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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 2, Issue 1, 1987

Cook: The "Adventure' and misadventure in Queen Charlotte Sound, 1773–1777

Cook: The "Adventure' and misadventure in Queen Charlotte Sound, 1773–1777

page 18

Today, looking at Wharehunga Bay (Grass Cove), it is hard to credit the bloody and tragic events which occurred there, on that fateful summer's evening, two hundred and fourteen years ago. On 17 December 1773, ten men from Cook's consort vessel Adventure, were killed and eaten by the Maoris.

The most remarkable thing about the whole incident was Cook's attitude throughout. He was not in the Sound at the time, and only became aware of events gradually. For all that, his attitude was remarkable. He was not concerned with revenge, or justice even; his chief concern was to find out exactly what had gone wrong. After his first disastrous brushes with Maoris, in Poverty Bay in 1769, Cook had been able to treat the natives with "distinguished humanity", as it was suggested he should do, in his instructions from the Admiralty.

Up until the incident of Wharehunga Bay, his relationships with the natives of Queen Charlotte Sound had been excellent. That they continued that way, after the incident, was also a measure of his essential humanity. He had gone out of his way to treat them here, as elsewhere in the Pacific, with humanity, more than many of his contemporaries did; and perhaps more than some of those serving under him were inclined to do. This latter factor is, probably, the crux of the whole matter. How did the incident come about then?

Because of the near loss of Endeavour on Great Barrier Reef, on Cook's first voyage, it had been decided that, on subsequent voyages, there should be consort vessels. In the event of one being lost, most of the crews and the information gathered, should then have a greater chance of surviving. For this reason, Cook had the Adventure, under Captain Tobias Furneaux, as company on his second voyage, July 1772-July 1775.

Up to a point, the consort vessel idea worked. Ships were prone to separation during heavy weather and, unless commanders did as Cook did and gave subordinates explicit rendezvous instructions, the value of the exercise was lost. The Resolution and Adventure were separated twice on Cook's second voyage. The first time, in the southern Indian Ocean, on 8 February 1773. They did not meet again until their planned rendezvous, at Cook's first voyage refuge, Queen Charlotte Sound, on 8 May 1773. After managing to stay together for almost all of a large subsequent circuit through the Pacific, 7 June – 25 October, they were again separated, in a gale off Cape Palliser. This time there was to be no rendezvous.

Cook stayed close to the New Zealand coast, while Furneaux ran before the Nor' Westerly winds, out into the Pacific. Cook arrived off Ship Cove on 3 November 1773, but Furneaux did not arrive until 30 November. In the meantime, Cook had refitted his ship and had virtually given up all chance of finding the Adventure:—

"…as to the Adventure I despair of seeing her any more but I am totally at a loss to conceive what is become of her…"

Cook sailed from Ship Cove, on a second foray into the Pacific, on 25 November. He and Furneaux missed each other merely by days. Obviously, he felt duty bound to get on with the work he was sent to do, rather than sit and wait for the Adventure. Cook wrote, on quitting the New Zealand coast:

"I had the satisfaction to find that not a man was dejected or thought the dangers we had to go through were in the least increased by being alone".

He had taken the precaution of leaving a bottle, containing instructions, buried under a tree at Ship Cove, in case Furneaux should turn up.

page 19

Furneaux found the bottle, upon his arrival, but was unable to put to sea immediately, because of the storm damage sustained by the "Adventure". He quickly set about getting the ship and crew seaworthy again. He achieved this in just over a fortnight, by 17 December 1773.

As one of Cook's pupils, Furneaux was also well schooled in the need for anti-scorbutics, to keep the dreaded sea-scurvy at bay. One of his last acts, before sailing, was to send the ship's cutter to gather 'wild greens' for this purpose. The boat was under instructions to return the same evening, the 17th, as the Adventure was putting to sea the following morning.

At this point, the tale is perhaps best taken up by Furneaux himself:

"But on the boat's not returning the same evening nor the next morning, being under great uneasiness abouther, I hoisted out the Launch, and sent her with Second Lieutenant, Mr Burney, manned with the boat's crew and ten marines, in search of her. My orders to Mr Burney were, first to look well into East Bay and then to proceed to Grass Cove, the place to which Mr Rowe had been sent…"

Furneaux did not, at this stage, believe that anything more untoward than the boat having gone adrift, or having been holed, could be involved:

"This was almost everybody's opinion; and on this supposition the carpenter's mate was sent in the launch with some sheets of tin".

This reflected the existing state of relations between Cook's crews and the local Maori population. There had been some pilfering, on both sides, but nothing more serious than that. There had been no hint of violence towards the Europeans.

Lieutenant Burney returned, at about eleven pm, on the evening of 18 December. He had an horrific tale to recount:

On the 18th we left the ship, and having a light breeze in our favour, we soon got round Long Island".

He then went to the head of East Bay, searched a Maori village and then made his way down the eastern side of East Bay, searching every bay as they went. They searched another village, probably in Otanerau Bay, and carried on down the eastern shore of Arapawa Island, until they came through the passage between Pickersgill Island and Arapawa Island:

"…in a small beach adjoining to Grass Cove we saw a very large double canoe just haul'd up, with 2 men and a Dog – the men on seeing us, left their Canoe and ran up into the woods – this gave me reason to suspect I should here get tidings of the Cutter".

In one canoe they found one of the rowlock ports of the cutter and some shoes, which were known to belong to one of the midshipmen accompanying Rowe's party. They also found something more sinister:

"One of the people at the same time brought me a piece of meat, which he took to be some of the salt meat belonging to the Cutter's crew…I found it was fresh. Mr Fannin (the Master), who was with me, suppos'd it was Dog's flesh…but we were soon convinced by the most horrid and undeniable proof. A great many baskets (about 20) were laying on the beach tied up – we cut them open, some were full of roasted flesh and some of fern-root which serves them for bread".

page 20

Further search produced conclusive proof: the hand of one Thomas Hill, which had been tattooed with the initials "T.H." in Tahiti. There was also "a round spot covered with fresh earth", this was the "umu" or oven. They began digging, but were distracted by "a Great Smoke ascending over the nearest hill". They pulled the boat off and made for the site of the smoke, Grass Cove. There they found one single canoe and three double canoes and a "place throng'd like a Fair". Burney ordered a musketoon fired through one of the canoes, in case it was concealing Maoris. As soon as they got close enough, they fired volleys at the Maoris, who retreated to the hill in the centre of the Cove.

They continued to fire as long as they could glimpse anyone in the trees. Most fled off "howling". Two, however, "never offer'd to move till they found themselves forsaken by the companions & then they walk'd away with great composure and deliberation". Subsequent investigation by Cook revealed that, in fact, those volleys of musketry inflicted no casualties upon the Maoris. Burney then landed with the marines, to search the beach. They found two bundles of celery (scurvy grass) and a broken oar, stuck upright in the ground, to which the Maoris had tied their canoes. They searched the back of the beach to see if the cutter was there. They found no boat but:

"…such a shocking scene of Carnage and Barbarity as can never be mentioned or thought of, but with horror; for the Heads, Hearts and Lungs of several of our people were seen lying on the beach, at a little distance, the dogs gnawing their Entrails".

We can only imagine the thoughts of Burney and the marines; the feelings of horror going through their minds at this time. Burney said they stood "stupified" by the sight. However, darkness was falling and they could hear the Maoris on the hill above them. Prudence demanded their withdrawal to the boat. There they smashed the canoes and fired a volley or two, at the sound of the voices on the hill. It was now drizzling and several of the flintlock muskets misfired. They then made their way back, to report their news to Furneaux who, incidentally, was related to Rowe. The unfortunates lost in the cutter were:

"Mr Rowe, Mr Woodhouse, Francis Murphy Quartermaster, Wm Facey, Thos. Hill, Edwd Jones, Michael Bell, Jno Cavenaugh, Thos Milton and James Swilley, The Captn's Man".

The few remains they were able to recover were committed to the deep in Ship Cove. Furneaux made sail for home as soon as he could.

Lieutenant Burney did not believe that the massacre was a premeditated act, but that it had arisen from some quarrel and from "…our people being so very incautious and thinking themselves too Secure". He was proved correct, but had to wait four years to find out what had actually happened.

Cook received inklings of it, however, when he returned to Ship Cove on 19 October 1774, after his wider sweep through the South Pacific, but could not make much of it. Cook and his crew noticed that the Maoris were loathe to come too close to them. Upon enquiring: "they talk'd much about killing which was so variously understood by us that it meant nothing".

Cook did discover that the bottle, with the message for "Adventure", had been dug up and, seeing an area of trees felled that they had not been responsible for, and an area where an observatory had been set up:

"It was no longer to be doubted that the "Adventure" had been in this cove after we had left it".

Pursuing the story of the killings, Cook could only elucidate that a ship "like ours had page 21lately been lost in the Strait; and that the Natives stole their clothes etc. for which several were shot; that afterwards when they could fire no longer, the natives having to the better, killed them with the Patapatoos (Patus) and ate them…"

In the original telling, this story was supposed to have happened near Cape Terewhiti, on the Wellington side of the strait. Other Maoris told Cook a similar story, except the setting was East Bay. Another group mentioned "Caurey" to Mr Wales, his observer, but would admit nothing of it to Cook. This meant nothing to Cook at the time, but was, in fact, a reference to Kahura, the perpetrator of the deed.

These stories made Cook very uneasy about the Adventure. His old friend, Pedero, arrived later at Ship Cove and allayed most of Cook's fears about the Adventure, explaining that she had come and gone, since his last trip into the Pacific. However, to the end of his stay at Ship Cove, he was suspicious that some sort of disaster had happened to "some other strangers". For example, Cook related how "one man received a box on the ear for naming it to some of our people". The massacre's telling had to wait until Cook got home, the following July. The full story had to wait, until Cook returned in 1777.

When, on his third voyage, Cook dropped anchor in Ship Cove on 13 February 1777, the local Maoris showed an even more marked reluctance to come on board. Seeing Omai, the Tahitian interpreter, who had been on the "Adventure" at the time of the incident, on board the "Resolution", reinforced this reluctance.

Cook had to make it quite clear that he was not there to exact "utu" for the incident, before any Maoris could be enticed on board. Even then, they obviously feared treachery. Only when they were convinced that he was not going to take revenge, did groups from all over the Sound begin to gather in Ship Cove.

On 16 February, Cook took the opportunity of visiting Grass Cove:

"Whilst we were at this place our curiosity prompted us to enquire into the circumstances attending the melancholy fate of our countrymen".

Two stories emerged. The first suggested that, while the crew of the boat were sitting down to their evening meal, some Maoris stole, or snatched, some bread and fish. They were beaten by the crew members involved and this affront to their "mana" led to a quarrel, in which two firearms were discharged and two Maoris killed. These were the only arms the men had with them, the rest being in the cutter, two hundred yards away, on the other side of the cove. The remaining Maoris fell upon the group and they were quickly overpowered and killed, having no other means of defending themselves.

The second version suggested that it happened at the same time as in the first account. The boat's crew, with the exception of James Swilley, the Negro, were sitting down to a meal in late afternoon, in the southern corner of Wharehunga Bay. Swilley had been left in charge of the cutter, which was beached in the northern part of the cove. In this version, one Maori attempted to steal something out of the boat, but was caught by Swilley, who laid into him with a stick. His companions, believing him killed, sought revenge by attacking the group at their meal and overpowered them, because of their lack of arms.

A third version was subsequently told by Kahura, the chief involved. After considerable persuasion, Cook was finally able to entice Kahura to come on board "Resolution" at Ship Cove. This in itself was remarkable, because Kahura was no doubt expecting that, once on board, he would be killed. The other Maoris at Ship Cove had been importuning Cook to do this and it would have been expected under the Maori code. It was an incident demanding "utu". If the incident demanded it and the opportunity was there, but not taken, then the wronged person's "mana" declined accordingly. However, Cook make his position quite clear to those seeking Kahura's death:

page 22

"I should think no more of it the transaction having happened long ago, and when I was not present; but that if ever they made a second attempt of that kind, they might rest assured of feeling the weight of my resentment".

Cook was exercising that degree of humanity which was essentially his. It was clear to Cook too, that Kahura expected instant death, when he was left alone with him and questioned. Cook could not but help admire his courage, for having knowingly allowed himself to be put in that situation.

Kahura's story was that a stone hatchet was brought, to barter with the Europeans. It was accepted by one of the ill-fated crew of the cutter, who then refused to give anything in return. The Maori who owned the hatchet snatched up the bread in retaliation. The quarrel quickly escalated to the drawing of arms. Kahura stated that he avoided being shot by ducking behind the boat. This suggests that the main fracas took place near the boat. Apart from that, his story did not differ substantially from the other two. Cook subsequently discounted the stone hatchet story, saying it was merely a device to make the Europeans appear in the wrong.

Lieutenant Burney, who sailed again with Cook on the third voyage, as second in command of the consort vessel Discovery, has perhaps left the most useful insight and one for which there is corroborative evidence. He stated:

"The best account I have been able to gather, is that our people were dining on the beach; during their meal, a Zealander stole something out of the boat, and was making off with it, on which Mr Rowe fired and killed the thief on the spot. The Zealanders immediately sallied out of the Woods and got between our people and the boat. They say Rowe fired twice and killed another man, but the people's muskets had been left in the boat, nobody but himself having any firearms, so that they were easily overpowered and fell from imagining themselves too secure".

Whatever the precursor of the massacre, it is clear that the lack of that "distinguished humanity", the forbearance that Cook would have used, turned what could have been a minor incident, into a full scale tragedy.

George Forster, one of the naturalists on the "Resolution", had some enlightening things to say of Mr Rowe. He recorded that, on an earlier occasion, Rowe would have killed some Maoris for theft, had it not been for "the judicious and humane advice of Lieutenant Burney". Forster said of him:

"Mr Rowe, the unfortunate youth who had the command of this boat, combined with many liberal sentiments, the prejudices of a naval education, which induced him to look upon all the natives of the South Sea with contempt and to assume that kind of right over them, with which the Spaniards in more barbarous ages, disposed of the lives of the American Indians".

It was this sort of assumption, which spelled the death of the nine men under Mr Rowe's command. Had Mr Rowe been a little more like Lieutenant Burney, or indeed Cook himself, ten men would have returned to the Adventure that night, a little weary, after the long pull back from Grass Cove, but still very alive. The impetuosity of youth can hardly excuse his having put the lives of his men at risk.

Obviously that thought never even occurred to this particular midshipman. The notion of cultural superiority, and all the assumptions about technology and race that are im-page 23plicit in it, were to be displayed just as rashly, by men who could not even claim the excuse of youth, seventy years later, on the banks of the Tua Marina stream.

It is apparent that, on neither occasion, was there any premeditation on the part of the Maoris. In the 1843 Wairau Affray, it was only when blood had been spilt that the Maoris took to settling the matter, in their own time-honoured way. It is one of the little ironies of history that the party who, by education, religious background and instruction, should have shown the most forbearance, did not. Another irony is that, in not doing so, they also paid an horrific penalty.

Today, Wharehunga Bay is a reserve, under the care of the Department of Conservation. The nation is fortunate that its former owners were willing to offer it to the crown. Perhaps, in time, the site will be marked and some interpretation of the incident provided.

The bay immediately adjacent to Wharehunga, to the north, has been named Burney's Beach, in recognition of his discoveries there. In the southern corner is a cairn, commemorating the incident. It is a moot point as to whether that particular section of beach is where he actually made his discovery. A careful reading of his account, and a look at the ground in question, suggests not.

Little evidence of the events that took place has been uncovered. The ridge in the centre of the bay is a pa site. This probably explains why the Maoris retreated up on to it, when fired at by Burney's party. It also explains why the unfortunate boat's crew were so quickly cut off, outnumbered and overpowered.

The only known European relics of the incident are the rusted bayonet, the boat hook, butt plates, locks, barrels and other pieces of the two "Brown Bess" flintlock muskets, now in the care of the Marlborough Historical Society. These were uncovered by Mr W.J.H. Greensill of Wharehunga Bay, sometime between 1910 and 1930. What became of the cutter itself will probably forever remain a mystery.

Some of the relics mentioned above.

Some of the relics mentioned above.


Begg, A.C. James Cook and New Zealand. Government Printer, 1969.

Brailsford, B. The tattooed land. Reed, 1981.

Cook, J. The journals of Captain James Cook, edited by J.C. Beaglehole, Cambridge University Press, 1955.

Forster, J.G.A. A voyage round the world in His Britannic Majesty's sloop. Resolution. London, 1777.