Prehistory to 1780: Ancient Hawaii
to Western Discovery
From "Captain Cook's Hawaii" by Anthony Murray-Oliver
This oil painting by Johann Zoffany depicts
Cook's death at Kealakekua Bay.
To many, he was the best of the British empire, a national hero in his own time. But here, where his life ended, Capt. James Cook serves as the line of division.
Capt. James Cook
out, new era in
His 1778 discovery brought
trade, disease -- and violence
Before Cook, few knew of Hawaii. After him, it forever graced maps around the globe.
On Jan. 18, 1778, Cook, 49, sighted the Hawaiian Islands. It was his third Pacific voyage, and his contributions to the world's knowledge of geography, science and history had made him a giant among explorers.
At "day-break in the Morning of the 18th," Cook wrote in his journal, Oahu was seen, then Kauai, then more the next day. He recorded the discoveries: "These five islands, Atoui, Eneeheeou, Orrehoua, Otaoora and Wouahoo, names by which they are known to the Natives, I named the Sandwich Islands, in honour of the Earl of Sandwich."
They were Kauai, Niihau, Lehua, Kaula and Oahu.
At first, Cook wrote, "we were in some doubt whether or no the land before was inhabited. This doubt was soon cleared up by seeing some canoes coming off from the shore towards the ships. ... There were three and four men in each, and we were agreeably surprised to find them of the same nation as the people of Otahiiti and the other islands we had lately visited."
But the voyage had taken a toll. Cook, known for a hot temper, called for the repeated floggings of crew members and transgressing natives.
Things came to a head one year later, when Cook and his HMS Discovery and HMS Resolution crews returned to anchor at Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island. In February 1779, Cook came upon an astonishing scene: more than 1,000 canoes carrying thousands of Hawaiians to greet him. Thinking Cook the incarnation of their god Lono and noting that he'd arrived in a bay called "Pathway to the Gods," the Hawaiians assumed a great drama was unfolding.
For his part, Cook was figuring to reprovision and rest his quarrelsome crews.
His journal also frets about the spread of venereal disease in the Pacific. But Cook was somewhat resigned by the time he reached Kealakekua. "The women were as determined as the men to get together, and get together they did," wrote Gavin Kennedy in his book on Cook's death.
Things soon changed after natives made off with one of the expedition's small boats. Cook planned to seize the Hawaiian king, but failed as hundreds, then thousands of Hawaiians crowded around him and his men.
Cook was forced to retreat, an act that was taken as a sign of weakness. He was attacked.
By most accounts, Kennedy wrote, "Cook was left standing on the rocks waving to the boats to come in and pick him up. His back was towards the Hawaiians and one of them struck him high in the back with a heavy club.
"This knocked him to his knees and another Hawaiian stabbed him in the neck. He fell face forwards into the water . . .
"With him were four of the Marines who had been unable to get away. They were clubbed and stabbed to death."
By Star-Bulletin staff
Millennium Series Archive