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