James Cook

The Death of Cook

Cook’s death is a bit of a puzzle. The great mystery surrounds the Hawaiian religion, which may or may not have led to Cook’s death. Some students of Hawaiian anthropology think that the natives believed Cook was a god, and then killed him out of anger when they realized that one of his crew was mortal and he needed to return to the islands to repair his mast – not exactly ringing endorsements of godhood. But others suggest a much more simple solution, that their treatment of Cook had little to do with religion and everything to do with a simple conflict.

This debate in anthropology is exemplified by the writings of Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere. Their main writings on the subject, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook by Obeyesekere and How “Natives” Think, About Captain Cook, for Example, by Sahlins show antithetical methods and theories of anthropology. Meanwhile, actual documentation of Cook’s death, as told by the sailors and Marines present and collected by Captain King, indicates that the direct reason Cook was killed was easily explainable. After the theft of the Discovery’s cutter, Cook used the tried and true method of detaining important locals until his property was restored. This time, however, a scuffle ensued when he tried unsuccessfully to take a Hawaiian king on board:

Though the enterprise, which had carried Captain Cook on shore, had now failed, and was abandoned, yet his person did not appear to have been in the least danger, till an accident happened, which gave a fatal turn to the affair. The boats which had been stationed across the bay, having fired at some canoes, that were attempting to get out, unfortunately had killed a Chief of the first rank. The news of his death arrived at the village where Captain Cook was, just as he had left the king, and was walking slowly toward the shore. The ferment it caused was very conspicuous; the women and children were immediately sent off; and the men put on their war-mats, and armed themselves with spears and stones. One of the natives, having in his hands a stone, and a long iron spike (which they call a pahooa) came up to the Captain, flourishing his weapon, by way of defiance, and threatening to throw the stone. The Captain desired him to desist; but the man persisting in his insolence, he was at length provoked to fire a load of small-shot. The man having his mat on, which the shots were not able to penetrate, this had no other effect than to irritate and encourage them. Several stones were thrown at the marines; and one of the Erees attempted to stab Mr. Phillips with his pahooa; but failed in the attempt, and received from him a blow with the butt end of his musquet. Captain Cook now fired his second barrel, loaded with ball, and killed one of the foremost of the natives. A general attack with stones immediately followed, which was answered by a discharge of musquetry from the marines, and people in the boats. The islanders, contrary to the expectations of everyone, stood the fire with great firmness; and before the marines had time to reload, they broke in upon them with dreadful shouts and yells. What followed was a scene of utmost horror and confusion.

Four of the marines were cut off amongst the rocks in their retreat, and fell a sacrifice to the fury of the enemy; three more were dangerously wounded; and the Lieutenant, who had received a stab between the shoulders with a pahooa, having fortunately reserved his fire, shot the man who had wounded him just as he was going to repeat his blow. Our unfortunate Commander, the last time he was seen distinctly, was standing at the water’s edge, and calling out to the boats to cease firing, and to pull in. If it be true, as some of those who were present have imagined, that the marines and boat-men had fired without his orders, and that he was desirous of preventing any further bloodshed, it is not improbable, that his humanity, on this occasion, proved fatal to him. For it was remarked, that whilst he faced the natives, none of them had offered him any violence, but that having turned about, to give his orders to the boats, he was stabbed in the back, and fell with his face into the water. On seeing him fall, the islanders set up a great shout, and his body was immediately dragged on shore, and surrounded by the enemy, who snatching the dagger out of each other’s hands, shewed a savage eagerness to have a share in his destruction.

Thus fell our great and excellent Commander! After a life of so much distinguished and successful enterprise, his death, as far as regards himself, cannot be reckoned premature; since he hath lived to finish the great work for which he seems to have been designed; and was rather removed from enjoyment, than cut off from the acquisition, of glory.