February 14, 1779- Captain Cook is Killed in Hawaii


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The Death of Captain Cook, The British Museum 


Talking about Valentine’s Day on Valentine’s Day would be too easy, so let’s instead turn to everyone’s favorite subject: death and dismemberment!

Today’s victim: Captain James Cook, British explorer responsible for beginning the cultural erosion of the Hawaiian islands by setting into motion a complex series of social, cultural, and biological exchanges and calling it “discovery!”

In all fairness, Cook was a product of the times and his environment. A Royal Navy master whose experiences in the Seven Years War provided a taste of the thrill of exploration. He spent the next several years exploring the Pacific in places like New Zealand and Tahiti before making his way to Hawaii in January of 1778. Christening them the Sandwich Islands, he left for a bit to check things out off the North American coast, and then made his reappearance the following November.

This time, he happened to arrive during a religious harvest holiday and, even more remarkably, his ship seemed to resemble religious artifacts that the native Hawaiians were familiar with. This may or may not have caused Cook and his crew to be seen as brought by, or embodied by, some religious being once they made contact. The historical jury is still out on that one.


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Captain James Cook, The British Museum 


After a few weeks, things started to get tense and there were small skirmishes and accusations of theft on both sides. Cook tried to take off again, but had trouble with the mast on one of his ships caused him to return after a few days. This time, it seems that the native Hawaiians were both unconvinced of his deification and tired of him coming and going as he pleased while taking resources without regard to their traditions or customs. In response to a missing cutter, Cook and a small crew moved inland in an attempt to kidnap a powerful chief, Kalani`opu`u.

Imagine that kind of self-aggrandism and machismo – to think that you were within your rights to exploit an entire nation of people and then kidnap their leader  when they start to become suspicious of your intentions. Some historians have postured that Cook may have been ill – physically and mentally – leading to some of his irrational behaviors.

Unfortunately for Cook, this decision cost him his life. The villagers fought back to keep their chief on dry land, and the Captain was bludgeoned and stabbed to death.

“Cook was last seen alive standing on the rocks and waving to the boats to cease fire and to come in closer. A man slunk up behind him, hesitated once or twice as he approached, and struck Cook on the back of the head with a club. Cook staggered to his knees. Another man then sprang up behind him and drove an iron dagger into the back of his head. A marine immediately dropped him with a musket shot. Cook crumpled into the water in a heap. The mob fell upon him and held him under water. He struggled up with a final gesture and was beaten with rocks about the head and repeatedly stabbed with iron daggers that were snatched from one hand by another to share in the killing.” (source)

Dozens of Hawaiians were killed in retaliation before a truce was called. Hawaii, of course, would soon be visited by even more Europeans and, in their wake, missionaries who converted them to Christianity and discouraged their traditions and customs. Their last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, was overthrown by an American business faction just a little over 100 years after Cook’s voyages.