Captain Cook’s View of Hawaii

See my historical overview of the relationship between Britain and Hawaii here.


Lithograph from John Webber, “An Inland View in Atooi, One of the Sandwich Islands” – wikimedia commons

“In the course of my several voyages,” wrote Captain James Cook on 20 January 1778, “I never before met with the natives of any place so much astonished, as these people were, upon entering a ship.  Their eyes were continually flying from object to object; the wildness of their looks and gestures fully expressing their entire ignorance about everything they saw, and strongly marking to us, that, till now, they had never been visited by Europeans, nor been acquainted with any of our commodities except iron.”

Cook and the crews of the Resolution and Discovery had sighted O’ahu and Kaua’i two days earlier on 18 January.  The people of Atooi (Kaua’i) swam up to the ships and came aboard; Cook reported that they dismissed beads and mirrors as useless but were very interested in the Europeans’ iron tools.

“Plates of earthenware, china cups, and other such things, were so new to them, that they asked if they were made of wood; but wished to have some, that they might carry them to be looked at on shore.  They were in some respects naturally well bread, or, at least, fearful of giving offence, asking where they should sit down, whether they might spit upon the deck, and the like,” Cook reported in his journal.  “Some of them repeated a long prayer before they came on board; and others, afterward, sang and made motions with their hands, such as we had been accustomed to see in the dances of the islands we had lately visited.”


Engraving from John Webber, “Tereoboo, King of Owhyhee, bringing presents to Captain Cook” – wikimedia commons

In his journals, Cook carefully compared the people and customs of Hawaii to those of the other islands visited on his voyages.  With this, his third voyage, he had embarked from Plymouth with the Resolution on 12 July 1776, sailing to the Cape of Good Hope.  There the Discovery met them on 10 November.  From there the two ships traveled to Tasmania, the Cook Islands, and Tahiti.  The purpose of the voyage was based on a charge by the British Admiralty: to search for a Northwest Passage from the western coast of North America.  In 1775, the British government offered £20,000 to be shared among the crew of the ship that successfully located the Northwest Passage, and Cook took it upon himself to pursue the prize.

Along with the journals of Cook and several of the crew members, the voyage was also recorded by John Webber, a London-born artist who drew and painted what he observed on the journey.  His works highlight the people, places, and major events of the ships’ visits to Hawaii.

On their first stop at the islands, Cook and his crew spotted Kaua’i, Oah’u, Ni’ihau, and
two smaller islands, but they heard that there was more to the archipelago, which Cook named after the First Lord of the Admiralty.  The Resolution and Discovery stayed for only two weeks, then sailed on for North America to continue their pursuit of the Northwest Passage.  The two ships then returned to the Hawaiian Islands to winter, this time spotting Maui and dropping anchor at Karakakooa (Kealakekua) Bay on the island of Owhyhee (Hawaii).


John Webber, “Kealakekua Bay and the Village Kowroaa,” 1779 – wikimedia commons

Cook found the people of Hawaii to be “of a middling stature, firmly made, with some exceptions, neither remarkable for a beautiful shape, nor for striking features, which rather express and openness and good nature, than a keen, intelligent disposition.”  He described them as exceedingly friendly to the newcomers, but had a tendency to try to steal everything they could lay their hands on.  Cook reported that both men and women came aboard the ships and favored the crew with their company, but as he hoped to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections he “ordered all female visitors to be excluded from the ships.”  He also did not allow his crew members to go on shore until they had cleared a medical check so as “to prevent the importation of a fatal disease into this island, which I knew some of our men laboured under.”

He described the people of Hawaii as “vigorous, active, and most active swimmers; leaving their canoes upon the most trifling occasion; diving under them, and swimming to others though at a great distance.  It was very common to see women, with infants at the breast, when the surf was so high that they could not land in the canoes, leap overboard, and without endangering their little ones, swim to the shore, through a sea that looked dreadful.”

But Cook was most surprised by their language.  “Whatever resemblance we might discover, in the general manners of the people of Atooi to those of Otaheite (Tahiti), these of course were less striking than the coincidence of their language.  Indeed, the language of both places may be said to be almost word for word the same…. How shall we account for this nation’s having spread itself in so many detached islands, so widely disjoined from each other, in every quarter of the Pacific Ocean!”

Knowing the size and scope of European empires of his day, Cook marveled at the great distances inhabited by the Polynesians.  “How much further in either direction its colonies reach is not known; but what we know already, in consequence of this and our former voyage, warrants our pronouncing it to be, though perhaps not the most numerous, certainly, by far, the most extensive nation upon earth.”

At Kealakekua Bay, Cook and his crew had been given a grand ceremonial welcome and were able to supply the ships with large amounts of vegetables and pigs.  Cook had never seen so many people in one place throughout the course of his voyages.  “Besides those who had come off to us in canoes,” he wrote, “all the shore of the bay was covered with spectators, and many hundreds were swimming around the ships like shoals of fish.  We could not but be struck with the singularity of this scene; and perhaps there were few on board who now lamented our having failed in our endeavours to find a northern passage homeward, last summer. To this disappointment we owned our having it in our power to revisit the Sandwich Islands, and to enrich our voyage with a discovery which, though the last, seemed, in many respects, to be the most important that had hitherto been made by Europeans throughout the extent of the Pacific Ocean.”


Captain Cook Monument, Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park – photo credit: L. Flewelling

The Resolution and Discovery departed Hawaii on 4 February 1779.  A few days later, a storm damaged the Resolution and Cook reluctantly decided to return to Kealakekua Bay for repairs.  Tensions rose, as the people of Hawaii had already given a sendoff to the two ships with large amounts of food and gifts.  On 14 February, when Cook discovered that one of the islanders had stolen a large cutter, he decided to hold the main chief hostage until it was returned.  Chaos and skirmishing ensued, leading to Cook’s death.  After recovering their captain’s body, the remaining crew surveyed the rest of the Sandwich Islands, finally returning to England in October 1780.

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