Exactly 251 years ago this week, the world as it was known was about to change forever.
On August 26, 1768, explorer James Cook set off from England on the HMS Endeavour for a voyage of discovery to the great Pacific Ocean and the fabled lands therein.
By the time he returned to England three years later, the navy lieutenant had achieved a lot — he’d mapped New Zealand with alarming accuracy, bunny-hopped through the Polynesian islands and led the first European arrival on Australia’s east coast, putting Botany Bay on the world map.
Cook’s first Pacific voyage was a roaring success and solidified his reputation as one of the world’s greatest explorers. He was promoted to commander, celebrated for his contribution to science and navigation and earned another Pacific mission.
The second expedition, this time on the HMS Resolution, was also successful: While he narrowly missed discovering Antarctica, Cook landed at Easter Island, Norfolk Island, New Caledonia and Vanuatu, dropping anchor back in England a hero once again.
But Cook’s third and final Pacific expedition did not end as gloriously as the first two did. An unfortunate decision set off a series of events that ended with his particularly awful demise, and a weary crew returning home without their fearless leader.
THE THIRD EXPEDITION
Cook left England for the third Pacific expedition on July 12, 1776.
The ship, once again, was the HMS Resolution. The mission: find a northwest passage around North America, to make trade easier between Britain and the Pacific.
It’s been noted Cook didn’t oversee repairs to the ship to the same extent he had done on his previous expeditions. The Resolution had been patched up with rotten wood and inadequate watertight sealing. No one realised what a poor state the ship was in until after it had left England.
With Cook at the helm of the Resolution, and with the HMS Discovery also in tow, the expedition made various stops in the early months of the voyage: New Zealand, Tasmania, Tonga, Tahiti. Then it continued north.
A history-making moment happened in January 1778, when the expedition spotted a group of islands unknown to Europe. Cook named them the Sandwich Islands after Lord Sandwich, who also had a namesake in a very popular snack. They were later renamed the Hawaiian Islands.
After a quick stop on the island of Kauai, the ships continued north to seek a northwest passage. By late August, as the expedition was off the coast of Russia, winter began setting in and Cook put a pause on the mission.
“The season was now so very far advanced and the time when the frost is expected to set in so near at hand, that I did not think it consistent with prudence to make any farther attempts to find a passage this year,” Cook wrote in his diary. Like millions of travellers would do after him, he decided to ditch the winter chill and escape to Hawaii.
A FATEFUL ENCOUNTER
The expedition spotted Maui on November 26 as the ships sailed to the Hawaiian Islands. Days later, Kalani‘opu‘u, the high chief of Hawaii, came on board the Resolution. “He made me a present of two or three small pigs and we got by barter from the other people a little fruit,” Cook wrote. “In the evening we discovered another island to the windward which the natives call O’wy’he.”
The Resolution and the Discovery spent eight weeks circling the Hawaiian Islands looking for a suitable place to drop anchor, before making landfall at Kealakekua Bay on the main island of Hawaii on January 17, 1779.
The timing of their arrival was significant. By chance, it happened just as locals were beginning to celebrate the Makahiki, a harvest festival of worship for Lono, the Polynesian god of peace and prosperity.
The Resolution, for all its shoddy repairs, apparently resembled artefacts of cultural significance to the locals. The expedition’s clockwise circling of Hawaii was also considered culturally significant.
Historians say coincidences surrounding the Europeans’ arrival led to Cook and members of his crew being welcomed by the Hawaiian people as deities. Some accounts claimed Cook was seen as an incarnation of Lono. In any case, Cook and his men were treated with great reverence.
The crews were able to communicate with the Hawaiian people using language they’d picked up in Tahiti. They stayed in Hawaii for about a month, and then Cook made the call to resume the northwest passage mission.
AN UNFORTUNATE DECISION
The ships set sail for the north once again. But a storm struck soon into the voyage, and the foremast of the Resolution broke.
The decision was made to return to Kealakekua Bay for repairs, but the expedition’s return to the Hawaiian Islands would not be as auspicious as its first.
James Burney, lieutenant on the Discovery, wrote that the high chief, Kalani‘opu‘u, and other chiefs were curious about the reason for their return “and appeared much dissatisfied with it”.
Quarrels broke out between the Europeans and the Hawaiians. Tension really set in when a large boat from the Discovery went missing and the marines took a local man hostage to demand its return.
Cook reportedly discussed the matter with Kalani‘opu‘u, who boarded his ship with him. It is generally accepted among historians Cook attempted to kidnap the high chief.
Thousands of Hawaiians gathered on the beach, many armed with weapons, and turned on the Europeans, chasing them off the bay. The armed marines fought back.
During the violent exchange, Cook was struck on the head and stabbed to death in shallow waters off the shore. He died along with four other marines and 16 Hawaiians, although hundreds more may have been killed in ongoing skirmishes, some involving the ship’s canons.
The gory details of what happened to Cook’s body next has been subject to speculation.
A young William Bligh — the future commander of the HMS Bounty and governor of NSW — claimed to have been watching from the Resolution as his commander’s body was dragged up a hill and to a village where it was torn to pieces.
There were also rumours Cook’s body was taken and eaten by local cannibals,despite the fact the Hawaiians weren’t cannibals.
But history has generally settled on the fact Cook’s body was treated according to traditional funeral rites usually reserved for chiefs and high elders.
The body was disembowelled and baked to helped remove the flesh and the bones were cleaned with extreme care. Bones were considered sacred in ancient Hawaiian culture, and were believed to contain the mana, or divine power, of the dead. Cook’s bones were distributed among the villages.
Some of his remains were returned to the crew of the Resolution during an uneasy truce and he was given a traditional naval burial at sea.
The expedition crews then headed back to England. They arrived there on October 4, 1780, this time without the hero commander who had so ceremoniously returned them home twice before.