Saturday, October 2, 1999

The other attack on Captain Cook

History of bad press has given
the explorer an unsavory
reputation among Hawaiians

Millennium Special: Cook brought new era

By Herb Kawainui Kane
Special to the Star-Bulletin


There seems to be some confusion about the forthcoming visit of the Australian replica HM Bark Endeavour.

The Endeavour was the ship Captain James Cook used on his first Pacific voyage, in which he visited Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia. He did not reach Hawaii until his third voyage.

No re-enactment of any kind is planned for its one-day visit to Kealakekua Bay Oct. 30. Regarded by experts as the finest replica of an 18th-century ship in existence, it is a museum ship associated with the National Maritime Museum of Australia, and will be open to visitors briefly in Kailua-Kona, Honolulu and on Kauai, on what will probably be its only visit to Hawaii.

There is also an historic confusion in Hawaiian attitudes about Britain, which have traditionally been friendly, and a pervasive negative attitude toward Cook which, as we shall see, has been the result of anti-British propaganda published 156 years ago by an American missionary.

By all accounts, Captain James Cook was a different person on his third voyage. Ill, exhausted, given to fits of temper and rash decisions, he made a fatal mistake at Kealakekua Bay when he tried to take the king as hostage against the return of a stolen boat and ran afoul of the king's bodyguards. Cook, four marines and an unrecorded number of Hawaiians were killed in the fight and the troubled days that followed.

Cook's second, Charles Clerke, although terminally ill, stopped the firing and brought his men under control. Good-humored and well-liked by Hawaiians, he was able to bring about a wary peace before the expedition sailed.

When several of Cook's men returned a few years later, Hawaiians had gotten over it. Indeed, the Kingdom of Hawaii, throughout its existence, regarded Britain with friendship.

Kamehameha's two most trusted European lieutenants, John Young and Isaac Davis, who arrived in 1790, were British.

The friendship that developed between Kamehameha and Vancouver on Vancouver's three visits -- in 1792, 1793 and 1794 -- also built rapport with Britain.

Before returning to England in 1794, Vancouver obtained from Kamehameha a treaty of cession. Vancouver's dream was that Hawaii become a peaceful and bountiful source of supplies for British ships in the Pacific.

But Vancouver had enemies and the treaty "disappeared" before it could be brought to Parliament.

As suggested by his 1810 letter to King George, Kamehameha may have envisioned the treaty as one of protection and free association. Vancouver's promise of the gift of a British ship was fulfilled in 1820, when a schooner built in Australia was delivered to Honolulu.

The Hawaiian kingdom's good will toward Britain weathered attacks which could have destroyed it, emerging after each difficulty as strong if not stronger than before.

Americans in Hawaii, seeking to establish influence with the monarchy, and far outnumbering British settlers, were frustrated by this friendship toward Britain.

Humiliated by the War of 1812, many Americans were strongly anti-British. Seeking to discredit Britain, but finding that the treasured memory of the Kamehameha-Vancouver friendship would not permit an attack on Vancouver's reputation, they bypassed Vancouver and struck at Cook.

In 1843, American missionary Sheldon Dibble included a condemnation of Cook in a book of Hawaiian history, "History of the Sandwich Islands."

In the 1920s the matter was researched by Bishop Museum curator John Stokes. In "The Origins of the Condemnation of Captain Cook in Hawaii" (Hawaiian Historical Society, 1930), Stokes investigates Dibble's propaganda and demonstrates that the charges against Cook were invented or slanted with malice.

Cook was accused of accepting deification by the Hawaiians, an act of blasphemy which brought the jealous wrath of Jehovah down upon him, bringing about his own death. This was a very serious charge in 1843, although many scholars today believe that on the evidence, or lack thereof, Cook was not perceived as a "god" but as an important chief.

Cook was also accused of bedding down with the Kauai princess, Lelemahoalani. But Cook's most severe critics on all his voyages never accused him of touching native women; moreover, the genealogy shows that Lelemahoalani could not have been more than 8 years old at the time.

Further, Dibble accused Cook of approving of the passing of venereal disease to Hawaiians, whereas a reading of the shipboard journals and the flogging list shows that Cook did his best to prevent it.

Dibble's propaganda, published in a history text that was studied by generations of Hawaiian students, infected Hawaiians with a dislike of Cook that persists today.

By contrast, Stokes' research found that, during the 63 years from Cook's death until Dibble's publication, "Captain Cook was kindly regarded by Hawaiians."

However, Dibble failed to break the Hawaiian kingdom's good will toward toward Britain, an aloha which also survived a bad-tempered, intemperate, outright criminal British consul.

Richard Charlton was a hard-drinking, greedy former ship captain turned trader who had sought the consulship to help his business. He was disliked by Hawaiians, Americans and his fellow British.

Always in the courts as a plaintiff or defendant, his downfall was eventually the result of a lawsuit by the Hudson Bay Co. which attached his property. His complaints brought Lord George Paulet, captain of a British frigate, for the purpose of "watching over and protecting the interests of British subjects."

Paulet far exceeded those instructions. Although his was one of the smallest of frigates, it carried 26 guns, which he leveled at Honolulu and threatened to attack unless compensation for a spurious list of "damages" was paid.

Attempts at negotiation only brought more demands, until it became clear that what Paulet wanted was cession.

Rather than risk lives and property, and with faith that Paulet's action would be repudiated by London, Kamehameha III granted "provisional cession." Paulet noted with satisfaction that this took place on Feb. 25, 1843, the anniversary of the treaty of cession that Vancouver had obtained in 1794.

During the time it took for Kamehameha III's letters to reach London, Paulet proved to be a gentleman with a pleasant personality and made many friends. His unwarranted action had been taken to frustrate what he perceived as a threat of French occupation of Hawaii.

Earlier, French warships had threatened to destroy Honolulu unless Catholic missionaries were permitted to establish Roman Catholicism in Hawaii, and the kingdom was opened to the importation of French wines and brandies.

At this time, Britain and France were the contending heavyweights in the Pacific. France had scooped up Tahiti and all French Polynesia, displacing earlier British settlers and missionaries.

This prompted Britain to formally annex New Zealand (another 1843 event) and move quickly to formally take other possessions in the Pacific.

When the plea for justice from Kamehameha III reached London it received the full attention of the government, which let it be known that Paulet's action was "was an act entirely unauthorized by Her Majesty's Government."

Admiral Thomas was dispatched to Hawaii to put things right. There were impressive ceremonies and salutes.

The King and Admiral Thomas were cheered by crowds. The Union Jack was lowered and the Hawaiian flag raised. At a Thanksgiving service at Kawaiahao Church, the king made a speech in which he is said to have spoken the famous sentence, "Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono (The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness)."

For many years, July 31 was the foremost national holiday in Hawaii. As an act of grace, Kamehameha III, "anxious to express our Gratitude to God and to give the fullest proof of our attachment to the English Nation," proclaimed an amnesty for any acts against the government between Feb. 25 and Jan. 31.

In this same spirit of aloha, in 1877, Princess Miriam Likelike gave the piece of land at Kealakekua Bay to the British Consul for the purpose of a memorial to James Cook.

And let us not forget the gracious reception of King Kalakaua by Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle during his tour around the world a decade later.

The memorial ceremony to be held on the occasion of the visit of the HM Bark Endeavour replica will be an occasion to celebrate the remarkable resilience of the historic Anglo-Hawaiian friendship.

As Dr. Stokes has pointed out, Hawaiian resentment toward Cook is the result of a propaganda campaign launched by a few anti-British Americans 157 years ago.

Earlier, those of our kupuna who met Cook must have felt a great sense of loss from the tragedy at Kealakekua Bay, but they got over it. We would do well to do the same.

Herb Kane is an artist and historian specializing in
ancient Hawaii and the golden age of sailing ships.

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
[Stylebook] [Feedback]

© 1999 Honolulu Star-Bulletin