Captain James Cook (1728-1779) of the Royal Navy was a British explorer, navigator and cartographer. He joined the navy in 1755 and served in the Seven Years War (1754-1763, it was called that as the main fighting during the war occurred from 1756 onwards) that was fought out between the main European powers in their quest for colonial dominance (especially Britain, France and Spain). During his service fighting the French in what is now Canada he started to map a section of the St. Lawrence River during the siege of Quebec. Cook went on to map the coast lines of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. His eye for detail caught the attention of the powers to be and set in motion a career as a great explorer.
In 1769 James Cook was in command of HMS Endeavour and set off on a voyage that lasted until 1771 and staked his claim in the history books. The British Government sent Cook off on a voyage to the Pacific to observe the rare phenomenon of the planet Venus passing in front of the sun, which was only visible from the Southern Hemisphere. Other notable British identities onboard included astronomer Charles Green and botanist Joseph Banks.
They made it to Tahiti in April 1769 in time to see Venus pass the sun and for Charles Green to document the event. In reality there was also a secret motive to this voyage. Travel further south and find Terra Australis Incognita the “unknown southern land”.
From Tahiti they sailed to New Zealand. Arriving there in September 1769. New Zealand had first been discovered by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman (1603-1659) in December 1642 (along with Tonga and parts of Fiji), but attacks by Maori warriors deterred him from exploring any further (some of his crew were killed in the encounters). Tasman’s voyages were made from the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia today). No European set foot on New Zealand again until the visit by Cooks crew 127 years later. The month before Tasman also discovered the island of Tasmania in Australia and called it Van Diemen’s Land. In 1644 he also mapped sections of northern Australia and called the land New Holland.
Cook circumnavigated New Zealand, mapping the coast line and claiming the islands for Great Britain. By 1770 he decided it was time to begin the secret mission and “to steer to the Westward until we fall in with the E coast of New Holland“. Although Tasman had documented exploration of Australia, the east coast remained unexplored.
The east coast was sighted on April 19th, 1770. Sailing further north to find a safe harbour they entered a and landed in a bay where botanist Joseph Banks took samples of various specimens. This bay was named Botany Bay (where modern-day Sydney is today). They sailed further north to Cape York and on August 22nd, 1770 after exploring the east coast Cook claimed the land for Great Britain naming it New South Wales. Determining that New Holland was indeed separated from New Guinea, following much-needed repairs he returned to England arriving on July 13th, 1771. Although the vast voyage had not necessarily discovered anywhere new (country wise), what he and his crew had achieved was still a great voyage of discovery. Cook had charted 8,047 km / 5000 miles of coastline with great accuracy!
This was the first of 3 Pacific voyages conducted by Cook. He wasn’t satisfied and felt he had not discovered the “unknown southern land”. From 1772 to 1775 his second voyage circumnavigated the world, going close to Antarctica and lead to further mapping of southern Australia including Van Diemen’s Land, along with charting the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) and the discovery of New Caledonia. His third voyage from 1776 to 1779 was his last.
By 1776 Cook was a Fellow of the Royal Society (a society for science founded in 1660 that acts as an advisor for the British government) and the final voyage included sailing to Van Diemen’s Land, New Zealand, Tahiti and eventually resulted in charting the Pacific coasts of North America and Siberia. During this voyage he also attempted to find the Northwest Passage, the fabled sea route from the Arctic Ocean through the northern coastline and archipelagoes of North America. He wasn’t successful finding the passage after the Bering Strait (between Alaska and Siberia) proved impassable. The Northwest Passage was not discovered until 1903 by Norwegian Roald Amundsen.
During this third voyage whilst sailing northwards Cook became the first European to discover the Hawaiian Islands on January 18th, 1778 (he named them the Sandwich Islands in honour of the Earl of Sandwich who was one his patrons). The crew were welcomed by the fascinated Hawaiians. Upon his exploration of the North America coastline and the Bering Strait he sailed to the islands once again and spent 8 weeks exploring the coastline before landing at Kealakekua Bay on the island of Hawaii (The Big Island).
His return is said to have coincided with a Hawaiian harvest festival that worshipped Lono a Polynesian god and linked the crew to the god (there is no real documented basis for this though). After a month they left the bay to commence further exploration but damage to their ship resulted in a return to Kealakekua Bay for repairs.
Unfortunately for Cook and his crew the “gods” were not expected to return until the next festival and their allure was no more. Tension arose and a boat from the ship was stolen by the natives. Cook demanded its return and on February 14th, 1779 in an attempt to overcome this insolence a dispute followed with Hawaiian King Kalaniʻōpuʻu and his men. This was a big mistake that resulted in Cook and his men being surrounded as they attempted to return to their ship. Cook was struck on the head and stabbed to death. A number of marines were also killed and wounded during the confrontation.
The Hawaiians then took Cooks body away to their village where a ritual was conducted that resulted in his flesh being burnt from his body and his bones cleaned to be used for religious purposes! Part of his remains were also given to the crew for burial at sea. They continued the voyage and returned to England.
For a man that sailed the world in the name of exploration for the British Empire from the mother land to the “discovery” of the east coast of Australia and across to Hawaii and as far north as Canada to try to find the Northwest Passage he met a pretty strange and grisly demise. One of his failings was his rough treatment of indigenous populations who did not comply with his demands. This is what ultimately lead to his death in 1779. Regardless of this he was a great explorer and his cartographical skill can not be denied. Today at Kealakekua Bay a monument to Captain Cook stands where he died at the hands of the locals in 1779.
To get to the monument which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places you have two options. One is to take a snorkeling tour that travels to the bay by boat/kayak. The other is to hike down from the town of Captain Cook that sits on the hills above the cliffs that surround Kealakekua Bay. The latter is the path I chose and I have to tell you it isn’t that easy to find (no signs mark the start of the trail and the only place to park is on the side of the road) but the hike of 3.2 km / 2 miles through tall grass and volcanic plains offers great views across the volcanic terrain and the ocean.
Near the monument is the remains of an ancient village with lots of stone walls. The scenery is impressive and well worth the hike. In the water is a plaque that is said to be the exact location he was killed.
Interestingly the land behind the chains surrounding the monument is the only British territory in the United States. The path back though is steep and its hot work (1,300-foot elevation change). You are best to return before or after the heat of the day (enjoy the scenery and go for a swim).
To find the trail in Captain Cook: From Highway 11 turn off onto Napo’opo’o Road. The start if the trail is approximately 47 metres / 50 yards on the right from the turn off.