Captain Cook and three fateful Januarys


The Resolution and Adventure in Tahiti, painted by William Hodges
in 1776 during Cook's second voyage of exploration

It’s raining steadily in the Pacific Northwest this month, following a late December snowstorm. During this kind of weather, I like to think about tropical islands. Hawaii and Tahiti are two that come to mind.

But the history of those Pacific gems is inextricably linked to one man: Captain James Cook, the 18-century British navy captain, cartographer, explorer and navigator par excellence whose scientific discoveries and explorations reshaped the world as he and his contemporaries knew it. 

It's appropriate to think of Cook during the dreary month of January, because it was on January 17, 1773, that the HMS Resolution under Cook’s command became the first ship to cross the Antarctic Circle. It was January of 1778 that Cook first set foot on the beautiful Hawaiian Islands. And it was another fateful January, in 1779, that he made his second and final visit to Hawaii, a trip that would prove fatal.

Cook's voyages

Cook, as painted by William Hodges

Cook started his career in the Royal Navy as a surveyor. As a lieutenant in command of the HMS Endeavour, in 1768 he led his first voyage (1768-1771), taking a group of scientists to Tahiti to chart the course of the planet Venus. 

On this trip he charted New Zealand's coastline and explored the coast of Australia, making contact with indigenous Australian tribes including the Maori and Aborigines. 

A year later Cook was at the helm of the HMS Resolution, this time as a commander, as he made another voyage to the South Pacific region (1772-1775). His companion ship was the HMS Adventure, commanded by Tobias Furneaux.

It was during this expedition that Cook made history by crossing the Antarctic Circle in 1773 and circumnavigating the globe at its southernmost latitude.

Three years later Cook made his third and final voyage (1776-1779), once again in command of the Resolution. He was accompanied by another ship, the HMS Discovery, commanded by Captain Charles Clerke.

In January of 1778 Cook discovered the Hawaiian island group, naming them the Sandwich Islands to honor a patron of his, John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich. Cook and his companions were the first Europeans to initiate formal contact with the Hawaiian islanders.

Cook's death

On his first visit to Hawaii, Cook was welcomed by the Hawaiians, and he traded the ship's metal for supplies. Then his ships left the islands to search, in vain, for the western end of a northwest passage that would link the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. 

Plaque on the shoreline of Kealakekua Bay,
near the spot Cook was killed

A year later, in January of 1779, Cook returned to Hawaii and found safe harbor in Kealakekua Bay. When Cook and his men arrived, the Hawaiians were having a religious festival. 

The Hawaiians again welcomed the sailors and treated them as gods, a circumstance Cook and his crew took advantage of for about a month. 

However, a crewman died, and the Hawaiians were disillusioned to see that the men were mortal after all. That's when things started to get ugly. The ships tried to leave the bay, but rough seas forced them to return. The Hawaiians threw rocks at the ships when they sailed back. 

Then some of the natives stole a small boat, a cutter vessel, from one of the ships. Cook and some of his men went ashore to negotiate with the ruling chief to get the boat back. Cook even attempted to kidnap and ransom the King of Hawaiʻi, Kalaniʻōpuʻu, as a negotiating tactic. 

As Cook was leading the king away, an angry mob formed at the shore. Cook was hit on the head and then stabbed to death in the surf. His body was taken away and buried on the island with great ceremony by the Hawaiians, according to their rituals.

In addition to Cook, four marines were killed, and two others were wounded. 

 A few days later the crews on the two ships out in the bay fired cannons and muskets at the shore, killing about 30 Hawaiians. Then the ships left and went back to England. 

Cook's accomplishments

The scientific legacy of Cook's three voyages is enormous. He and his men were among the first Europeans to survey the continents and islands of the South Pacific. They charted and recorded coastlines, islands and other geographical features, putting them on European maps for the first time. He also charted Australia's Great Barrier Reef and New Zealand, while disproving the imagined existence of a continent south of Australia - the mythical Terra Australis. 

Cook is also known for his pioneering care of his crew. He made sure their quarters were kept clean and well-ventilated, and that their diet was healthy, including foods rich in ascorbic acid (vitamin C), like orange extract, watercress and sauerkraut. As a result, none of his men died of scurvy, an all-too-common ailment among sailors, caused by vitamin C deficiency.

Cook took scientists with him on his voyages, including botanists who collected over 3,000 plant species, and their observations added significantly to the knowledge of places like Tahiti, Easter Island and Australia.  He also brought along artists, who were able to capture on canvas the beauty of the lands they visited.

Map of Cook's voyages - the red line is the first,
 the second is green and the final voyage is blue.

Cook's legacy

Despite his untimely death, Cook's scientific geographic discoveries were a major influence on those who came after him, and memorials have been erected to Cook around the world.  

However, there are those who claim that Cook's explorations led to European colonial expansion and the exploitation of the indigenous peoples they encountered. In his documents and charts, Cook renamed areas that already had names, ignoring the history and traditions of the tribes who lived there. 

Did Cook do more harm than good with his three expeditions? That's an ongoing debate and controversy that probably won't be resolved anytime soon. But, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, as a result of his skills in navigation and cartography, along with his many encounters both with native peoples, Cook "peacefully changed the map of the world more than any other single man in history."

Here is a short video, created by the British Library, describing Cook's voyages:

For more information, see: 

For a Hawaiian perspective, see: 

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

1 comment:

  1. When I was a boy, the exploits of the great explorers really captured my imagination. From Vasco de Gama who sailed into the foreboding Atlantic around the southern cape of Africa, to Shackleton whose stranded expedition survived the extreme winter of Antarctica, to Neal Armstrong and the first US and Soviet astronautics who ventured beyond Earth into outer space and the moon I longed to be part of their experience. Back then, I did not think about the privations and the emotional and physical hardships of these explorers' must have endured, I only imagined the exhilaration of their discoveries and insights that their adventures revealed.

    James Cook was on the top of my list of those hero explorers that I most admired for venturing out unto the unknown. Of course, we can trace the story of Hawaii becoming part of the U.S. back to Cook. Also, he was not the first to probe the West Coast looking for a Northwest Passage, which must have been frustrating for him to not find one (because one doesn't really exist).

    Today with our satellite mapping and GPS navigation, a lot of Cook's efforts might appear naive and rather moot. Who knows how we, in our time, might be perceived by future generations who are left to tackle the world-wide challenge of climate change?

    For us today, mitigating climate change might be the greatest undertaking of our time, just as the lure of spices and trade with exotic India and China and parts of Asia and Oceania motivated the explorers of the 1600 and 1700s.


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