The Cook re­port

COL­LECT­ING: Has his­tory been rewrit­ten to pro­tect the York­shire nav­i­ga­tor’s rep­u­ta­tion? John Vin­cent looks at the ev­i­dence.

Yorkshire Post - YP Magazine - - Homes&garden -

HIS death was the stuff of leg­end: stabbed in the back as he valiantly tried to stop his men from fir­ing on the is­lan­ders of Hawaii.

But for 235 years, it seems, our per­cep­tions of Cap­tain James Cook’s glo­ri­ous demise may owe more to 18th­cen­tury spin than re­al­ity. A decade ago I cov­ered the sale of a pre­vi­ously un­recorded wa­ter­colour which shed new light on the leg­endary York­shire­man’s long-dis­puted fi­nal mo­ments.

It de­picted Cook, not nobly pro­tect­ing life, but in hand-to-hand com­bat, fight­ing with na­tives af­ter go­ing ashore at Kealakekua Bay on Fe­bru­ary 14, 1779 to in­ves­ti­gate the theft of one of his boats by an is­lan­der.

The unedited wa­ter­colour was painted by artist John Cleve­ley from first-hand ac­counts by his brother James, a car­pen­ter on Res­o­lu­tion dur­ing Cook’s third, fateful voy­age. But the im­age was air­brushed from his­tory, re­placed in the pub­lic mind by John Web­ber’s de­pic­tion of Cook as no­ble hero – not in hand-to-hand com­bat, but turned away from his as­sailants, sig­nalling to his ships to cease fire while a Hawai­ian chief pre­pares to stab him in the back of the neck.

The ex­act chain of events sur­round­ing Cook’s death is still hotly de­bated but schol­ars have con­cluded that he acted with un­char­ac­ter­is­tic rash­ness and provo­ca­tion to the is­lan­ders. He was also be­trayed by panic and in­ef­fi­ciency among the armed marines whose job it was to pro­tect him.

Cook’s hor­ri­fied of­fi­cers con­cocted an ac­count which made a scape­goat of only one man, a Lieu­tenant Rick­in­son. But Cap­tain Wil­liam Bligh, later to lose his ship, Bounty, to mu­ti­neers, was present at Kealakekua Bay and later damned the ac­count as “a most in­fa­mous lie” and “a pretty Old Woman story”.

The Marton-born ex­plorer must shoul­der part of the blame. A bril­liant nav­i­ga­tor, sea­man and man-man­ager, he dis­played a pre­vi­ously un­seen cru­elty on his last voy­age, ad­min­is­ter­ing dozens of flog­gings to his men and ex­act­ing bar­baric re­venge on is­lan­ders who stole from his ship.

In­ter­est in Cap­tain Cook has in­creased over time. And books and manuscripts re­lat­ing to him formed six of the top


CAP­TAIN COOK: The cir­cum­stances of his death on Hawaii 235 years ago are still de­bated.

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