The Death Of Captain Cook
The Death of Captain Cook1
On 9 October 1784 William Cowper wrote to his friend the Rev, John Newton. He had lately finished reading the three quarto volumes entitled A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean … for Making Discoveries in the Northern Hemisphere, which were at last in that year given to an impatient public. ‘The reading of those volumes afforded me much amusement, and I hope some instruction’ wrote the poet. ‘No observation, however, forced itself upon me with more violence than one, that I could not help making on the death of Captain Cook. God is a jealous God, and at Owhyhee the poor man was content to be worshipped. From that moment, the remarkable interposition of Providence in his favour was converted into an opposition, that thwarted all his purposes … Nothing, in short, but blunder and mistake attended him, till he fell breathless into the water, and then all was smooth again. The world indeed will not take notice, or see, that the dispensation bore evident marks of divine displeasure; but a mind I think in any degree spiritual cannot overlook them …—though a stock or stone may be worshipped blameless’, concludes Cowper, ‘a baptized man may not. He knows what he does, and by suffering such honours to be paid him, incurs the guilt of sacrilege.’2
It is unlikely that many will be prepared to accept this explanation of what seemed to contemporaries so tremendous an event; though it should be pointed out that to the servants in Hawaii of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions the Cowperian line of reasoning, independently adopted, was very persuasive. I admit for a beginning that I am not so persuacted myself, though if I were, I think I should have the reservation that Jehovah should have been a little more perceptive of the circum-page 290stances. For though the facts are fairly simple, the circumstances are extremely complicated. Circumstances are also facts. Circumstances indeed may become the essential facts.
What then were the facts, commonly considered? They are so well known that perhaps I should blush to recount them. On 17 January 1779, after a hard season on the north-west coast of America and in the Bering and Arctic seas, Cook put into Kealakekua Bay, on the western side of the island of Hawaii, for refreshment and the overhaul of his two ships Resolution and Discovery. He was enthusiastically received by the Hawaiians. He himself was at once the recipient of divine honours; he was granted the use of a heiau, or religious enclosure, for his observatory tents; his officers and men were popular and could wander and explore where they liked in perfect safety, and aided in every possible way; women were kind; there was great trade in every sort of provisions the island grew, at generous rates of exchange, ironware being the article most in demand on the native side. The only drawback was the assiduity with which the people stole—stole anything, but more particularly, again, anything of iron. The supply of provisions was not quite so lavish by the time the ships departed, on 4 February; for the British numbered 180, and they were no small eaters. Two days later, as they worked up the northern coast of the island, the weather turned squally, and on the 8th the head of the foremast was found sprung. After some deliberation about possible harbours for its repair Cook rather reluctantly—because he feared he might have outworn his welcome—decided to put back to the known convenience of Kealakekua Bay; and there he anchored again on the morning of the 11th. Greetings were not as warm as before, but they were warm enough. The mast was taken on shore. The struggle against theft was resumed. On the 13th there was a first scene of violence. During the succeeding night the Discovery's cutter was stolen. As this was a serious loss, Cook decided to get the ruling chief on board as a hostage for the boat's return, and went on shore with a body of marines early in the morning to do so. It could not be done; the Hawaiians took to arms in large numbers and on both sides tempers rose; Cook shot a man; and in walking down to his boat to re-embark he was himself killed.
A simple tale. No one can impugn its truth. But why? What were the circumstances? Cook had taken hostages before, repeatedly, peacefully, successfully; it was standard and proven practice with him, he had done it earlier on this voyage. When, once, he adopted a different policy, which involved much destruction of native property, some of his puzzled officers asked why: why did he not take a hostage, instead of doing such needless damage? Was this, asked those who had not sailed with him before, the Cook whose reputation for humanity stood so fabulously high? Why, again, now marines?—he had never used marines before. Cook had been annoyed with his own men the afternoon before at their getting into a mess: then why did he get into this fatal mess himself? Why, after spending so page 291 many energies on three long voyages on keeping his men out of situations in which bloodshed must be inevitable—why, after hammering into them elementary respect for native susceptibilities and elementary precautions against unpleasant surprise, should he himself misjudge precaution, fall victim to lack of foresight? Was lack of foresight the trouble, or did he fall victim rather to undervaluing a potential enemy, like Jack Rowe the midshipman who perished with his boat's crew in Queen Charlotte Sound in 1773?3 Are lack of foresight and undervaluing your potential enemy the same thing? Why did Cook lose his temper at the precise moment he did, and shoot a man at the most unfavourable of all times? Why did he lose his temper at all? Why, if he were looked on as a god, did the Hawaiians proceed to kill their god? Are we indeed absolutely certain of even our most elementary facts? I may point out that though we have a vast amount of reporting of that incident at Kealakekua Bay, we have only one report, a very brief one, from a person who actually was with Cook, and that that person did not actually see Cook fall. ‘The business was now a most miserable scene of confusion’, he said of it as it rose to its climax.4 The historian's curse is upon us: we are faced by the old difficulty of seeing clearly the dramatic, the emotional, the critical, swift-moving moments in history-I add that we have no direct account from the Hawaiian side at all that we can repose faith in, and no traditionary account that was not given to the Hawaiians decades later by missionaries from Massachusetts. So if we say that a vast irony broods over the whole scene, as I have always thought, and still think, it is an irony of different sorts. Behind, or beneath, irony may lurk poetry, and Trevelyan has told us of the poetry of the historical fact; and at this distance of time we may see some of the tears in things in the happenings of that Hawaiian morning, though we need not weep as Cook's men did. But let me now ignore the irony and the poetry, and the tears, and see if, in attempting to answer my own questions, I can make our simple tale really intelligible: see if circumstances do in any way become essential facts.
First, without taking my questions in order as I asked them, let us look at Cook himself. Obviously, at the moment of crisis, he lost control, and the reason for this loss must lie partly in his own character. He had, one must note, lost control on an earlier occasion, but this was in his prentice days as a diplomat, in Poverty Bay in New Zealand, October 1769. With the best will in the world, he had attempted to stop a canoe-load of fishermen, to make their closer acquaintance, but had miscalculated his means. Maoris had been killed, Cook had suffered much from remorse;5 and from page 292 that time forward he doubled and redoubled his guard against bloodshed. When driven to hostilities, he preferred to inflict fright rather than death. He preferred to use small shot rather than ball; generally speaking, his men were under the most stringent orders in this matter. Disobedience incurred his rage, and his rage was formidable. The eighteenth century lower-deck seaman was no great respecter of the blood of other people, had no great plans in view, was not gifted with foresight, got into a scuffle with remarkable facility, had no sense of responsibility when it came to the transmission of the deadly disease he carried with him, no sense—one sometimes thinks—whatever. It is one of Cook's great achievements, therefore, though not a much publicised achievement, to have kept these men so much out of trouble. It is an important point, for trouble with them in any island entailed trouble with the islanders, and that sort of trouble might imperil a whole voyage. Cook's own first approaches to native peoples were perhaps not thought out as a system, but they were instinctively highly intelligent; he put weapons and companions behind him, was transparently friendly as well as interested, carried at once the air of authority and of goodwill. This is as true for his third voyage as for any time previously. But in other ways there is a change.
I think one can put it best by saying that on this voyage Cook was a tired man. He would himself undoubtedly have rebutted the remark, and none of his officers seems to have made it. I am therefore proposing the result of much reading between the lines. He may have seemed to those around him unchanged: his physique was magnificent, he had on this voyage none of the sickness of his previous one, which had caused his life to be despaired of; his conduct of the voyage, for its prime purpose of geographical discovery, his seamanship, under the difficult conditions of the American north-west coast and the ice-ridden arctic seas, seemed to those officers as admirable and masterly as ever. We have records of their admiration. Yet we can point to a time when the ships were saved from piling up on the Aleutian coast in fog only by startlingly good luck, after a piece of blind navigation that a modern commission of enquiry would examine with the most acute horror.6 We have a man tired, not physically in any observable way, but with that almost imperceptible blunting of the brain that makes him, under a light searching enough, a perceptibly rather different man.
Consider Cook, in July 1775, at the end of that wonderful second voyage, in his forty-eighth year. For the last seven of those years he had been, we may say, at the full stretch of human endeavour—except for the leisure (we do not know how much it was, but it must have been little enough) he could snatch between voyages. The fitting out of the Resolution was in itself a matter of extreme worry. For years he had been subject to every possible strain of body and mind and spirit, varying from the page 293 demands of antarctic navigation to those of his relations with a whole series of hitherto unknown peoples; he had, to give a brief geographical judgment, got not merely New Zealand and Australia but most of the Pacific into order, and a good part of the South Atlantic as well. Sick or well, his faculties in the management of men had been drawn on to the utmost. He arrived home and was given a captaincy in Greenwich Hospital—‘a fine retreat and a pretty income’, he said7— which he accepted on condition that he would be called on for work whenever he seemed the right person for it. He never went to Greenwich: he had on his hands the publication of the journal of his second voyage, and no one who has studied the manuscripts will deny the work entailed in that; and he had the preparations for the third voyage. Why, one is tempted to cry out in indignation, couldn't they leave him alone? If the North-west Passage had to be discovered, and Cook was the heaven-sent commander, could it not be left for a year or two? The Admiralty, in fact, did have some sense of shame. They could not in decency give an order, could not ask Cook to go out again at once—even if he had laid himself open to it. But they were not above plotting a stratagem, not above asking for advice from a man they were pretty certain could be made a volunteer. The famous dinner-party was held, the project was described, the advice was asked, the man volunteered.8 No doubt, among the other aspects of the voyage touched upon, the £20,000 prize for the first ship to discover the Passage was mentioned; and it is certain that Cook, who lived on his pay, included in his duty his duty to his wife and family. It is doubtful if that was needed to move him, the case being put as it was.9 So, to the labours of authorship, and of dealing with that other author John Reinhold Forster, were added those of preparing his ship for another voyage; and if we consider what press of work there was in the royal dockyards in 1776, and the nature of their corruption, we do not need to be surprised that in that work there were inadequacies, whatever Cook's demands. I feel fairly certain, in sum, that Cook should have been forbidden to go on the voyage, or else the voyage should have been postponed. As it was, the hands that signed his commission signed his death-warrant.
There is no doubt about it—I make the point again—that this third voyage was technically a great achievement, though from the nature of things it was doomed to failure, and Australians and New Zealanders tend to think of it mainly as a frame for the last great picture, the slaying of Cook. Nonetheless its details are fascinating, however laborious to follow. Where is the significant detail, the evidence of what I have called the rather different man? I have given one little bit already. It would not be fair to adduce Cook's miscalculation of the winds after he left New Zealand page 294 at the end of February 1777, which cost him a whole season, because he was working on his previous experience, and his previous experience was simply not repeated. I cannot think that the Cook of the second voyage, however, if on the coast of Tasmania, would not have taken the chance to test Furneaux's conclusion, that Tasmania was joined to Australia—a conclusion different from that of more than one of Furneaux's subordinates.10 Again, would the younger Cook, if at Tonga with plenty of time at his disposal, and hearing of the existence of Fiji and Samoa within three or four days' sail—seeing the so different Fijians among the Tongan crowd—have been content to take these islands on trust? Would he not at least have made an eager reconnaissance, got some valuable positions down on the chart, related the two groups to the rest of the island systems? Might he not—though I ask this with hesitation—have gained a little more clarity about some of the features of the American coast south of Nootka Sound? Certainly it was not his stated business to do so, but Cook had never been one to confine his attention to stated business. A piece of business, unfinished, and much more curious, was that over St. Lawrence Island, in the Bering Sea, first named by Bering himself. It is not a large island. Cook sighted it four times, in foggy and snowy weather, in August and September 1778, and thought it was three different islands, and possibly four. He does not seem to have suspected that any of his longitudes were wrong, in spite of the awful conditions for observation. Can anyone doubt that the Cook of four or five years earlier would have both suspected and solved the problem, whatever the conditions, as a matter of course?
What, you may ask, has all this to do with Cook's death? A good deal, I answer—if it is, as I suggest it is, evidence of a mind that has through weariness lost its finest edge. Let us turn to his dealings with men. One of the things that emerge clearly about him in his previous voyages is his understanding of the genus Seaman, his practical wisdom as a psychologist, his readiness to forgive and to expunge the record of offence. The evidence of this third voyage is not so clear. At Tahiti he made a tactful speech and got his crew's willing agreement to do without their grog for the moment, so that they should not go short in the cold future. Few commanders could have registered that sort of success. But later on, tactful speeches gave place to the uncompromising order. There was, for example, the matter of walrus meat in the arctic. Fresh food it was, certainly; invaluable food; and unfamiliar. Cook could eat anything. His taste, thought one of his midshipmen, ‘was, sure; the coarsest that ever mortal was endued with’.11 Walrus, however, made some men vomit: very well, then, they could live on their scanty allowance of bread, and ‘complaints and murmurings’ had to rise to a page 295 very considerable pitch before he would give them back their familiar salt beef. There was a fierce row over sugar-cane beer as a substitute for grog, off the Hawaiian islands in December 1778. The crew wrote Cook an expostulatory letter. Sugar-cane beer or water it was to be, said Cook, telling them (I quote from Midshipman Watts) ‘He look'd upon their Letter as a very mutinous Proceeding & that in future they might not expect the least indulgence from him’; and flogged the cooper, who had started a cask of the decoction which had turned sour.12 He had found easier ways before out of such an impasse as this; conservative seamen had not before been so unequivocally referred to in his journal as ‘my mutinous turbulent crew’. I have mentioned a flogging. It was a flogging age, and Cook was a man of his age. There is no burkeing the fact that Cook the humanitarian flogged. I have kept no statistics, but I have the very strong impression that he did so more severely on this voyage than before.
Certainly the islanders suffered more in this way; and for the old cause, theft. Polynesians thieved enthusiastically and with the utmost skill—by day, by night, surreptitiously, brazenly, by way of highway robbery mingled with assault or with a bold insouciance that almost calls forth admiration. In the Tongan islands they stole tools, muskets, a quadrant, all Captain Gierke's cats. The things they stole, from New Zealand to Hawaii, are beyond computation. Other people stole too: at Nootka Sound Cook's gold watch went, but was recovered; at Prince William Sound they tried to steal the Discovery. To Cook, for some reason, these last seemed venial offences. Tongan and Tahitian offences he appears to have put in a different category, probably because they went on over so long a period, day after day and week after week. At Tonga in particular, Cook was irritated, exasperated—one might say, were one not trying to be scrupulously accurate in analysis, almost driven out of his mind. No careful forethought on his part, no stringent regulations for the conduct of his officers or punishment for careless men, could keep the robbers at bay. When they were taken he flogged: a dozen lashes were succeeded by two dozen, two dozen by three, four and five. He had arms slashed with a cross; he cropped ears. The humane among his own people were disquieted, and registered their disquiet in their journals. In spite of all this his relations with the ruling chiefs were on the whole excellent; with most of their subjects he seems to have got on well enough. He was ‘as ready to hear the Complaint of an Indian and to see justice done to him when injured, as he was to any of his own men, which equitable way of proceeding rendered him highly respected & esteemed by all the Indians’, writes Samwell the surgeon.13 We have not a corresponding Tongan witness. When D'Entrecasteaux called at Tongatapu in 1793 and told them of page 296 Cook's death some wept; others, alas, remembered him for cruelty.14 We can hardly regard as other than cruel his punishment meted out to the unfortunate people of Moorea for their failure to return punctually a wretched goat that had been stolen. The burning of houses, and far worse, of twenty-five great war-canoes may seem an immoderate measure to take: ‘a troublesome, and rather unfortunate affair’, wrote Cook in his journal, after somewhat understating the destruction, ‘which could not be more regreted on the part of the Natives than it was on mine’.15 Once again some of his officers were disquieted.
Cook, we know, was a passionate man. He stamped and swore on his deck, and his midshipmen, were accustomed to refer to his rages as his ‘heivas’, after the expressive Tahitian dance: ‘the old boy has been tipping a heiva’ at someone. It is from the third voyage that we pick up this anecdote,16 though in the captain's previous journals we can remark traces of annoyance, most of which has been scrupulously removed before the record has been submitted to the Admiralty. The evidence, I think, is of a man who knows his own failing, and is reluctant that others should suffer from it. Necessary naval discipline is another thing, and he is not upset that midshipmen should think him stern. He is determined to be just, even if he begins by being hasty. In technical matters he has been cautious and de-liberate, taking risks only when he has had to, or when he has been able to calculate them professionally. Rage, on the other hand, is not a thing one can calculate. Under the strain of continued responsibility for his men, continued planning, continued wrestling with the fundamental problem of his voyage, continued meeting of geographical and nautical and human emergencies, Cook might, had his physical and mental constitution been less powerful, have gone limp. He did not go limp; but, I have argued, he was, perhaps without knowing it, tired. His apprehensions as a discoverer were not so constantly fine as they had been; and he lost his temper more easily and more frequently. It was not to be expected that, at Kealakekua Bay in February 1779, he should be more subtly master of events, more strictly calculating, than he was in Tonga in June 1777.
We may therefore return to Kealakekua Bay with all these considerations in mind, and look as closely as possible at the narrower circumstances of Cook's last hours. Before we do that, however, let me clear out of the way two or three misapprehensions that gained great currency during the course of the nineteenth century—largely, I think, from the somewhat anti-British, American-missionary writers who imposed a tradition on the Hawaiians themselves, or from students of Polynesian culture whose learning was not quite adequate enough. Cook has not, on the whole, had a very page 297 good press in Hawaii.17 It has been suggested, first of all, that somehow Cook became involved in the distress of the lower order of Hawaiians, that his fate was, to put it in rather dubious terms, a function of class-structure. The class-structure of Hawaii was one of chiefs, priesthood, and commoners, the last oppressed and exploited as commoners have always been. Cook came and was hailed as a god, by a priesthood always alive to the main chance; his presence played into their hands, and vast quantities of provisions were virtually extorted from a groaning populace to feed not simply the stomachs of alleged deities, but the prestige of their professional servants. Naturally, in due course, when the oppressed ones saw the gods at a disadvantage, they rose; and Cook, having accepted undue and unexpected exaltation, incurred a just as little expected retribution. The trouble about this theory is that there is no evidence to support it. It is true enough, I think, that Cook was taken for the god Lono. It would occupy too long a time to argue the matter; but I cannot see that the populace suffered in his presence, or in his return, an insupportable burden. Nor, in the end, were all the priests on his side, nor all the laity against him. Supplies of food were not a forced tribute; they were bought in fair enough trade. The theory omits the nature of the Polynesian mind: it is a liberal-European theory, circa 1830; or perhaps one might say, bearing in mind its inventors, a Jacksonian democratic theory.
Another attempt to account for the unpopularity, supposedly growing, of the visitors, is a more directly theological one. On 1 February, the Resolution being short of firewood, Cook asked Lieutenant King to see if he could buy the paling round the heiau where the observatory was set up, a paling interspersed with carved images. King succeeded in doing so, and the paling, not in good repair, was taken off, together with a variety of these images. Now here was a shocking piece of vandalism, say the critics, a monstrous affront to Hawaiian religion, a deliberate over-riding of tapu, a forcing of the people into a signal act of impiety. How could Cook make himself so guilty, or expect that such guilt could go unrequited by a people devoted to their gods?18 The criticism is founded on ignorance. It was the paling Cook wanted, not the images, and Hawaiians themselves had been seen removing pieces of it. Neither this sort of fence nor an image that formed part of it was regarded by Hawaiians as sacred; either could be burnt. King was a tactful man and consulted the priests, and certain images from the heiau itself, which they regarded as important and were tapu, were carefully preserved.19 There was no affront to religion, there was indeed less page 298 destruction than the ordinary Hawaiians themselves were contemplating. On the same day William Watman, an old seaman devoted to Cook, died and was buried ashore on the heiau. It has been alleged that here was a revelatory thing, convincing the people that their visitors were after all not gods, and therefore it had some influence on the events that followed. Once again I can find no evidence to support the allegation. Certainly the Hawaiians took a great interest in the burial, and added their own ceremony to it in great form; but their behaviour was simply that of a friendly and sympathetic nation, who displayed no sense of surprise to see this intimation of a common mortality. Whatever they thought of Cook, there is no indication whatever that they endowed his followers with the attributes of godhead. It may seem sadly contradictory. We must accept the fact that they themselves were human beings, and had a quite human capacity for self-contradiction. I cannot see that the fate of William Watman had any connection at all with the fate of his captain.
It is true, I think, that familiarity with the seamen had bred among the people not contempt but, perhaps, a little boredom, a willingness to tease, a certain experimental attitude towards quarrelling, to see how far it could safely go. Something of the same sort had caused minor trouble in Tonga in 1777. This, added to the increased number of thefts, was only too likely to cause major trouble now. On the morning of 13 February the Hawaiians behaved so badly on board both ships that they were all ordered off. In the afternoon the carpenters were busy over the mast on the heiau, and at the other end of the little beach a party of men in charge of a midshipman were filling water for the Discovery, helped by natives who were paid for their assistance. Other natives began to be very troublesome in hindering this work, and the midshipman came to King, who was in command, to ask him for a marine as a guard. King sent a marine without a musket. The Hawaiians thereupon armed themselves with stones, the midshipman came to King again; and King, a highly respected person, took another marine, this time armed with a musket, and with his authority put an end to the trouble. At this moment Cook came on shore. King told him what had happened, and—I use King's words—‘he gave orders to me that on the first appearance of throwing stones or behaving insolently, to fire ball at the offenders: This made me give orders to the Corporal, to have the Centries pieces loaded with Ball instead of Shot’.20 These words seem to me to be highly significant ones: they are, in fact, the first indication we have that Cook's patience was coming to an end. For ball could kill; small shot, as I have already said, only caused fright.
Late in the afternoon there was worse trouble. While a chief of some importance was calling on Gierke in the Discovery, a bold fellow managed to get up the side, ran across the deck, snatched the armourer's tongs and a chisel, and was overboard again before anyone had recovered from the page 299 surprise. A canoe took him in and made for the shore, fired at from the shipwithout effect. Edgar, the master of the Discovery, put off in the ship's small cutter in pursuit, so hurriedly that neither he nor his men had time to seize a musket or any other weapon; but the canoe outdistanced them and got safe to shore. Meanwhile Cook, inspecting the carpenters, heard the noise of firing and saw the chase, and calling to King, a corporal and a marine, ran to intercept the canoe. In vain; a great and noisy crowd gathered; Cook, King and the marines, leaving the canoe and hoping to catch the thief, were misled till dark; Cook's threats to shoot, at first taken seriously, in the end merely caused laughter; bodies of men kept on collecting, and Cook at last thought it best to return, though not in King's opinion ‘from the smallest Idea of any danger’. While he was being misled, out of sight of the boats, something worse had happened. Edgar had reached the shore, and saw the men with the tongs hand them over to another canoe, which gave them back to him. He was about to make for the ship, well pleased, when he saw the Resolution's pinnace pulling towards him, and Cook and King in full cry. An unhappy impulse determined him, with such reinforcements, to seize the thief's canoe, as it was paddling off, and take it on board. The men in the pinnace, all of whom were, like Edgar and his men, unarmed, did seize the canoe; but alas, it belonged not to the thief, but to a very friendly chief called Parea, who in his turn was just coming on shore. He seized back his own canoe; a fracas broke out, a man in the pinnace hit him on the head with an oar, the crowd stoned the pinnace so heavily that her men were forced to leap out and swim to a rock, Edgar and Midshipman Vancouver were assaulted and beaten, and only through the efforts of the injured Parea were the boats able to get away with broken oars and battered men.21 Cook, when he heard the gist of all this, was exceedingly angry with his own men for their folly in getting into the quarrel with no means of defending themselves. He was angry with the Hawaiians, and doubtless he was none the less angry at having been made a fool of. I quote King again: ‘In going on board, the Captn expressed his sorrow, that the behaviour of the Indians would at last oblige him to use force; for that they must not he said imagine they have gained an advantage over us’.22 And these again are significant words.
I have gone into that afternoon in a little detail, because its events, and their repercussions, are not detached and separate. Its hours are the first, in a period of less than twenty-four hours, that contains the climax of our story. We can, as it were, see the wave rising that is to break next day. In the night a few men crept about the base of the heiau where King slept, and a sentry shot off his musket, but no harm was done. There was, however, the final theft. The Discovery's large cutter had been submerged at a buoy between the ship and the shore to keep her planks from splitting. The page 300 moorings were cut and the boat taken away—a serious loss, as she was the only large boat the Discovery had. Her recovery seemed essential As soon as Clerke heard of the theft, at daybreak, he went to the Resolution to tell Cook of it, and it was resolved—the plan was Cook's—to send boats to the two points of the bay to prevent any canoes from leaving; ‘for he said [I quote Clerke] he would sieze them all and made no doubt but to redeem them they would very readily return the Boat again’.23 Clerke thereupon rowed back to his own ship to give the necessary orders, and the boats, well armed, shortly set off to their stations. Clerke, who was seriously unwell with the tuberculosis that killed him, could himself take no active part in any measure. He had no sooner left the Resolution than King came on board, and ‘found them all arming themselves & the Captn loading his double Barreld piece; on my going to acquaint him with the last nights adventure,’ writes King (meaning the disturbance round the heiau) ‘he interrupted me & said we are not arming for the last nights affairs, they have stolen the Discoverys Cutter, & it is for that we are making preparations.’24 Cook, that is, having dismissed Clerke, had had a further thought, or impulse: he had determined to make the Hawaiian king, Kalei‘opu‘u, his hostage for the return of the cutter, as well as to seize the canoes. For that purpose he was going on shore with an armed party of marines, their muskets loaded with ball. This was a new element. I do not think he necessarily intended to use force, but he did not rule out its possibility, and he was certainly determined to frighten. We have no alternative to concluding, I think, that his patience had been tried beyond its limit; now, once and for all, he was going to put an end to the exasperations these people inflicted on him. And he, who had always calculated so coolly and carefully, made two miscalculations, one bad, the other fatal.
The first miscalculation lay in taking the marines. Hawaiians were used to marines, standing about as sentries, amiably hobnobbing or pursuing their womenj but this was too obviously something different, a body of marines, a set piece of menace. There is no doubt that Cook on his own, at a more normal hour, could quite easily have got the chief on board. For tact he was substituting a threat} and threats, as he had already proved at Moorea, do not always work. They sometimes work in quite the wrong way. We may add that if he were going to take marines at all, and really anticipated having to use them, then the number he thought necessary—a lieutenant and nine men—was a melancholy underestimate. The total number in the ships was thirty-one. Some of these were with King, on ordinary guard-duty. How many were then actually on board the Resolution, and available, I do not know. Perhaps Cook merely thought in terms of more men than he had had with him the afternoon before. Or it may be an indication that not force page 301 but a slight show of force was all he had in mind; that he thought the threat would do his business. On that I have already commented. The threat in any case was not one the Hawaiians could clearly understand: they were not to know how the muskets were loaded. If your threat is ambiguous you are at a disadvantage as much as are those you threaten.
The second miscalculation was over the effect of muskets loaded with ball. I have already said, again, that Cook disliked firing at native peoples with ball, for he disliked killing. His hasty preparations this morning therefore themselves cast a light on the irritation of his mind. His officers did not all agree with his general theory; much better, some thought, to kill a man or two at once on the first sign of disagreement and make an example, prove your superiority, and save trouble in the future. Small shot was useless. This could be turned into a humanitarian argument; for saving future trouble, you might also save future slaughter.25 It is a nice point. Nothing could be more repugnant to the soul of Cook; but, with his own feeling, and some experience, he also overestimated the effect of musket-fire. ‘He was very positive [this time I quote Burney, and could quote Clerke and others], the Indians would not stand the Fire of a single Musket. Indeed, so many instances have occurred which have all helped to confirm this Opinion, that it is not to be wondered at, if everybody thought the same.’26 It was a ruinous opinion; and with this opinion, between six and seven o'clock on the morning of 14 February, he stepped into his boat and went ashore.
There were three boats, the men in them all armed—the Resolution's small pinnace, small cutter, and launch. The cutter was sent to lie off the north-west point of the bay to keep the canoes from leaving. The village of Kaawaloa, where Kalei‘opu‘u had his habitation, lay just inside this point. The shore close to the village was then partly sand, partly an irregular lip of lava above shallow water; though the sand has gone, the line of the shore seems to have survived pretty well the earthquakes and tidal-waves that have altered so much the appearance of the rest of the bay, and if one thinks away the trees and the prickly American lantana and acacia that have spread over most of the place, it is possible to visualize there the events of the morning without great difficulty. Cook, the young Lieutenant Molesworth Phillips of the marines, and his nine men landed; and the two boats page 302 withdrew to keep off the bottom.27 For the story I now tell I follow the report made to Clerke by Phillips, who was with Cook till just before the climax, the journal of Clerke, who discussed the matter closely with Phillips, and knew Cook as well as anyone did, and a few sentences from the journal of King, who seems to have made a careful enquiry. A great deal of circumstantial detail reported by others, whether published or unpublished, we can afford to ignore. I think, in the light of the manuscript material we have, we can ignore the printed account of Lieutenant King, who certainly rewrote very carefully for official publication the account given in his journal; we can ignore what I may call the classic unofficial printed account, the pamphlet by Samwell, and even the longer one in the journal of Samwell, who went to immense pains to assemble a connected story. About much of this I feel as Trevenen the midshipman felt about Samwells pamphlet, ‘some things are represented … in situations which should seem to render minute detail impossible’. Trevenen was aware of the historian's curse.28
Cook and the marines marched into the village, where Cook enquired for Kalei‘opu‘u and his two lively young sons, who spent much of their time on board the Resolution. The boys soon came and took him and Phillips to their father's hut. After waiting some time Phillips went to bring out the just-awakened chief. It was obvious within a few words that he knew nothing of the stolen cutter, and he quite readily accepted the invitation to the ship. He started off for the beach with Cook and Phillips; one of the boys ran ahead and jumped happily into the pinnace. So far all was well; page 303 but near the waterside Kalei‘opu‘u’ wife and two lesser chiefs came up,began to argue with him, and made him sit down. There was a change in the chief: he ‘appear'd dejected and frighten'd’, says Phillips. Also a great crowd had gathered, rather clearly not well-disposed. So many muskets, ‘& things carried on in a quite different manner from formerly’ (I quote King)29 had caused alarm. Cook pressed the chief; his friends insisted he should not go; the noise increased. The few marines were huddled in the midst of the crowd: Phillips proposed to Cook that they should form a line along the lava rocks by the water, facing the crowd; Cook agreed, and the people quite willingly made way for them. A large body of marines, drawn up on favourable ground, and disciplined like the Guards at Waterloo, might now have been of some use. At the same time the Hawaiians were arming themselves with spears and stones—to repel any force that might be exerted on Kalei‘opu‘u, so Phillips thought—and many had daggers. Some of these daggers were iron ones obtained from the English, a favourite article of trade. Then, remarks Phillips, ‘an Artful Rascal of a Priest was singing & making a ceremonious offering of a Coco Nut to the Capt and Terre’oboo to divert their atttention from the Manoeuvres of the surrounding multitude.’ I confess I cannot understand this: Phillips does not mention any thing one can recognize as ‘manoeuvres’; and the priest, however artful, was not necessarily a rascal, or diverting attention. And if he was diverting attention, why Kalei‘opu‘u’s attention? At any rate, Cook decided to abandon his plan, and said to Phillips, ‘We can never think of compelling him to go on board without killing a number of these People’. These words I quote partly because they are, as far as I know, one of the very few remarks by Cook ever directly reported. Note that Cook still believed he had the initiative. Clerke agreed: there was nothing at this time to stop Cook, in spite of the clamour, from walking peaceably down to the boat and embarking; nothing to stop him from taking off the marines. He did begin to walk slowly down.
Two things now happened which I cannot put in order, nor is their precise order particularly important. One was, so far as Cook was concerned, a mere chance. At the other end of the bay, to keep a canoe from escaping, muskets had been fired, and a man killed. The man was a notable chief. Another chief hastening to the ships in passionate indignation to find Cook and tell him the story was disregarded, and forthwith made for the beach. It was Cook he wanted, not the crowd; but it was the crowd that got the news, spreading like wildfire, not Cook; and the news was enough, with the other thing, to carry them over the border-line of excitement into attack. The other thing was the culmination of all the wearing irritations and exasperations to which Cook's mind had been subject for so many months, as I have been at such pains to lay before you. As he walked down to the page 304 boat he was threatened by one of the mob with a dagger and a stone—perhaps out of mere bravado. Cook's temper boiled over.30 He fired one barrel of his musket, loaded with small shot, at the man; and at that moment he lost the initiative. The shot did no damage, even at close range, the man being protected by his heavy war mat—except that it further enraged the Hawaiians. Kalei‘opu‘u’s young son in the pinnace was frightened and was put ashorej but even then the men in the boats saw no particular reason for alarm—even then, when the wave was about to break. It broke. A chief attempted to stab Phillips, stones were hurled, a marine was knocked down, Cook fired his other barrel, loaded with ball, and killed a man, Phillips fired, there was a general attack, Cook ordered the marines to fire, and the boats joined in. Phillips had time to reload his musket. The overwhelmed marines did not. Cook shouted ‘Take to the boats!’, an order hardly necessary, as the unfortunate and ill-trained men were already scrambling into the water and towards the pinnace, ‘totally vanquish’d’, as Phillips said. Phillips was knocked down by a stone and stabbed in the shoulder, shot his assailant dead and managed to get to the pinnace, and then out of it again to save the life of a drowning man. After being knocked down he saw no more of Cook. So much for the deterrent power of fire with ball.
The men in the pinnace, which had kept in as close to the shore as possible, saw Cook's last moments. He was close to the edge of the lava waving to the boats to come in when he was hit from behind with a club; while he staggered from this blow he was stabbed in the neck, or shoulder, with one of the iron daggers—a blow not in itself fatal, but enough to fell him, strong as he was, face down into the water. There was a great shout and a rush to hold him under and finish him off with daggers and clubs. The man who stabbed him was shot and killed. The overloaded pinnace pulled off, the cutter came round and fired till it was recalled, the Resolution, seeing trouble on shore, had fired some of its four-pounders. The launch had not gone in closer: it was commanded by a very peculiar and unpopular man, Lieutenant Williamson; and Williamson, incomprehen-page 305sibly mistaking the meaning of Cook's wave, had even rowed further out.31 Some people have therefore directly blamed Williamson for Cook's death.32 I find his personality distasteful, but can find no justification for this. As the boats pulled off to the ship, it was shortly after 8 o'clock.
Of the ten marines (including Phillips) four had been killed and four wounded. Of the Hawaiians, seventeen were killed; many others were badly wounded. Clerke could find no Hawaiian premeditation in the affair. He was clear that, at the end, Cook had acted unwisely. I have, I suppose, made clear my own hypothesis. One question remains: how, if Cook was deemed a god, could those who exalted him also kill him? The answer to this surely is that many savage peoples have not hesitated to beat or otherwise punish their gods when they have failed in their duty as gods; and Cook, a god who was not without marks of humankind, had given some provocation. He was mourned and honoured by the people who killed him, and a question asked more than once by them of his men was ‘When will the god—when will Erono—come again?’ They were indeed somewhat shocked by what they had done.
In England also, to which I now return, though not to William Cowper, there was a sense of shock. ‘Dear Sir’, wrote Lord Sandwich to Sir Joseph Banks, on 10 January 1780, ‘what is uppermost in our mind allways must come out first, poor captain Cooke is no more…’.33 A sense of shock: I can think of nothing in our history of quite the same order until the news came through in 1913 of Scott's death in the Antarctic.
1 This paper has undergone some revision since being delivered as the presidential address to Section E of the ANZAAS Congress, Canberra, 21 January 1964. I must confess that I find it difficult to annotate other than clumsily and irregularly. The paper is founded on work done for my edition of the Journals of Captain James Cook, mainly for Vol. Ill; and at the moment of writing, the parts of this volume I should like to cite are still in galley-proof. I feel compelled therefore to leave some large statements unsupported, or supported only in the most large and general way; and smaller ones, that should be tied down specifically and tidily, sheltering uncertainly under some vague umbrella of reference. The discontented reader is asked to accept this apology, even if he remains discontented.
2 Thomas Wright (ed.), Correspondence of William Cowper, London, 1904, Vol. II, pp. 249-50.
3 Or, to take an earlier example that came to the mind of a shipmate of the second voyage, Magellan? 'I receive early the shocking news of the Death of Captain Cooke', wrote Anders Sparrman, the natural historian, to George Forster, 5 Sept. 1780. '… I remember as well, as if it had passed yesterday, when the old Cooke blamed Magellan for his unnecessary braving the Indians, who killed him, and now this is his own case.' Johann Georg Forster's Briefwechsel, Leipzig, 1829, Vol. II, p. 748.
5 Journals of Captain James Cook, Vol. I, pp. ccx-ccxii. and 170-71.
6 Cook's Journal, B. M. Egerton MS 2177A, 26 June 1778. It was off the south-east end of Unalaska. Compare Clerke's wry comment, P.R.O. Adm 55/23, for that date: 'very nice pilotage, considering our perfect Ignorance of our situation'.
8 Andrew Kippis, Life of Captain James Cook, London, 1788, pp. 324-5,
9 'It is certain I have quited an easy retirement, for an Active, and perhaps Dangerous Voyage[.] My present disposition is more favourable to the latter than the former, and I imbark on as fair a prospect as I can wish. If I am fortunate enough to get safe home, theres no doubt but It will be greatly to my advantage.' Cook to John Walker, 14 Feb. 1776, Dixson Library MS.
10 Journals, Vol. II, pp. 153 and nn; 165.
11 James Trevenen, midshipman Resolution, note on Voyage, Vol. II, p. 4-57. This was one of a series of notes that Trevenen wrote on the Voyage, I have used the copy of these notes now among the MSS in the Archives of British Columbia.
12 P.R.O. Adm 51/4559/212; 10, 11, 12 Dec. 1778. For the 12th, '…At the same time ye Captn address'd ye Ships Company, telling them He look'd upon their Letter as a very mutinous Proceeding & that in future they might not expect the least indulgence from him.' The letter was partly about short allowance of provisions, which Cook rectified.
13 David Samwell, 'Some Account of a Voyage to South Seas,' B. M. Egerton MS 2591, f.61v.
14 J. J. H. de Labillardiere, Account of a Voyage in search of La Perouse, London, 2nd ed., 1802, Vol. II, pp. 149-50, 181-2.
15 Journal, 10 October 1777.
16 Trevenen, note on Voyage, Vol. II, p. 283.
17 See the very illuminating study by J. G. F. Stokes, 'The Origin of the Condemnation of Captain Cook in Hawaii', Hawaiian Historical Society Annual Report, 1930, pp. 68-101. Stokes takes it back to Ka Moolelo Hawaii of the Rev. Sheldon Dibble, published at the mission press at Lahainaluna in 1838, and translated into English In 1839.
18 The origin of this theory seems to have been John Ledyard's book, A Journal of Captain Cook's last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean…, Hartford, Conn., 1783, pp. 136-7. The thing is a worthless production which nevertheless managed to make a place for itself in American historical folklore.
19 P.R.O. Adm 55/122, f. 124v.
20 Ibid., f. 130.
21 Edgar gives his own account of this incident in P.R.O. Adm 55/24, S. 58v-59v.
22 Adm 55/122, f. 130v.
23 P.R.O. Adm 51/4561. Clerke's account of the incidents of 14 Feb. and the week thereafter is in this volume, ff. 209-27; it is copied out, I think as a communication for the Admiralty, in Adm 55/124.
24 Adm 55/122. f. 131.
25 The actual event seems to have stimulated this feeling. Law, the surgeon of the Resolution, writes (B.M. Add. MS 37327, 23 Feb.), 'It is now the Opinion of almost Everybody that Had we held at first our Musquets More Sacred & not have fired Small Shot at a Thief, but if necessary have killed him with a Ball these People would have dreaded the Idea of a Musquet as Much as a Taheitean who were so Beat by W[allis]—and certainly the Death of One Man is much better than Daily wounding Many—for instance the order & Discipline that was kept up at Atowi the last Year and without the least trouble to Us, as the Arees thought it Policy to keep the Vulgar in good order.' The last phrases refer to the incident at Kauai 20 Jan. 1778, when Lieutenant Williamson, looking with the boats for a landing-place, shot and killed a man. Cook was not pleased. Williamson was a professed humanitarian, critical of his captain on more than one occasion, and (at least in his journal) argumentative with him—on this point among others.
26 Burney, Mitchell MS, 14 Feb. Cf. Edgar, P.R.O. Adm 55/24, f. 60, (…had Capt: Cooke came down to the boats, directly as he was advised he most probably would have sav'd his life, but he too wrongly thought, as he said, that the Flash of a Muskett, would disperse the whole Island, led on by these Idea's he hearken'd to no Advice, till it was too late.'
27 'There was that morning a swell of the sea in the bay, and more surf on the shore than usual, insomuch that the boats were obliged to lie off on their oars; the shore also consisted of uneven and slippery rocks; which were circumstances extremely inconvenient for embarking, if pressed on by an enemy.' Burney, Chronological History of North-Eastern Voyages of Discovery, London, 1819, p. 262. This detail about the surf comes into no other source, not even into Burney's own journals. If true, it is doubtful whether it had any real importance.
28 Molesworth Phillips kept a journal, which has now disappeared. Clerke incorporated the report in his own journal, Adm 51/4561, entry for 14 Feb. King has printed his in Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, Vol. Ill, pp. 41-6. SamwelPs pamphlet was A Narrative of the death of Captain James Cook…, London, 1786; reprinted most recently by Sir Maurice Holmes, San Francisco and London, 1957; the corresponding portion of his MS journal is about 1000 words longer. His journal for 4 Feb. to 22 Feb. was printed, not with entire accuracy, in Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol. I, part 1, pp. 450-78. There are interesting passages in the logs or journals of Watts, Harvey (at the time midshipman Discovery), Edgar, Bayly the astronomer, Burney (Mitchell Library MS), and some bitter marginal comments by Bligh (who in his early twenties was master of the Resolution) in the Admiralty Library copy of the Voyage. R. T. Gould printed Clerke, Edgar and Bayly in his article 'Some Unpublished Accounts of Cook's Death', in the Mariner's Mirror, Vol. XIV, 1928, pp. 301-19; and Bligh in his 'Bligh's Notes on Cook's Last Voyage', ibid., pp. 371-85, and more particularly pp. 380-2. Dr. George Mackaness also has printed these notes in his Life of Vice-Admiral William Bligh, Sydney, 1951, pp. 20-5. The printed volumes of Rickman (anonymous, 1781), Zimmerman (1781), Ellis (1782), Ladyard (1783) cannot help being Interesting in one way or another; but none of these men was on the spot, any more than the others I have referred to. Trevenen's remark comes from 'A letter to a friend' quoted in Admiral Sir C. V. Penrose's memoir of Trevenen, Alexander Turnbull Library MS, p. 14. We have the point rammed home in one of the fragments of the MS 'logbook' of Alexander Home, master's mate Discovery, now in the National Library of Australia: ‘I was not present in this Fray being Sick So this Account is Entirely from the Mouths of others Who were present. But these Differed greatly in their Relation of the same Matters So that what I have here said I do not Aver to be the Real truth in Every particul [ar] although in General it may be pretty Nigh the Matter. I have carefully Asserted such Relations as had the greatest apearance of Truth. But indeed they were so Exceedingly perplexed in their Accounts that it was a hard Matter to Colect Certainty, in particular cases or indeed to write any Account at all.’
29 Adm 55/122, f. 133.
30 On the point of psychology, I here quote a passage from Burney, North-Eastern Voyages, p. 263, which if he is correct is fatal to my thesis. ‘The published account, and I believe it was the same in most of the private journals, whence probably the mistake originated, has attributed a motive to Captain Cook which was not natural to the circumstance, instead of one which was. I find it said in my own journal, that Captain Cook was provoked by the man's insolence, and fired at him with small shot. The printed narrative says, “the man persisting in his insolence, Captain Cook was at length provoked to fire a load of small shot”. Insolence is little attended to in actual and deadly hostility. Captain Cook was a man of cool discernment, at no time proud, and not likely, in a time of difficulty and danger, to give way to childish irritation. The Islander continued to draw near, and Captain Cook judged it necessary to his safety to fire, which, having a gun with two barrels, he did first with small shot. The man fired at held up his mat scoffingly, and called out "matte manoo", meaning that the gun was only fit to kill birds; Matte signifying to kill, and manoo bird. The natives then threw stones, and one of the marines was knocked down, on which Captain Cook fired off his other barrel.’ But Burney was not there, and was writing upwards of forty years after his association with Cook, and the particular event. And how, one may ask, did Burney exclusively get the detail of 'matte manoo'?
31 So at least Samwell says. There certainly seems to be agreement that he gave little help, though neither Clerke nor King mentions anything to his discredit. Bayly says outright, 'During the whole the Launch lay at a distance without firing a shot'; but Bayly was not there.
32 Including some of his shipmates. The most dogmatic among moderns is R. T. Gould, 'Some Unpublished Accounts…', p. 319, and Captain Cook, London, 1935, pp. 137-8. Cf. in the article referred to, p. 316, the sentence, 'I am confident that if Bligh could have succeeded to the command he would have tried Williamson by court-martial and, in all probability, have hanged him before the ships left Kealakekua Bay'. This is too extravagant. Gould might have considered a footnote in Kippis, p. 468: 'I have been informed, on the best authority, that, in the opinion of Captain Philips [sic], who commanded the marines, and whose judgment must be of the greatest weight, it is extremely doubtful whether any thing could successfully have been done to preserve the life of Captain Cook, even if no mistake had been committed on the part of the launch.' Williamson's own journal as it survives, Adm 55/117, goes no further than June 1778.
33 Dixson Library MS B