In the dawn hours of January 18, 1778, on his third expedition, British explorer Captain James Cook on the HMS Resolution and Captain Charles Clerke of the HMS Discovery first sighted what Cook named the Sandwich Islands (that were later named the Hawaiian Islands.)
Cook continued to sail along the coast searching for a suitable anchorage. His two ships remained offshore, but a few Hawaiians were allowed to come on board on the morning of January 20, before Cook continued on in search of a safe harbor.
On the afternoon of January 20, 1778, Cook anchored his ships near the mouth of the Waimea River on Kauaʻi’s southwestern shore. After a couple of weeks, there, they headed to the west coast of North America.
After the West Coast, Alaska and Bering Strait exploration, on October 24, 1778 the two ships headed back to the islands; they sighted Maui on November 26, circled the Island of Hawaiʻi and eventually anchored at Kealakekua Bay on January 17, 1779.
Throughout their stay the ships were plentifully supplied with fresh provisions which were paid for mainly with iron, much of it in the form of long iron daggers made by the ships’ blacksmiths on the pattern of the wooden pahoa used by the Hawaiians. (Kuykendall)
Cook got under sail again to resume his exploration of the Northern Pacific. Shortly after leaving Hawaiʻi Island, the foremast of the Resolution broke.
“At midnight, a gale of wind came on, which obliged us to double reef the topsails, and get down the top-gallant yards.”
“On the 8th (of February 1779) at day-break, we found, that the foremast had again given way … and the parts so very defective, as to make it absolutely necessary to replace them, and, of course, to (remove) the mast.”
“In this difficulty, Captain Cook was for some time in doubt, whether he should run the chance of meeting with a harbour in the islands to leeward, or return to Karakakooa (Kealakekua.)”
“In the forenoon, the weather was more moderate, and a few canoes came off to us, from which we learnt, that the late storms had done much mischief; and that several large canoes had been lost.”
“During the remainder of the day we kept beating to windward, and, before night, we were within a mile of the bay; but not choosing to run on, while it was dark, we stood off and on till day-light next morning, when we dropt anchor nearly in the same place as before.”
“Upon coming to anchor, we were surprised to find our reception very different from what it had been on our first arrival ; no shouts, no bustle, no confusion …”
“… but a solitary bay, with only here and there a canoe stealing close along the shore. The impulse of curiosity, which had before operated to so great a degree, might now indeed be supposed to have ceased …”
“… but the hospitable treatment we had invariably met with, and the friendly footing on which we parted, gave us some reason to expect, that they would again have flocked about us with great joy, on our return.”
“… there was something at this time very suspicious in the behaviour of the natives; and that the interdiction of all intercourse with us, on pretence of the king’s absence, was only to give him time to consult with his chiefs in what manner it might be proper to treat us.”
“For though it is not improbable that our sudden return, for which they could see no apparent cause, and the necessity of which we afterward found it very difficult to make them comprehend, might occasion some alarm”.
“(T)he next morning, (Kalaniopuʻu) came immediately to visit Captain Cook, and the consequent return of the natives to their former, friendly intercourse with us, are strong proofs that they neither meant nor apprehended any change of conduct.”
However, “Soon after our return to the tents, we were alarmed by a continued fire of muskets from the Discovery, which we observed to be directed at a canoe, that we saw paddling toward the shore in great haste, pursued by one of our small boats.”
“We immediately concluded, that the firing was in consequence of some theft, and Captain Cook ordered me to follow him with a marine armed, and to endeavour to seize the people as they came on shore. Accordingly we ran toward the place where we supposed the canoe would land, but were too late; the people having quitted it, and made their escape into the country before our arrival.”
“When Captain Cook was informed of what had passed, he expressed much uneasiness at it, and as we were returning on board, ‘I am afraid,’ said he, ‘that these people will oblige me to use some violent measures ; for,’ he added, ‘they must not be left to imagine that they have gained an advantage over us.’”
“However, as it was too late to take any steps this evening, he contented himself with giving orders, that every man and woman on board should be immediately turned out of the ship.”
That night a skiff from the Discovery had been stolen. “It was between seven and eight o’clock when we quitted the ship together; Captain Cook in the pinnace, having Mr Phillips and nine marines with him; and myself in the small boat.”
“Though the enterprise which had carried Captain Cook on shore had now failed, and was abandoned, yet his person did not appear to have been in the least of danger, till an accident happened, which gave a fatal turn to the affair.”
“The boats which had been stationed across the bay, having fired at some canoes that were attempting to get out, unfortunately had killed a chief of first rank.”
“One of the natives, having in his hands a stone, and a long iron spike (which they call a pahooa), came up to the Captain, flourishing his weapon, by way of defiance, and threatening to throw the stone. The Captain desired him to desist ; but the man persisting in his insolence, he was at length provoked to fire a load of small-shot. “
“The man having his mat on, which the shot were not able to penetrate, this had no other effect than to irritate ,and encourage them. Several stones were thrown at the marines ; and one of the Erees attempted to stab Mr. Phillips with his pahooa, but failed in the attempt, and received from him a blow with the butt end of his musket.”
“Captain Cook now fired his second barrel, loaded with ball, and killed one of the foremost of the natives. A general attack with stones immediately followed, which was answered by a discharge of musketry from the marines, and the people in the boats.”
“Our unfortunate Commander, the last time he was seen distinctly, was standing at the water’s edge, and calling out to the boats to cease firing, and to pull in.”
“If it be true, as some of those who were present have imagined, that the marines and boat-men had fired without his orders, and that he was desireous of preventing further bloodshed, it is not improbable that his humanity, on this occasion, proved fatal to him.”
“For it was remarked, that whilst he faced the natives, none of them had offered him any violence, but that having turned about to give his orders to the boats, he was stabbed in the back, and fell with his face in the water.”
On February 14, 1779, Cook was killed – having left a few days before “satisfied with their kindness in general, so I cannot too often, nor too particularly, mention the unbounded and constant friendship of their priests” – having returned to make repairs to a broken mast.
Captain Charles Clerke took over the expedition and they left. (The quotes are from ‘The Voyages of Captain James Cook,’ recorded by Lieutenant James King (who, following these events was appointed to command HMS Discovery.) (Art by Herb Kane.)