Captain Cook’s early professional life discussed by expert
Considered one of the greatest navigators and explorers of all time, the Royal Navy captain was celebrated as a British national hero even before his death in 1779. Cook charted New Zealand and the Great Barrier Reef of Australia on his ship HMS Endeavour in 1770, paving the way for British settlement and transforming Europe’s knowledge of the Pacific. In 1780, the shocking news reached Britain that Cook had been killed in ‘Owyhee’ (Hawaii) the previous February and there was a tense wait until the ships returned with details of his final days.
The account to the Admiralty was written by Charles Clerke, the second captain on the voyage and described how Cook was attacked and killed while attempting to reclaim a cutter stolen from one of his ships at Kealakekua Bay.
Initially, the crews’ rapturous reception there from thousands of islanders, in Clerke’s words, “exceeded everything we had ever before met with”.
In the weeks of the ships’ stay, their decks were heaped with hogs, breadfruit and plantains, and whenever Cook went ashore he was treated with a respect “which more resembled that due to a deity than a human being”.
However, when the ships returned to the bay later, the mood was different, and during the night of February 13, a small boat was stolen.
Captain Cook’s journal could shine a light on missing details
HMS Resolution and Discovery in Tahiti
The following morning Cook and 10 marines went ashore to take the ‘king’ of the island, Kalani’opu’u, hostage, but after a scuffle with some “very insolent, ill-disposed fellows,” Cook is said to have opened fire.
In the moments that followed his party was reportedly overwhelmed by warriors armed with clubs, daggers and stones, and before they could reach the waiting boats Cook and four marines were killed.
But Glyn Williams, author of the ‘The Death of Captain Cook: A Hero Made and Unmade,’ stated there “was much about the affair not mentioned by, or perhaps not known to Clerke”.
In October 1780 the Resolution and Discovery vessels reached Britain and, within weeks of their return, arrangements were made to publish an authorised account of the voyage.
Mr Williams explained: “The main editorial work was entrusted to Dr John Douglas, Canon of Windsor and St Paul’s, who had edited Cook’s journal of his second voyage, and who now had the more difficult task of describing a voyage that had lost its dominant personality.
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“For the events of the voyage after Cook’s death, he relied mainly on the journal of Captain James King.
“Due to production delays, mostly connected with the engravings, the authorised account took almost four years to see the light of day.”
But it would not be the most widely read.
An account by Lieutenant John Rickman “showed a more violent Cook than the generally humane and restrained commander of the earlier voyages”.
Unofficial accounts showed a commander “given to outbursts of furious temper and vindictive behaviour” who was sometimes “at odds with his crew”.
While in Hawaii, they suggested that Cook had allowed, even encouraged, the islanders’ worship of him as a god.
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Cook was killed while he was in Hawaii
In June 1784, the authorised account of Cook’s third voyage was published, the prime source being Cook’s own journal.
It concluded that “it is not improbable that his humanity proved fatal to him”.
But Mr Williams claimed that recent scholarship “has shown that Douglas made numerous changes to Cook’s manuscript journal, some stylistic, others designed to enhance the explorer’s reputation”.
And the expert explained why that poses a problem.
He added: “His journal stops, without explanation, two-thirds of the way down the page, on January 6, 1779 – more than a week before the fateful landing at Kealakekua Bay.
“Supplementary to the journal is part of a log kept by Cook for the following 10 days.
Engraving shows native Hawaiians as they row boats and canoes out into Karakakooa Bay
“That also ends abruptly, in this case as Cook went ashore at Kealakekua Bay for the first time on the afternoon of January 17, and was led to the shrine, surrounded by thousands of chanting islanders.”
After the ships returned to Britain, some of Cook’s “loose papers” went missing on their way from the Admiralty to Dr Douglas.
And Mr Williams said it is “possible – though not likely” that these included the missing parts of the journal and log.
He added: “Alternatively, it has been suggested that there was a deliberate ‘weeding’ of the record either by officers on the voyage or by the Admiralty in London.
“Another possibility is that Douglas had in his possession more of Cook’s journal and log than he published, the implication being that the omitted entries were discreditable to Cook.
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“This would certainly be so if they revealed that Cook had encouraged the adulation he had received.
“It would be hard to imagine anything more repugnant to readers in Britain than the thought of the country’s foremost explorer accepting a status as a heathen god.”
Mr Williams stated it was difficult to accept the scenarios suggesting the journal had been deliberately destroyed but added that the “disappearance of Cook’s record allowed Douglas and the Admiralty to portray the story of the stay at Hawaii as they wished”.
He added that editions “played a major part in establishing Cook as a martyr-hero,” but this image could be “seriously challenged” by filling in the gaps.