James Cook: Biography
Captain James Cook, commissioned by King George III, discovered the Hawaiian Islands in January, 1778. Learn more!
Captain James Cook, commissioned by King George III, discovered the Hawaiian Islands in January, 1778. After discovering Christmas Island a month earlier on his third voyage into the Pacific, he sighted several turtles and birds in the air, which were sure signs of land, and then the island of Oahu, Kauai, and Niihau. The natives greeted the ships in canoes wishing to trade roasted pigs, potatoes, and small fish for anything metal, which they formed into weapons. Anchoring at Waimea Bay, Cook landed with his surgeon's mate and an artist, John Webber.
Everywhere they went, the natives lay down with their faces to the ground in adoration. Cook had arrived during the Makahiki Season, a festive season in which taxes were collected, people rested from their normal labors and war was 'kapu'(forbidden). The Hawaiians believed Cook to be the reincarnation of their God, Lono, whose symbols were white kapa (cloth made from bark pounded flat) banners hung from a cross-piece on which were hung feather streamers. Cook had appeared from the sea, as Lono had promised to return. His ships had tall masts and white sails, very similar to the banners carried in makahiki parades to symbolize Lono's presence.
Cook and his party inspected heiaus (temples), where high chiefs had been buried and looked over the countryside, recording the activities of the natives to take back to the king of England.
News of strange visitors spread quickly throughout the islands, and wherever Cook arrived, natives greeted them in canoes to trade for iron and board the fascinating ship. Under strict orders, no crew were to have physical contact with the natives. However, the sailors were unable to resist the bare-breasted women and venereal disease spread throughout the islands.
Upon his arrival at Maui, and after much trading for iron, Kahekili, the high chief of Maui, visited and presented Captain Clerke with a red feather cloak. At Hawaii, the king, Kalaniopuu, who was at war with the Maui chief, boarded the Resolution and presented Captain Cook with a beautiful feather cap and cloak, gifts normally given only to royalty. A small party of Hawaiians including Chief Kamehameha, (who would someday unite all the islands and proclaim himself king over them all) stayed overnight.
Exploring the Kona district of Hawaii, Cook anchored at Kealakekua Bay where thousands of natives greeted them, singing and shouting from shore, on surfboards, canoes or swimming to the ship like huge schools of fish. The chiefs presented gifts, laid out huge luaus (feasts) of delicious foods, conducted ceremonies and exhibitions for Cook and his men. The people lavished their full attention on Cook and his crew, believing him to be one of their gods.
However, after a month, several incidents occurred which made the natives question the god-like qualities of their visitors. The first was the death of one of their crew members who had been ill for some time. The second event was the taking of logs and wooden idols from a heiau for use as firewood. The strain of providing for Cook and his men, totalling about 180 men, in addition to storing vast quantities for their upcoming voyage, was becoming overwhelming for the Hawaiians. Sensing the natives' uneasiness, Cook made preparations to sail. After more gifts of food, Cook's ships sailed out of the bay, followed by many canoes. On February 8th, after strong gale winds, they were forced to return to Kealakekua Bay due to a badly damaged foremast on the Resolution.
This time the bay was deserted, the King was elsewhere on the Island. A kapu(here meaning 'restriction') had been placed on the bay and when the king returned Cook was still repairing his ship's foremast.
Thievery of iron had begun on the last visit, and it continued again as before. In one incident, a pair of tongs and chisel were stolen. The sailors then attempted to steal a canoe. During the scuffle a chief, named Palea, was hit on the head with an oar, but still managed to restore order, but not before several sailors were beaten. Soon after, a cutter was stolen. Cook sent out a blockade and also attempted to take King Kalaniopuu hostage until the cutter was returned. A native messenger soon arrived, bearing the sad news that a chief had been killed attempting to cross the blockade. The crowd, who numbered several thousand by then, grew angry: a dagger was raised, a shot was fired. The crowd then proceeded to throw stones, and more daggers appeared, and shots fired until chaos reigned. Cook, who was trying to get to his boats, was clubbed from behind. Before he could get back on his feet, he was stabbed in the back and clubbed again. Four crew members and Captain James Cook were killed, while the rest managed to get to the waiting boats and escape. Cook was buried by the Hawaiians amidst ceremony like one of their own chiefs.
Cook died never fully realizing the importance the natives had placed upon him as their god, Lono. His two visits, coincidentally, were during the makahiki festival in which Lono, one of the principle gods, was the pinnacle of his significance. His death place, at Kealakekua Bay, was the site of a heiau dedicated to Lono. His arrival at these places convinced the Hawaiians of his identity almost until the end when certain incidents changed the course of events.
The sporadic fighting continued for a few days, and when the sails were recovered from shore, peace was finally restored. Part of Cook's bones were reluctantly given up by the Hawaiians and another funeral service was held by Captain Clerke and the crew. After a short visit at Oahu, they anchored at Waimea, Kauai and Niihau and remained for two weeks. They sailed from the Sandwich Islands to continue their explorations to the north. It was March 15, 1779. No foreign ships would visit the islands again until 1786.
A bronze statue of Captain James Cook now stands in the middle of Waimea Town, on the island of Kauai. One can walk to the Bay from there and view where Cook landed in January of 1778.