"The Death of Captain Cook: A Hero Made and Unmade" by Glyn Williams takes a new look at the violent death of Captain James Cook, England's foremost adventurer/explorer of the 18th century.
“The Death of Captain Cook: A Hero Made and Unmade”
by Glyn Williams
Harvard University Press, 198 pp., $19.95
On February 14, 1779, Capt. James Cook was killed on the island of Hawaii (the Big Island). He had sailed around the world twice, mapping great unknown stretches of the Pacific Ocean from below the Antarctic Circle to above the Arctic Circle.
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His third voyage, to which he had been drawn by the elusive hope of finding a Northwest Passage, proved his undoing. But more than 200 years later, both the cause of his murder and whether he deserved this fate remain mysteries.
Cook was an experienced naval officer whose three expeditions spanned roughly a decade. Although he garnered praise for his exceptional skills as a navigator and as an ambassador of British culture, he nevertheless made a fatal mistake.
In “The Death of Captain Cook,” Glyn Williams, professor emeritus of history at Queen Mary University of London, joins the considerable ranks of history detectives who have tried to pry the truth from patchy, inaccurate and sometimes intentionally misleading documents.
News of Cook’s death reached England in early 1780. From the start, details were vague and rumors troubling. Had Cook allowed himself to be venerated as a god, then committed some sacrilege?
After islanders stole his companion ship’s cutter, had he lost his notoriously short temper then triggered a battle when he went ashore demanding the boat’s return? Had he attempted to take the Hawaiian king hostage? Or was Cook slain as he valiantly attempted to restore peace after several critical misunderstandings?
Williams believes his interpretation of events, which he bases on primary sources and later publications, “breaks new ground.” Circumstances and reporting are key to the formation of Cook’s reputation, he states. “The turning of his impetuous behaviour in the bloody and chaotic fracas on the beach at Kealakekua Bay into something altogether nobler and more sacrificial became the defining moment … in the establishment of a martyr-hero.”
Before other officers’ accounts were even delivered to England, conjectural and sensationalized articles about the killing began appearing. These stories were soon followed by “careless if colorful” books and paintings portraying Cook as a hero.
In the official report, published in 1874, wordings of Cook’s own logs were manipulated by its editor, Dr. John Douglas. Crucial portions and some of Cook’s loose papers were lost.
Might there have been an admiralty conspiracy or cover-up? Certainly, many unflattering events were omitted. And Williams reminds readers that what remains of Cook’s journal, as well as those of his officers, can’t be assumed to be “full and frank” either.
Like Columbus and Cortez, whose fabled reputations have been found flawed, Cook must have had his share of shortcomings, too.
For example, revisionist historians now assess the profound changes his arrival caused among Pacific islanders, not the least of which were venereal and other diseases.
Mark Twain visited Hawaii in 1866. In his book, “Roughing It,” Twain may be one of Cook’s harshest critics, calling the death “justifiable homicide.”