The Death of Captain Cook

The subtitle of this book is “A Hero Made and Unmade” which caused me a shiver of apprehension. Would Cook go the way of all flesh, the way of Cecil Rhodes, Baden-Powell and others, and be subject to a rigorous post-colonial scrutiny that would turn him into a greedy profiteer? But to my relief, Glyn Williams, emeritus professor of History at London University, has not attempted a television-type debunking exercise and has largely confined himself to researching the circumstances surrounding Cook’s unexpected death in Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii on 14 February 1779.

Captain James Cook had arisen from humble circumstances in the colliery trade in Whitby, Yorkshire, to become one of the world’s greatest coastal surveyors and navigators of the Pacific. He had already made two earlier very successful voyages, 1768-1771 and 1772-1775 before setting out on this, his last voyage. The Admiralty had planned to offer him honourable retirement but understandably, given the strenuous excitements of his naval career, Cook was reluctant to settle down. Thus he took charge of the Resolution, along with Captains Thompson and Clerk, and set sail in 1776.

According to Williams, the voyage was dogged by darker features than had been apparent on the earlier journeys, where Cook could justly be proud of the care of his men -– he hadn’t lost a single sailor to scurvy on his first trip, an extraordinary achievement in itself, given the usual death toll of sailors from sickness -– and his relationships with the islanders they met. There were delays, incidents, harsh treatment to the crew for minor misdemeanours and punitive behaviour towards islanders who stole from the ships. In particular, the author asks, did Cook lack his previous cool judgment and allow himself to be worshipped as a god (in contravention to the Articles of War) by the Polynesian islanders, who were then disillusioned to discover he was human after all?

Certainly, after Cook’s death, the Admiralty “lost” vital evidence, his ship’s log was doctored to make him appear heroic and there are significant omissions from Cook’s Journal concerning his stay in Hawaii in January and February 1779. Further, England was gloomy about the American War of Independence and needed a man of great stature to recharge national pride. Cook himself was, naturally, a patriot and an imperialist; in his view “If a European nation should dominate the lands and waters of the Pacific, then it should be Britain.”

Sifting the evidence of that fatal morning of 14 February, it seems that, just like a contemporary random stabbing on a London street, a capricious and unplanned spark momentarily fired up powerful emotions: there was Cook’s misjudgement about the islanders’ response to his authority, their panic and resentment of the crew’s behaviour and in this sudden “confounded affray” the Captain was stabbed to death. Cook had made an uncharacteristic mistake and had paid for it with his life.

This should not overshadow his very great achievements, both of navigation and of personal probity. A man of exceptional perseverance and self-control, Cook was never known to consort with native women as other members of the crew did. A prudent, sober Yorkshireman to the last, he deplored the spread of venereal disease among the natives by his sailors and did his best to limit it if he could not prevent it. An entry in his Journal for 20 January 1778 mentions that he gave orders “that no woman were to be admitted on board the ships” and also ordered that no sailors “who had the venereal upon them should go out of the ships.”

But it is just this kind of Journal entry which shows Cook’s limits as well as his leadership. He was no Admiral Nelson who has gone down in the popular imagination as alternately embracing Lady Hamilton and fighting the French with his one remaining arm. He does not leap from these pages with flashes of despair or elation. Although rightly honoured in New Zealand and Australia -– the author surmises that had it not been for his reputation, his report of a single brief visit to Botany Bay on his first voyage might have been seen as too risky to send 1300 people across the world in 1787 without further investigation -– I am left with the impression of a dull dining companion.

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks, in the UK. 


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