How did Captain James Cook die?

Captain James Cook Facts – Portrait of James Cook by William Hodges

Captain Cook was a renowned navigator, cartographer and explorer in the British Royal Navy. Between 1768 and 1779, he embarked on three voyages in the Pacific Ocean. In the process, he surveyed many areas in the Pacific. He was famed for producing many accurate maps of very important coastlines, including Newfoundland, a large island off the east coast of the North American mainland. Captain Cook etched his name into the annals of history by becoming one of the first known Europeans to make contact with the eastern coastline of Australia and the Hawaiian Islands. He was also the first person to circumnavigate New Zealand.

Death of Captain Cook

On his third voyage (1776-1779) to the Pacific Ocean, he returned to Hawaii after he had sailed southeast down the Siberian coast to the Bering Strait.

It must be noted that on his way back to the Hawaiian Islands, he started showing some irrational behaviors, perhaps out of a stomach upset he had developed.

Cook and his crew returned to the Hawaiian Islands in November, 1778. He had sailed around the islands and made landfall at Kealakekua Bay on the Kona coast of the island of Hawai’i (the largest island of the Hawaiian Islands).

John Webber’s 1784 version shows Cook being stabbed in the back as he tried to broker peace between his crew and the enraged Hawaiian villagers.

Cook’s return to Hawaii coincided with the Makahiki, the indigenous people’s festival of harvest which honored the Polynesian god Lono, the god of fertility, agriculture, rainfall, music, and peace.

Due to the circumstances surrounding his return to the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, it has been alleged that some Hawaiians took to deifying him as the incarnation of Lono. They claimed that Cook’s HMS Resolution had some features that resembled the god Lono, i.e. the color and shape of his masts and sails. The clockwise route he used around the islands was said to be similar to the clockwise direction of the god.

Read More: 13 Most Famous Polynesian Gods and Goddesses

Just as Cook was about to set sail from the island, the HMS Resolution suffered a damage to its foremast (the forward mast). Therefore Cook had to return to Kealakekua for repairs in February 1779. While the repair was ongoing, a fierce quarrel broke out between the inhabitants and the Europeans. According to some reports, the quarrel was over the theft of wood (by Cook’s men) from a sacred burial ground. It was alleged that the villagers retaliated by seizing a small boat that belonged to Cook’s crew.

Death of Cook | Image: George Carter’s 1783 depiction the death of Captain James Cook shows Cook as the aggressor.

Captain Cook and his men then attempted to kidnap and ransom the king of Hawai’i, Kalani’opu’u (also known as Terreeoboo). As Cook was taking the Hawaiian king away from the island, a ruckus broke out between Cook’s men and the villagers. The king’s wife, Kanekapolei, had earlier raised the alarm, resulting in many of the villagers to surround Captain Cook and his men.

As the large crowd got more irritated, one of the Hawaiian chiefs pulled out a club and struck Captain Cook on the head. The captain was then stabbed to death by the villagers. Shortly after, his lifeless body was carried away back to the town, where it was given funerary rituals reserved for chiefs and kings. Cook’s body was disemboweled and then baked in order for the flesh to be removed. His bones were then cleaned and properly preserved. Some of the Captain’s remains were returned to his crew, who conducted a formal burial at sea.

In addition to Captain Cook, the Hawaiian villagers killed four marines – Corporal James Thomas, Private Theophilus Hinks, Private Thomas Fatchett and Private John Allen – on February 14, 1779. Also, two crew members sustained various degrees of injuries.

Following the death of Captain James Cook, Captain Clerke took command of the expedition; however, Clerke died of tuberculosis on August 22, 1779. Command then fell to Captain James King, who safely sailed the HMS Resolution back to England in October 1780.

The site of his death was marked in 1874 with a white obelisk at the shoreline of Kealakekua Bay

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4 Responses

  1. arlo.kinnane says:


  2. jeffrey m breti says:

    my name is jeffrey m breti. i am the only son of vivian m cook and william l breti. my mother is the direct decentent of captain james cook

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