death of cook

One of the most important events in the history of Hawaii was the arrival, in January 1778, of legendary British mariner Captain James Cook, the first European to make contact with the Hawaiians. After leaving Hawaii, Cook’s epic third voyage of discovery took him to the coast of North America and what is now Oregon and Alaska before he returned to Hawaii (which he called “the Sandwich Islands”) a year after his initial landing. On February 14, 1779, Cook was killed by native Hawaiians at Kealakekua Bay, on the west coast of the Big Island.

The traditional narrative of the story behind Cook’s death goes like this. Supposedly Cook arrived for the second time during the Hawaiians’ religious festival called Makahiki, a period of feasts and sacrifices honoring Lono, the Hawaiian god of fertility and agriculture. Cook sailed his ship, the HMS Resolution, around the island in a way that the Hawaiians interpreted as similar to their own ritual procession in honor of Lono. When Cook finally landed the Hawaiians believed him to be Lono and treated him like the incarnation of their god. Cook stayed a month and then sailed away, but sudden damage to one of the Resolution‘s masts required they return. The Hawaiians were surprised and puzzled by Cook’s return. Makahiki was now over. Ultimately they realized that Cook was not Lono and hostilities broke out between the Hawaiians and the British. A fracas over stolen boats on February 14 resulted in Hawaiian natives descending on Cook, stabbing him and four other Britons to death, and dragging his body away.

But is this really how it happened? Did the Hawaiians really think Cook was Lono? Some historians think it’s not that simple. The idea of indigenous people seeing a European for the first time and mistaking him for a deity is a trope of antiquated fiction. It’s extremely reductionist, suggesting that first peoples are “primitives” who lack the capacity to think critically–i.e., in European terms, a view that reinforces a colonialist vision of racial and ethnic hierarchy. But this trope makes its way into history, unfortunately. For a long time many people believed that the Aztecs, when they first saw Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, assumed he was their god Quetzalcoatl, which explains the relative ease of the Spaniards’ conquest. This historical myth has been deconstructed pretty completely in recent years, and at least since the early 1990s something similar has been going on with the story of Captain Cook.

Kealakekua bay by bamse

Lovely Kealakekua Bay, on the Big Island, is the site of the native Hawaiians’ confrontation with Cook. They later buried him in ritual fashion..

There are some problems with the Cook-as-Lono narrative. First, the Hawaiians used the name “Lono” to refer not exclusively to the god Lono, but also to high and honored chiefs, whom they regarded Cook as. Second, some historians have expressed doubt either that the Makahiki festival was really going on at the time the Resolution arrived–it’s a feast with a floating calendar, like Passover or Easter–or that the festival had even developed its traditional form by 1779. Finally, much of the narrative is based on literal acceptance of the accounts of British sailors who witnessed the events and drew interpretations about what they thought the Hawaiians were thinking. Those interpretations could well be wrong.

The truth may lie somewhere in between. Maybe some Hawaiians literally believed Cook was Lono, while others did not; maybe they interpreted his appearance in terms that appeared religious to Cook and the other Britons but which had more complex and nuanced meaning to them. After all, people called Elvis Presley “the King” without meaning it literally; we just can’t be sure what the term “Lono,” as applied to Captain Cook, really meant. In any event, the exact circumstances and meaning surrounding Cook’s death will likely remain a contentious point in Hawaiian history for some time to come. It is, if nothing else, a fascinating debate.

The image of Kealakekua Bay is by Wikimedia Commons user “Bamse” and is used/relicensed under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license. The painting of Cook’s death is by Johan Zoffany, 1795.