Captain Cook Killed
The 14th of February 1779 AD
After a failed attempt to find the Northwest Passage in the latter stages of his third great voyage of discovery, Captain Cook returned from Alaska to Hawaii, having mapped enough of the West Coast of America to fill the gap left between the geographical knowledge of the Russians in the north and that of the Spanish in the south.
Cook's behaviour was said to have become rather erratic during this leg of the voyage, pushing his men too far at times, possibly because of his own illness - he was worn out with his constant work, the long hours spent in cartography and the ever present burden of command thousands of miles away from support, and may have had a serious stomach ailment.
After the horrific cold of the Bering Strait Cook must have been content to set foot on the Hawaiian islands again (or as far as he was concerned The Sandwich Islands), but this was only after another burst of mapping, eight weeks spent sailing around the various islands in the chain. Eventually his party landed in January 1779 at Kealakekua Bay on the island of Hawaii itself, the largest in the archipelago, having circumnavigated the island to chart its coastline.
It is conjectured that Cook's arrival was coincided with a local religious festival, and that various circumstances - the layout of his ship's masts, the way he had circled the landmass, and the timing of his visit - led the islanders to mistake him for a god, Lono, a fact that facilitated trading and good relations with the Hawaiians, but was in part his eventual downfall. The party left on February 4 1779, but damage to rigging forced a fairly rapid return, contrary to what the islanders had expected of this godlike figure.
Relationships soured and less respect was shown to the British, to the extent that various thefts of their goods occurred, climaxing in the islanders stealing a boat from Resolution. When Cook and a party of marines went ashore on February 14 to resolve the matter - attempting to kidnap the local king in order to trade him for the boat - they were repulsed, and as the great explorer helped launch the boats to return to the ship he was clubbed on the back of the head and then stabbed again and again as he lay prone in the surf, dying with four of his men, another two being wounded in the clash.
As a great figure, Cook's body was defleshed by the islanders in order that his bones could be kept and revered by them - legend had it for many years that he was eaten, but the Hawaiians were not cannibals - but Clerke was able to recover some remains and personal effects and carry out a burial at sea. The remains amounted to his hands preserved in salt, some flesh from his leg, his scalp, and of course his bones. His burial took place on February 21. While he would have wished to complete the voyage, it is somehow fitting that Cook should have died in his labours, and doubly so that this great mariner should have had a sea burial.
internal link Captain Cook Memorial Museum
More famous dates here
7991 views since 27th February 2007
On this day: