they were making their way there, members of the local community noticed what was happening and tried to stop Kalaniʻōpuʻu. The situation soon escalated into a confrontation, during which Cook was stabbed and killed. 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’s death was met with grief in Britain, where he left a 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, contributed directly to the growth of the British Empire.


Teachers' notes

This lesson uses a drawing of Kealakekua Bay from 1779 and an extract from an original account by John Rickman, Lieutenant on Resolution, of the murder of Captain Cook on 14 February 1779. Through the questions provided it is hoped that pupils can interrogate this evidence and work out the perspective of each source. For example, what might be the problems associated with using an artist’s impression as evidence? Why is it important to try and look at different accounts of the same event if possible? Why is ‘how’ something is said as important as ‘what’ is being said?

It is important to explore also what is missing from both these sources. What is the language and tone of their content? What others sources should be consulted? For example, these sources do not take into account the perspective of the indigenous people that Cook encountered. Here is a source that can help unpack the events from the perspective of the Hawaiians themselves.

It’s also important to keep the intended audiences of the crew’s journals, logs, and artworks in mind: the British public back home, who were eager for details about the voyage.

It may be useful to learn about Cook’s earlier encounters with indigenous people, for example his initial confrontation with Indigenous Australians during his first voyage. Here is a resource that can help unpack this encounter from an Aboriginal Australian perspective.

As a starting point, the lesson could be used as a discussion point for the concept of significant individuals in history. How and why are certain figures considered significant and why is it important to re-evaluate their contributions in the light of historical research?

Sources

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)


External links

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 voyages of exploration.

Encountering history: ‘Discovery’ and ‘Resolution’ revisited
From the British Library. Hawaiian Historian Noelani Arista looks at another side of the story of Cook’s landing in Hawaii, discussing how Hawaiians might have interpreted his arrival and how his death has since been depicted.

Discovery repaints Cook’s passive death
An article reporting on the 2004 discovery of a painting of Cook’s death painted by John Cleveley. Looking at the difference in how Cook is depicted in this painting versus the more famous version, Death of Cook by John Webber, can open up a discussion on the reliability of sources and how artworks can uphold or challenge historical narratives.

Back to top

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 1, Key stage 2, Key stage 3

Time period: Empire and Industry 1750-1850

Curriculum topics: Significant individuals, The British Empire

Suggested inquiry questions: What do these documents reveal about Captain Cook’s encounter with the indigenous people of Hawaii?

Potential activities: Students can find out more about the career of Captain Cook. How should we evaluate his role in history?

Related resources

Significant People

Key Stage One Activity Book