13 February 2015

On the death of Captain Cook

Portrait of Captain Cook, by Nathaniel Dance-Holland
Captain James Cook once said, "Ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go." He met his death at the age of 50 on this day in the year 1779 on the Big Island of Hawaii in what turned out to be a most unfortunate incident of over reaction and confusion.

James Cook University in Australia - if too briefly - summarizes his accomplishments:
His three voyages across the Pacific had profound influence on many areas of human endeavour: astronomy, marine surveying, cartography, geography, natural history and anthropology.
Cook was the first to map the coastline of eastern Australia, New Zealand and many islands of the Pacific. He sailed further south than any explorer before him. Amongst Cook’s great achievements was his ability to navigate with a chronometer to calculate longitude. This transformed mapping. He was also a remarkably humane commander, concerned for the health of his crews and the prospects of the indigenous peoples he encountered.
He and four of his men were killed by some of the Hawaiians during what was his second voyage to what he called the Sandwich Islands after his patron, which he first discovered on January 18, 1778.

He was concluding his third Pacific voyage and was preparing to complete his mission by sailing north in search of the fabled Northwest Passage when he stopped at Kealakekua Bay to repair one of the masts of his ship, the Resolution. The intrepid adventurer had only just left the same bay a short time prior after spending some days recuperating with his men after a very long voyage of almost three years before heading north toward what is now Alaska.

Captain Cook Entering Kealakekua Bay by Herb Kane
When he first arrived at Hawaii he was received as the god Lono and treated as such. The Hawaiians lavished gifts upon Captain Cook and his men, but Captain Cook did not realize the Hawaiians thought he was one of their gods but thought he was simply being treated as a great chief (for they received many of the same honors). But, as Richard Aulie writes,
Hospitality had its limits, of course, even when directed to the god Lono. More to the point, the island had limits to the number of pigs, fruits, and roots that the zealous chiefs could locate. The source of this abundance--the common people--marvelled at the huge appetites of the two hundred hungry sailors, who had filled out nicely during the visit. The people would pat and stroke their bellies; in due course they began dropping hints that the sailors should be gone. Where did the Hawaiians think that their strange visitors came from, [Lieutenant] King had asked. The reply: they must have come from a land where the food had failed. Kalani'op'u also could not help wondering how long Lono would tarry, and on February 2 he put the question to the marines.

The assurance that departure was imminent brought a parting outburst of fresh fruit, a herd of pigs, and a vast quantity of cloth heaped together under the palm trees. Koa and Kalani'op'u had one last surprise. They asked Cook quite seriously that King be left behind. Many Hawaiians had come to think that King, then age twenty-eight, was Cook's son. King had received various proposals to elope with promises to hide him in the hills until Cook's ships were over the horizon. But he thought that those who made such offers, whether king or commoner, wanted only "to be possss'd of a Curious play thing." Cook, not wishing to offend, politely replied that he could not yet spare King, but that on his return the next year he would settle the question to their satisfaction.
Recognizing the depleting resources of the area and not wishing to put too great a strain on the natives, Captain Cook decided to sail away to find another place to attend to the repairs of his ship. However, another suitable landing could not be found and he was forced to return.

When he returned so quickly to Kealakekua Bay, many of the Hawaiians were upset to see Captain Cook, fearing they would run out of food. They also now began to suspect he and his men might not be gods after all (two of Cook's men died before his recent departure from the bay).

As the necessary repairs were being done to the Resolution, someone stole on his boats (thievery was not uncommon; the Polynesian peoples were quite taken by iron, which they went to great lengths to obtain, even to prying the nails right out of the ship's underbelly!).

In an effort to find the boat, Captain Cook did what worked so many times before when he needed a stolen item returned: he planned to hold one of the chiefs 'hostage' (the chiefs usually went aboard willingly and agreed it the best way to find the stolen items, in part because they were generally behind the thefts) until the boat was returned. But, as you might expect, this did not quite go as planned. As Aulie explains:
Keeping close together, Cook, Phillips, and the nine marines began escorting the king through the crowd back to the beach, and the two boys, looking forward to another happy visit on the great ship, scampered ahead and swam out to wait in the pinnace. Without a few minutes the boats would have put off from shore. But the crowd of bystanders, hitherto reasonably quiet, began to grow restive and noisy when they saw their king walking down to the beach with an armed guard. If Samwell is correct, Cook may have been leading him by the hand, making a serious breach of tapu. This time the Hawaiians did not prostrate themselves before Cook. Instead, fearing for the safety of their king, they entreated him not to go....

One of the king's wives, named "Kor'na'cab'ra," begged the king with tears not to go aboard, several chiefs made him sit down, and he himself became frightened and disconsolate. Only then did Cook and Phillips, huddled with the marines, think that the crowd posed a threat. Hemmed in by the mob, which was growing more ugly and violent, Cook agreed to Phillips's entreaty that he, Phillips, extricate his marines and have them line up at the water's edge.
The crowd without hesitation made way for the marines to walk down to the water's edge and to line up on the rocks facing inland, and in a moment or two Cook would have been off the beach. Men brandished iron daggers and spears, and put on their heavy matt as armor. Breadfruit were hurled this way and that. Stones flew. Cook hesitated. Phillips stood with him a few feet from shore. He later quoted Cook as saying, '"We can never think of compelling him to go on board without killing a number of these people."' With that realization he abandoned all thought of taking the king hostage.

Cook was on the point of giving the order to embark when someone threatened him with a rock and an iron spike. Even then he could have walked slowly backward to safety, ignoring the threats, while facing the angry crowd. But instead he fired a load of small shot, which, not penetrating the matt of the man who had threatened him, only provoked the crowd to laughter and fresh insolence. The boys in the pinnace took fright and fled back to shore. A stone struck a marine. Cook fired the other barrel, but killed the wrong man. This shot brought on a general attack. Cook shouted for the marines to fire, which action dropped several Hawaiians. But contrary to expectations, instead of retreating from the musket fire, the Hawaiians not only stood their ground, but actually fell on the marines in a frenzy--whether because of ignorance or bravery is not material--not giving them time to reload. Cook shouted: '"Take to the Boats!"' The marines turned and scrambled off in disarray to the pinnace. Four of the marines who were cut off from their retreat, or could not swim, were beaten and stabbed to death on the rocks.

During the melee Resolution dropped a shot on the beach, partially dispersing the multitude. Lanyon in the small cutter, meanwhile, was already coming in close. King, at his work station on the beach, had just finished telling his Hawaiian neighbors that no one would be harmed, when just then, Discovery threw two four-pounders in their direction. A fusillade of musket fire came from the pinnace and small cutter. Williamson and his marines in the launch apparently remained where they were and withheld their fire.
The Death of Captain Cook, by Herb Kane
For an instant Cook and Phillips were left standing alone in the mounting horror. Then Phillips was struck down, wounded by a long iron spike, and barely escaped to the pinnace with his life. Bravely he rescued a marine from certain death. Cook was last seen alive standing on the rocks and waving to the boats to cease fire and to come in closer. A man slunk up behind him, hesitated once or twice as he approached, and struck Cook on the back of the head with a club. Cook staggered to his knees. Another man then sprang up behind him and drove an iron dagger into the back of his head. A marine immediately dropped him with a musket shot. Cook crumpled into the water in a heap. The mob fell upon him and held him under water. He struggled up with a final gesture and was beaten with rocks about the head and repeatedly stabbed with iron daggers that were snatched from one hand by another to share in the killing.
All firing ceased. The mob, with fury spent, fled the scene. The ships waited in silence for the boats to return. Subdued, uncomprehending, and silent, the sailors in the boats pulled off from shore. The smoke drifted away in the morning sunshine. The bleeding and broken bodies of Cook and four marines were left exposed and alone on the rocks.
The memorial to Captain Cook near where he was killed
Captain Cook certainly did go farther than anyone before him. And, who knows, had this unfortunate incident not occurred, he might have gone farther yet. In all of his dealings with native peoples, this one stands out as most uncharacteristic. One wonders if the strain of some three years at sea was taking its toll.

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