The Fateful Return to Hawaii

The Pacific In The Wake of Captain Cook with Sam Neill
Starts Monday August 27 at 7.30pm AEST


The Fateful Return to Hawaii

Resolution and Discovery returned to Hawaii in 1779. After sailing around the archipelago for about eight weeks, they made landfall at Kealakekua Bay, on the largest island in the group.

After a month’s stay, they attempted to resume their exploration of the Northern Pacific. Shortly after leaving Hawaii Island, however, the Resolution’s foremast broke, so the ships returned to Kealakekua Bay for repairs.

Image: View of the Place where Captain Cook Was Killed (Kealakekua Bay), pen, ink and sepia wash on paper by Stanislaus Darondeau, 1836, Honolulu Museum of Art, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Tensions rose, and several quarrels broke out between the Europeans and Hawaiians at Kealakekua. An unknown group of Hawaiians took one of the Europeans’ small boats.

A now furious and increasingly erratic James Cook was forced into a wild goose chase that ended with his return to the Resolution without the stolen cutter and extremely frustrated.

It is at this point he formulates the fateful plan to kidnap and ransom the King of Hawaiʻi, Kalaniʻōpuʻu.

On the 14th of February 1779, James Cook and an armed party marched through the village to retrieve Kalaniʻōpuʻu.

James took Kalaniʻōpuʻu by his own hand and led him willingly away. One of Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s favourite wives, Kanekapolei and two chiefs approached the group as they were heading back to the boats. They pleaded with their king not to go until he stopped and sat where he stood. Kalaniʻōpuʻu had begun to understand that James Cook was his enemy.

As James turned his back to help launch the boats, he was struck on the head by the villagers and then stabbed to death as he fell on his face in the shallow break at Kealakekua Bay.

He was fifty years old.

Image: Death of Captain Cook, c.1790’s, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


James Cook’s Legacy

In a little over a decade, the son of a farm labourer, former apprentice shop boy at Sanderson’s Grocery and Haberdashery and the greatest of all the European navigators had mapped and charted with startling accuracy Earth’s largest ocean, the Pacific – an area that covers a third of our planet’s surface.

From a European perspective, it is very easy to look at James Cook’s achievements with awe and admiration. It is however, only one side of the story. James Cook means different things to different people.

We need to put to rest the idea that James Cook discovered the Pacific. There have been people living in the Pacific for many thousands of years, from a that time before time. It would seem at best naïve and at worst stupid to suggest that these peoples did not know where they were.

Following James Cook, the Pacific effectively became a massive larder for Europe. The European map of the world had been completed and Europeans began to pour in and plunder the region en-masse.

Classical colonial (paternal) thinking and rhetoric has always stated, by way of rationalisation, that colonisation is good for the colonised, that it helps to develop a people. However, even a brief look at the history of a colonial and post-colonial Pacific shows us some deeply rooted structural distortions, conflict and division.

Image: Resolution and Adventure with fishing craft in Matavai Bay, by William Hodges, c. 1776, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

While it is true that Europe has brought to the Pacific some of the trappings of development such as infrastructure, trade, commerce and industry, the negative impacts often outweigh any supposed benefits. These negative impacts include loss of control over resources and the means of production, and the loss of sociocultural identity – or that feeling by a people that they are in control of their destiny by way of their society and culture.

The Pacific also has one of the highest extinction rates of the planet. Since James Cook’s three voyages more than 1,200 bird species have become extinct in the Pacific islands and archipelagos. Invasive species, particularly vertebrates and vascular plants, have devastated terrestrial species of the Pacific Islands and are the cause of 75% of all terrestrial vertebrate extinctions of the Pacific’s islands.

In whatever way we choose to look at this complicated man, explorer and map maker or harbinger of destruction and death, James Cook is a figure that will endure to hold our fascination, whether revered or reviled, for generations to come.

By: R. J. Hawksworth