Mike O'Donnell | Feb. 14, 2018

On this day in 1779 …

A few years after “discovering” Australia, Captain James Cook had sighted and anchored off the Islands of Hawaii in January 1778, where he spent two weeks trading and taking on food and water in preparation for his exploration of the coast of North America and Alaska, in search of the fabled great Northwest Passage. After almost a year of doing that and putting up with weevils in the hardtack, he returned to the Islands of Hawaii to resupply and explore the big island of Maui.

Cook and his crew were initially welcomed, honored and generally treated as privileged guests on their return to the islands as their arrival had coincided with a festival celebrating the yearly harvest.

According to the only American on board Cook’s ship, John Ledyard, the natives had soured on Cook and his men by the time of his subsequent departure on February 6, 1779. Mr. Ledyard reported two incidents in particular. The first involved Cook and his crew forcibly dismantling and stealing wood from the fence encircling the native Hawaiian’s sacred burial ground. The second involved a native being wrongly accused of stealing a small rowing boat, which was subsequently discovered un-stolen.

When Cook’s ships sailed out of the bay, as a good-riddance-don’t-come-back sign, the natives burnt a formerly sacred hut that the British had forcibly occupied for use as both a workshop and hospital. The natives were fairly happy to see the backside of their boats when they sailed out on February 6th.

Out on the briny sea, however, Cook ran into a very fierce gale that damaged one of his ships so he returned to the islands on February 11th to effect repairs. While moored offshore, some of the Hawaiians stole one of Cook’s two long boats, which raised his ire a hair.

Early the next morning, his and his marines visited the king of the island and pretended to be inviting him to visit the ship but Cook’s true intent was to hold him hostage until the long boat was returned. As they were walking away from the royal enclosure towards the beach, with Cook himself supporting the elder chief, the chief’s favorite (?) wife noticed and raised a ruckus causing a small crowd to form and follow the chief, yelling at him all the while to come back.

It was at the beach that the chief finally realized that he wasn’t being invited for tea and crumpets but, rather, being taken prisoner so he decided to stop and sit down in the sand, refusing to go any further.

By this stage, the crowd of native Hawaiians on the beach was swelling and the big kahuna, turned up and began chanting, singing and waving a coconut all over the place. Cook tried to manhandle the elderly chief to his feet but was confronted by one of the younger chiefs, whom Cook whacked on the head with the side of his sword. The younger chief didn’t take too kindly to that and ended up stabbing Cook with an iron dagger that the crew had, ironically, traded with the Hawaiians on their earlier visit. Cook and four marines ended up paying the ultimate sacrifice that day with the rest of the marines escaping back to the ship, firing as they went.

The ships stayed in the harbor after Cook’s death, until February 22nd, when all the needed repairs were completed. Some of Cook’s remains, preserved by the Hawaiian natives, were returned to the crew before they sailed, for a formal burial at sea … and thus ended the third and last voyage of Captain James Cook, late of the British Navy.

And as James Cook himself wrote his journal on his first voyage of discovery:

“From what I have said of the Natives of New-Holland they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not Magnificent Houses, Household-stuff &c., they live in a warm and fine Climate and enjoy a very wholesome Air. . . . In short they seem’d to set no Value upon any thing we gave them, nor would they ever part with any thing of their own for any one article we could offer them; this in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life and that they have no superfluities.”

And aren’t those words that all three of us can live by?

I know I do.