This article was first published in the August 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine


Captain Cook's claim to fame is that he redrew the map of the world. In three voyages he transformed Europe’s sketchy knowledge of the Pacific. Sailing thousands of miles across the largely uncharted ocean that covered almost one third of the earth’s surface, he mapped lands from New Zealand in the south to the shores of the Bering Strait in the far north. As one of his officers claimed after the third voyage, “The Grand bounds of the four Quarters of the Globe are known”.

In addition to his navigation skills, Cook possessed those less tangible qualities of leadership and humanity which made him the outstanding explorer of his age. The shipboard journals described Cook’s skills in placating wary islanders in that perilous moment of landing from an open boat on an unknown coast, of how he was always first ashore, carrying no weapons and with hands outstretched in a gesture of friendliness. He seemed to lead a charmed life.

The news that reached England in early 1780 that Cook had been killed in 'Owhyee' (Hawaii) the previous February was both astonishing and shocking, and there was a tense wait until the ships returned with details of Cook's final days. The account that reached the Admiralty (overland from Russia) on 10 January 1780 was written by Charles Clerke, the second captain on the voyage, who died soon after. It described how the Resolution and Discovery had come across a previously unknown archipelago in the north Pacific that Cook named the Sandwich Islands (later the Hawaiian Islands), and on a return visit in 1779 had coasted the main island of Hawaii before anchoring in Kealakekua Bay. The crews' rapturous reception there by thousands of islanders, in Clerke's words, "exceeded everything we had ever before met with". In the weeks of the ships' stay their decks were heaped with hogs, breadfruit and plaintains, and whenever Cook went ashore he was treated with a respect "which more resembled that due to a deity than a human being".

However, when the ships were forced to return to the bay after damage to the Resolution's foremast, the mood was different, and during the night of 13 February, Discovery's cutter (small boat) was stolen. The following morning Cook and ten marines went ashore to take the 'king' of the island, Kalani'opu'u, hostage, but after a scuffle with some "very insolent, ill-disposed fellows", Cook opened fire. In the moments that followed his party was overwhelmed by warriors armed with clubs, daggers and stones, and before they could reach the waiting boats Cook and four marines were killed.

There was much about the affair not mentioned by, or perhaps not known to, Clerke, but at that time his report was all that Cook's superiors, family and friends had to go on. The First Lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Sandwich, gave a brief summary of Clerke's letter that was published in the newspapers, simply stating that Cook had been killed "in an affray with a numerous and tumultuous body of the natives". In October 1780 the Resolution and Discovery reached England, and within weeks of their return, arrangements were made to publish an authorised account of the voyage.

Cook’s death 18 months before the end of the voyage made for obvious problems in terms of authorship. Yet public interest, the importance of the expedition’s discoveries in the north Pacific, and the Admiralty’s worry about the possible publication of sensational unofficial accounts, ensured that there would be such a book. The main editorial work was entrusted to Dr John Douglas, Canon of Windsor and St Paul’s, who had edited Cook’s journal of his second voyage, and who now had the more difficult task of describing a voyage that had lost its dominant personality. For the events of the voyage after Cook’s death he relied mainly on the journal of Captain James King. Due to production delays, mostly connected with the engravings, the authorised account took almost four years to see the light of day.

Meanwhile, despite the Admiralty's attempts at prohibition, unofficial narratives were published. The most widely-read, by Lieutenant John Rickman of Discovery, showed a more violent Cook than the generally humane and restrained commander of the earlier voyages. Unofficial accounts hinted that all was not well on Cook's third voyage. They showed a commander given to outbursts of furious temper and vindictive behaviour who was sometimes at odds with his crew, while on Hawaii, Cook seemed to have allowed, perhaps even encouraged, the islanders' worship of him as a god. Unauthorised accounts tended towards the lurid, and a writer in the Monthly Review no doubt represented general opinion when he dismissed these "wanton, petulant, and illiberal attacks" on "our truly great navigator"; but the easy availability of such books made the delay in publishing an official account of the voyage all the more vexing.

In June 1784, the authorised account of Cook's third voyage was at last published as A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean.Undertaken by the Command of his Majesty, for Making Discoveries in the Northern Hemisphere. The work was a sumptuous affair that ran to three quarto volumes, 1,617 pages, an atlas and 87 plates. It was dedicated "To the memory of the ablest and most renowned Navigator this or any other country hath produced". The success of the book was immediate, with almost the whole printing sold on the day of publication. Frustrated customers unwilling to wait for the reprinting could buy smaller and cheaper octavo and duodecimo editions, while others could read highlights in the periodicals of the day. These, predictably, gave priority to the circumstances of Cook's death and the eventful weeks beforehand.

In the official account Douglas described Cook’s unprecedented reception at Kealakekua Bay, how after landing he was swathed in sacred red cloth and, with priests chanting ‘Erono’, was escorted to a great stone shrine where he was presented with a hog. Erono or Lono, later visitors learned, was the Hawaiian god of light, peace and fertility, but little of this was known to Cook’s men. In the days that followed, whenever Cook went ashore he was accompanied by a priest carrying a wand (the ‘tabu man’), while other priests made the people prostrate themselves and cover their eyes. The description of Cook’s death was based on King’s account, without reference to the views of Clerke and some others who believed that the crucial mistake was Cook’s decision to open fire, confident that this would disperse the crowd. The authorised account made much of the fact that Cook at the water’s edge had his back to his attackers as he gestured to the boat crews lying off the beach to stop firing. It concluded, “it is not improbable that his humanity... proved fatal to him”, and this interpretation was given visual impact in the famous painting of the scene by John Webber, the expedition’s official artist.

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Posthumous glory

The authorised account of Cook’s third voyage as edited by Dr Douglas set the seal on the explorer’s fame. In a note written after publication Douglas claimed that “The Public never knew how much they owe to me in this work”, and recent scholarship has shown that Douglas made numerous changes to Cook’s manuscript journal, some stylistic, others designed to enhance the explorer’s reputation. Such editorial refinements, even manipulations, were not unknown in the world of publishing, but altogether more remarkable and puzzling is the fact that no journal by Cook exists for the weeks of his stay in Hawaii, arguably the most critical of his naval career.

The prime source for the voyage, Cook’s journal in his own hand, is a bulky quarto volume of more than 600 folios. It stops, without explanation, two-thirds of the way down the page, on 6 January 1779, more than a week before the fateful landing at Kealakekua Bay. Supplementary to the journal is part of a log kept by Cook for the following ten days. That also ends abruptly, in this case as Cook went ashore at Kealakekua Bay for the first time on the afternoon of 17 January, and was led to the shrine, surrounded by thousands of chanting islanders. Both the journal and the log were held by the Douglas family until 1872, when they were bought by the British Museum (and are now in the British Library).

After the ships returned to England, there was an unfortunate loss of some of Cook’s ‘loose papers’ on their way from the Admiralty to Douglas, and it is possible – though not likely, given the description – that these included the missing parts of the journal and log. Alternatively, it has been suggested that there was a deliberate ‘weeding’ of the record either by officers on the voyage or by the Admiralty in London. Another possibility is that Douglas had in his possession more of Cook’s journal and log than he published, the implication being that the omitted entries were discreditable to Cook. This would certainly be so if they revealed that Cook had encouraged the adulation he had received. It would be hard to imagine anything more repugnant to readers in a Britain coming under the influence of evangelical groups than the thought of the country’s foremost explorer accepting a status as a heathen god.

It is a sign of the sacrilegious implications of that possibility that none of the journal-keepers could quite bring themselves to state outright that Cook was treated as a god. All edged around the issue with broad hints – “approaching to adoration” and so on – rather than direct assertions. Given the total absence of Cook’s own record of events, how far he accepted or even recognised what was happening remains unknown.

It is difficult to accept the scenario of a final journal that was deliberately destroyed, for there were too many involved in the collecting and collating of Cook's papers for such a disappearance to be easily kept secret. The central puzzle remains why Cook ended his log so unexpectedly. Cook's last sentence for 17 January 1779 records that after he landed "Touahah (the priest Koa) took me by the hand and conducted me to a large Morai (shrine), the other gentlemen with Parea (the chief Palea) and four or five of the natives followed". Presumably Cook wrote those words when he returned to the Resolution that evening, but he stopped writing his daily entry after only a few lines, before he came to the remarkable scene of his apparent worship.

When Cook picked up his pen again is not known, and his decision that when he did he would abandon the log and ournal he had been keeping thus far is hard to explain. It is inconceivable that Cook did not continue his record of events – to keep a daily log was a prime requirement for any naval captain – but all that can be said is that it is in none of the documents that survive.

Neither Douglas nor the Admiralty comes well out of this business. Douglas held on to records that were official property, and the Admiralty made no attempt to retrieve them. If there was a conspiracy, it was a conspiracy of silence in which none of the main players appears to have remarked on the curious business of missing documents.

It is especially odd that James King, author of the final volume of the official account, who “saw Capt. Cook’s MS. the day after his death”, had nothing to say on the matter. The disappearance of Cook’s record allowed Douglas, King and the Admiralty to portray the story of the stay at Hawaii as they wished. In the end, Douglas’s edition offered more than an apologia for a voyage with some awkward moments. It played a major part in establishing Cook as a martyr-hero, an image that has only been seriously challenged in recent times.

Captain Cook’s life

James Cook was born in Marton, Yorkshire, in 1728 and underwent his sea apprenticeship in the Whitby coal trade before joining the Royal Navy in 1755. After serving in the Seven Years’ War against France, Cook spent five summers (1763–7) surveying the Newfoundland coast before taking command of his first voyage to the Pacific (1768–71). His initial objective was to observe the Transit of Venus from Tahiti, but Cook then turned south to chart the almost unknown coasts of New Zealand and eastern Australia.

This achievement was surpassed by his second voyage (1772–5) in which he showed that there was no great southern continent, reached closer to the South Pole than any man before him and charted new lands from Tonga to South Georgia. It was arguably the most perfect of all seaborne voyages of discovery, and one made without the loss of a single man from scurvy, that age-old scourge of the sea.

In 1776, Cook left on his third voyage, this time to the north Pacific to discover the entrance of the Northwest Passage. He failed in this task, but made the first comprehensive survey of the coast of northwest America, and discovered the Hawaiian Islands. There “the first navigator in Europe” (the words of his superior at the Admiralty), was killed on 14 February 1779.

The last page of Cook’s log

The last page of Cook’s log, showing its final entry for 17 January 1779 (almost a month before his death), is followed by a blank space. The entry ends in mid-episode, as Cook wrote that “I went a shore to view the place” (Kealakekua Bay), and so contains no reference to the Hawaiians’ apparent worship of him that followed his landing.

Glyn Williams is author of The Death of Captain Cook: A Hero Made and Unmade (Profile Books, 2008)

BOOKS: The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas by Anne Salmond (Allen Lane, 2003); Discoveries: The Voyages of Captain Cook by Nicholas Thomas (Allen Lane, 2003);

MUSEUM: The Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby has many items associated with Cook, housed in the building where Cook lived during his apprenticeship. Tel: 01947 601900.

EVENT: The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge is staging a Captain Cook Study Day re-assessing Cook's legacy. Email for more details


TV: Watch the premiere of Vanessa Collingridge’s documentary on Cook on the History Channel UK, scheduled for 19 August.