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Cook’s not so romantic Valentine’s Day

As I mentioned in my last post, Valentine’s Day wasn’t always hearts and flowers, sometimes it was a day of blood and guts. On this day in 1779 the Hawaiians killed one of the world’s most important explorers, Captain James Cook.

Le Capne. Jacques Cook Membre de la Societe Royale de Londres, circa 1775

Cook started out as a surveyor in the Royal Navy in 1768 and after being commissioned a lieutenant led an expedition that took scientists to Tahiti to document the transit of Venus (during the voyage they also explored the coast of New Zealand and Australia). Beginning in 1772, Cook commanded a major mission to the South Pacific and over the next three years explored the Antarctic region, charted the New Hebrides, and discovered New Caledonia. In January 1778, he made his first visit to the Hawaiian Islands possibly the first European to ever visit the islands.

Cook’s ships at anchor Moorea, one of the “Friendly Islands”
Chronometer by John Arnold, circa 1772. This timekeeper may have traveled on Cook’s second voyage of exploration.

On that visit Cook and his crew were welcomed by the Hawaiians, who were fascinated by the Europeans’ ships and their use of iron. Almost a year later, Cook’s ships returned to the Hawaiian Islands and anchored in Kealakekua Bay. Historians suspect that the Hawaiians attached religious significance to that first visit by Cook because they most certainly attached religious significance to his second. Kealakekua Bay was considered the sacred harbor of Lono, the fertility god of the Hawaiians, and at the time of Cook’s arrival the locals were engaged in a festival dedicated to Lono. Cook and his compatriots were welcomed as gods and for the next month exploited the Hawaiians’ good will. After an English sailor died the Europeans were exposed as mere mortals and relations between the two cultures became strained. On February 4, 1779, Cook’s ships sailed from Kealakekua Bay, but rough seas damaged the foremast of one of the ships and forced the English to return to Hawaii for repairs.

Ouch, the Hawaiians weren’t quite as friendly on this visit.

This time the Hawaiians greeted Cook and his men by hurling rocks! They then stole a small boat but negotiations regarding the return of the cutter collapsed after a lesser Hawaiian chief was shot to death. When a mob of angry Hawaiians descended on Cook’s shore party he and his men fired on the angry Hawaiians, but they were soon overwhelmed and only a handful manage to escape and return to the safety of the ships. Cook was among those killed.

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