"... as far as it was possible for a man to go.“ - the Death of James Cook in 1779

14 February 1779,  James Cook was killed during a controversy that began with a stolen ship’s boat on the shore of Kealakekua Bay on Hawai’i.

“I had ambition not only to go farther than any man had ever been before, but as far as it was possible for a man to go.“ (James Cook)

The Anglo-German painter Johann Zoffany’s (1733 – 1810) unfinished neo-classical imagination of Cook’s death, called “The death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779“ (around 1795) – the helmet Kana’ina is wearing was borrowed by Zoffany from a Vienna museum where the thing had ended up and used as a model.

There are not many mariners sailing the Seven Seas of the late 18th century that are more difficult to imagine as a god of fertility and music descending from a rainbow to marry Laka, the patroness of the hula and the red lehua blossom than straight-faced, straight-laced, down-to-earth and no-nonsense James Cook, but there lay the “Resolution” in the bay of Kealakekua, looking a bit like certain artefacts associated with the self-same deity, Lono, during the end of the Makahiki harvest festival and theories differ if the good people of Hawai’i saw him as the incarnate god returning or just as a bloody nuisance during the holidays. However, the “Resolution’s” foremast was broken, she was in bad need of repair, her shore parties were combing through the island in search for materials and with the rather different conception of property the Hawaiians and British had, tensions grew and when “Resolution’s” cutter disappeared all of a sudden, Cook decided he’d had it, planned to take King Kalaniʻōpuʻu hostage and exchange him for the safe return of his ship’s boat, the situation escalated.

George Carter's (1737 - 1794) imagination of "Death of Captain James Cook, 1783" (1783)

The crowd that formed around Cook and his landing party after they accompanied the monarch to the shore was rather not pleased, understandably enough. When Cook turned his back towards the boats, somebody clobbered him on the head, allegedly a chief called Kana’ina, and the people began to riot, stabbing Cook to death and killing four marines, the rest of the shore party was lucky to escape with their lives, sans cutter, king and captain. Cook’s first officer Lt Charles Clerke wisely refrained from retaliatory measures and could negotiate the return of the bodies of Cook and the marines. The explorer’s body had been cooked already and his bones distributed among members of influential families, as it was customary after the demise of great chiefs – only his hands were spared and Cook could be identified by a scar. The men were buried at sea on 21 February and “Endeavour” and “Resolution” sailed home for England, arriving on 6 October 1780, ending the third voyage of one of the world’s greatest explorers and navigators with a somber note.

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