Some expeditions of exploration are known as much for their tragedies as for their successes. Sailing for years at a time through harsh conditions and unknown lands and cultures resulted in surprisingly few casualties to the men under Cook’s command. It was Captain Cook himself who died in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on the other side of the globe from his birthplace.
Cook had been in the Sandwich Islands, known today as the Hawaiian Islands, on his way to the Pacific Northwest. The volcanic island chain was a convenient stop in the middle of the vast Pacific, and Cook decided to return to rest and refuel there after surveying in Unalaska and the Aleutian chain. The Resolution and the Discovery anchored in Kealakekua Bay, on the largest island of Hawaii, on January 17, 1779. They stayed for two weeks, attempting to set out again in February. Gale winds slowed their departure and damaged the foremast of the Resolution, forcing them back into the protection of the harbour. On February 14, 1779, Cook went ashore and was stabbed in the back. He died of his terrible wound.
Many people are still curious about the death of Cook, which happened so long ago. Cook was viewed as a powerful naval commander and intellectual, and was reportedly respectful in his relations with the people he encountered on his expeditions; yet, he met a violent end among the Hawaiians, whom he considered to be friendly. That raises many questions. Some historians have suggested that Cook, suffering from poor health, was behaving strangely and may have offended the Hawaiians. Others note that, in spite of controls and punishments, Cook’s crew continued to engage in sexual relations during stops in their voyage, infecting the local populations with venereal diseases along the way.Cook’s Hawaiian hosts had been generous with their scarce provisions, giving him water, produce, and a large number of pigs. When the vessels returned mere days after their departure, they were not welcome – there was nothing left to share. The Discovery’s cutter was stolen, and Cook, unable to find the thief, planned to take local chief Kalei’opu’u as a hostage until its return. Tensions heightened, shots were fired at canoes in the bay, and Cook was stabbed and drowned at the shore. The Hawaiian priests prepared his bones in a manner befitting an honoured person, and Captain Clerke sailed away in an attempt to complete the expedition.