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Captain Cook: His end could have been on Maui

By Staff | Jun 5, 2014

Captain Cook’s Endeavor replica rides the waves at a marine museum in Sydney, Australia.

LAHAINA – People in these parts know just two things about Capt. James Cook. He was credited as the first westerner to find what he named the Sandwich Islands and was killed on Hawaii Island.

Australians and many others regard him as one of the greatest explorers of all time. Astronauts named the space vehicle Endeavor after his first ship. A replica floats in the Sydney, Australia harbor near the Captain Cook cruise line and not far from the Captain Cook Hotel.

Cook’s unusual story is well worth telling, as shown in “Farther Than Any Man, the Rise and Fall of Captain Cook” by Martin Dugard.

Cook, from a lower class background, aspired to greatness. He loved the sea and studied map making and astronomy. His mentor – First Lord of the Admiralty the Earl of Sandwich – sent him on three epic voyages (the first lasted 1,076 days) to chart the southern hemisphere and find “the great southern continent.”

He found Australia and New Zealand (circling it) and mapped most of Polynesia, fell in love with Tahiti and studied the language and culture. He found Antarctica and sought the Northwest Passage, happening upon Niihau, Kauai, Maui and Hawaii Island on the way.

Introduced to bare-breasted Polynesian women who swam to his ships on three different voyages, sailors on the second trip had as their major topic sex. The sailors thought they were taking advantage, and the women, according to Dugard, thought they were taking advantage by trading for nails valuable for their metal.

Cook was unique in many ways, including the fact that he had a lifelong love affair with wife Elizabeth and was entirely faithful to her despite the many temptations of Polynesia.

He is described variously by people who knew him as a genius, compassionate, benevolent, quirky, proud and bold. The navigator wanted no one in the British Navy to exceed his accomplishments and could not stay away from the fateful final voyage for that reason.

By then, he had won his fight to gain fame and acceptance by the British elite; and according to Dugard, was like “a superstar.” He spent so much time with the elite, however, the man who paid so much attention to detail in preparing his ships failed to do so for his last third voyage, forcing him to return to Kealakekua Bay to fix a problem that led to his death.

On his last voyage, power went to his head. In Tonga, for the first time, he punished natives harshly for thievery, and there was a plot to kill him.

On June 18, 1778, Cook happened upon Niihau, Kauai, Maui and Hawaii Island. They were the first westerners to find what he thought was the best land in the Pacific. He would have landed on Maui, except the surf was too high and he couldn’t find a harbor.

When Cook went ashore on Hawaii Island, it was the time of the Makahiki harvest festival that honored the god Lono, who was associated with the color white. The white sails of Cook’s ship convinced 10,000 natives who greeted him that everyone on board was god-like, with Cook being Lono.

When a sailor died – gods don’t die, the thinking went – Cook was considered mortal, and how mortal would become clear. Hawaiians rejoiced when the ship left, but when when its foremast collapsed, it returned for repairs.

When natives stole a boat, conflict ensued. In the confusion on the beach, Cook was stabbed multiple times. To say the least, his remains were treated with great disrespect.

Cook’s successful missions (on one voyage, he logged 70,000 miles traveling at the rate of 100 miles a day) were to map the entire Pacific, spread British influence and establish trade.

After Cook, prisoners were sent to Australia to populate the continent with westerners, but the French prevailed in the Society Islands, even today known as French Polynesia.

And Elizabeth, the love of his life? She bore many children despite his long absences and outlived Cook 35 years, passing away at age 94.

Cook relished the fact he was treated as a god. His legacy was great, yet spoiled by the actions of the last year of his life.