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Feb 14th 1779 – Captain Cook Meets His Demise in Hawaii

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Hau’oli La Ho’omake ia Kapena Kuke! Or, as the Hawai’ians call Valentine’s Day: Happy Death of Captain Cook day.

Under the spirited guidance of history professor Lilikala Kame’eleihiwa of the University of Hawai’I, the reputation of Captain James Cook as a hero of civilisation and the discoverer of far-flung countries has been given a bit of a shove lately, and today, on the day he died on Kealakekua Bay, it is time to reconsider. Were the Hawai’ians right to club, stab and drown the British navigator, and why did Cook die that way, that day?

In 1755 came the opportunity of every ambitious man: war broke out, and because he realised that this was the only way a working-class boy could advance himself, James Cook entered the Royal Navy. Later that year he was involved in the sinking of two French ships; the first step on the rung to a command. When he passed his master’s exams in 1757, he was regarded ready for the real battle: the siege of Quebec and the Fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia.

The Royal Navy sent him on a detachment, to survey and map the coast of Newfoundland, something that took him five years but gave the world charts that were used until very recently. Because of this success, the Admiralty commissioned him in 1768 to command a scientific mission to the Pacific. To observe the transit of Venus, but also to discover what there was to find and exploit in a world where no white man had ever been before.

James Cook, like most of his men and most of his colleagues (like Lachlan Macquarie, for instance) had syphilis. ‘Le grande verole’, as the French called it, was first ‘discovered’ in 1495 when the soldiers of the French King Charles VIII were busy besieging Naples.

Within years it spread like wildfire and by the time Cook came on the scene, it was the number one killer among military men especially. The problem was that it also infected their wives, with great waves of miscarriages and birth defects as a result.

Cook also had TB. Everybody had TB, especially if you travelled a lot and were cooped up with other sufferers on board ship. Although TB could go on for years undetected, when it manifested it was very painful and affected the spine, turning you into a hunchback. And it too made you irascible: quick to anger, egocentric, not very smart or diplomatic.

So, so far two of the three words that professor Kame’eleihiwa used to describe Cook were absolutely factual. Then, what about racist? First, let’s look at the big picture. As a consequence of Cook’s ‘discoveries’, millions of non-white people in the Pacific were dispossessed. They lost their land, their culture and very often their lives. Not just as a consequence of warfare (although that too; the myth that they went down without a fight is bogus), but also because of the illnesses that Cook and his men (and then many others) brought in: TB, syphilis, and smallpox, measles, influenza. For the Hawai’ians, this meant that by 1893, there were only 40,000 people left. ‘Easy pickings’ for the American invasion, as Kame’eleihiwa rightfully concludes.

When he arrived in Hawai’I for the first time, in 1778, he landed at the time of the festival for Lono, the God of the sea and fertility. The Hawai’ians thought that this meant he was either a God himself or at least a royal guest. Cook took the full advance and allowed his men the orgy of their lifetime. In return for iron nails, the sailors had sex for four months straight, of course infecting most of the women on the islands. Lono’s emblem of crossed wood and long pieces of kapa (bark) looked very much like the sails of Cook’s ships, so for the moment, the islanders let the men get away with just about anything. But even Gods leave after a while, and when that didn’t happen people started asking questions. Why didn’t they speak the language, why did they hardly wash and why was their Captain always so quick to lose his temper?

When one of the crew died, it became clear that these were not immortals, so, under pressure, Cook finally gave the order to leave. But after a few days at sea, the mast of the Resolution snapped during a storm and they had to return. This was again proof that Cook was not Lono, who controls the winds. And the Hawai’ians had been happy to see the back of the British, so this time they were less welcome. In fact, one of the islanders stole a small boat from the ‘explorers’. This made Cook so angry that he went ashore with the intention to kidnap King Kalani’opu’u, so he had the bargaining power to get his property back. To make plans to abduct your host is stupid at the best of times. To only take two men in a dinghy to put it into practice is behaving like your adversaries will give you what you want just because you are you; whiter, so better. It was that kind of personal racism that finally took Cook’s life.

The crowd on the beach obviously protected its king. Cook’s men ran for their lives, leaving their commander to their fate. Somebody threw a rock and moments later the Captain was dead. Then his body was put in an earth oven, an ancient ritual to let the flesh fall away to get to the essence of man, his bones. What they kept for the crew were Cook’s hands and bum, which they offered to them two days later. It made the British think they ate the rest; also a racist presumption of ‘lesser peoples’. And to make sure that the Hawai’ians knew who was boss, the Navy took its revenge with cannons, killing 30 islanders not long after.

Written by: Samantha Watts-Hopkins

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