The Last Visit of Captain James Cook to Hawaii


The Polynesians are those people who some two or three thousand years ago spread to all the islands of the Pacific through the great triangle that reaches from Hawaii to new Zealand to Easter Island. That was their great cultural triumph. They had mastered the immense ocean. They had discovered all the islands of the Pacific and then in turn were discovered by European explorers from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries of the Christian era.
In their different island worlds the Polynesians developed separately, playing variations on their common cultural themes. They held in common, however, an understanding of themselves - call it an historical consciousness - expressed in the mythical opposition of 'native' and 'stranger'. This opposition of 'native' and 'stranger' was prior to and independent of the European intrusion. The Polynesians were native and stranger among themselves and to themselves. They saw themselves as made up of native, those born of the land of their islands, and stranger, those who had at some time come from a distant place. 'Tahiti' is the Hawaiian word for 'distant place'. Strangers came from 'Tahiti'. Or they came from 'Havaiki', the more general Polynesian word for a place of origin. Typically in their myths the first stranger, a chief, came many generations ago in a canoe from a distant place. He found the natives on their island and either overthrew the existing chiefly line by violence or married the highest born women of the natives and established his strangers' line.
Hula girls, Hawaii
In myth and in ritual this opposition of native and stranger was a constant metaphor of Polynesian politics and social organisation. Political power was thought to come through usurpation by the stranger and was given legitimacy by the native. A reigning chief would trace in genealogy his line to a hero who would have come from a distant place and conquered the native inhabitants of the island and their chief. It was not just an event of the mythical past, however. The reigning chief, even if he had come to power by the natural death of his father, would have played out a usurping role in the rituals of his accession and would have married into that line which connected him most closely with the original natives of the land. Do the opposition native and stranger was both history and cosmology. It offered an understanding both of the past and of the present: the conqueror, the stranger, came from the sea, the conquered, but founding force, the people, were of the land. So Land and Sea had the oppositions of native and Stranger.
And because Polynesian cosmology imaged the sky as a great dome reaching down all around the island to the circle of the horizon, those who came by sea came from 'beyond the sky'. They were atua, gods. Being called atua, as they almost universally were, the European Strangers who came to Polynesian islands from beyond the sky, were both flattered and reinforced in their judgements of savage simplicities. We might hazard a guess that the Polynesians, just as they saw in their own Stranger Chiefs the incantation of usurping power, so they expected the European Stingers from beyond the sky to play out their mythical usurping roles. Native-Stranger:Land-Sea. There are other associations as well. Strangers from the Sea, from Beyond the Sky, Usurping power, were chiefs, they were also man eaters, sacrificers. There was  Hawaiian prover that caught it all. 'Chiefs are sharks that walk on the land'.
In Hawaii, as elsewhere in Polynesia, the structural opposition of Native and Stranger was played out in an annual cycle of rituals. Eight months of the year belonged to the Stranger Chiefs, and were the ordinary time of human sacrifice and war, the time of kapu (taboos), and of those protocols of the dominance of chiefly power. It was the time to which the chiefs walked on the land like sharks and the people of the land, the commoners, obeyed all the kapu, or suffered death as kabu breakers. These eight months of the year belonged to Ku, the god of war and sacrifice, the ancestral deity of the Strangers.
Fisherman, Hawaii
These were the ordinary months of the year. But there were four months beginning October-November that were a sort of carnival time, when the ordinary was overturned, when the temple rites of Ku were suspended. In these four months the ritual focus of the island was on the fruitfulness of the land and the sea rather than on the power of the chiefs. It was the time of the year in which the god of the land, Lono, returned to the islands. At then end of the these four months there were twenty-three climactic days. The highest ranked of the chiefs or 'king' temporarily lost his sovereignty. He and other chiefs went into seclusion, locked themselves away on their individual lands. The time of Lono was called makahiki and it followed a strict calendar. In the second month, there began a procession of the priests of Lono right-handedly around the island. That is, the land was always on the right and the sea on the left. Right hand, life, land: left hand, death, sea. The procession of Lono was symbolic act of his possessions of the land. At the same time there were left-handed processions, counter-clockwise, around the lands of the chiefs, symbolic acts of dispossession. In the time of their seclusion they lost that power which they had usurped from the people of the land. Lono's procession was led by Lono's symbol, a cross-like piece of wood from which hung banner-like pieces of white cloth made of bark.
Hula girl, Hawaii
At all stages of the procession the common people came forward with abundant gifts. it was a time of feasting and games. There wee great boxing matches, sledding, running races, javelin throwing and dancing. Like carnivals everywhere it was a time of freedom, sex roles were reversed, kapu were overthrown and none were sacrificed for breaking them. When the island was encircled, the procession ended at Lono's temple. During the four months of makahiki - ideally at the time of the winter solstice - there was a conflict ritual called kali'i. The 'king', coming from the sea, confronted Lono and was 'killed' in his usurping power. Then his sovereignty was returned in the name of Lono. At the end of makahiki, Lono's temple was dismantled and the new year of Ku was begun with a human sacrifice. Once again the sharks walked on the land.    
In November of 1778 James Cook's Resolution and her consort the Discovery appeared of the north-west coast of the island of Hawaii. It was Cook's third voyage. He was a world famous man. His voyages of discovery had captured the imagination of Europe and America. He was also a tired man. It was his tenth year at sea on Pacific explorations. Historians on Pacific explorations in hindsight, and indeed Cook's colleagues in reflection on what happened on this third voyage, have agreed that even at this stage all was not well. Cook's temper, never good, was less in control, and he flogged more than forty-five per cent of his crew, and many of them more than once. Cook's cook judgement with native peoples seemed awry and his [patience thin.

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He was sick with years of strain of leadership in dangerous places and the horrendous food of voyaging. His poor stomach, kidneys, bowels and lungs would offer a grim picture for any 'Body Programme'. Sir James warns, 'have ignored for too long the serious effects on decision making from vitamin Be deficiencies, which could help to explain some otherwise inexplicable actions of the great naval commanders'. Be that as it may, the Revolution's men went to the north-west coast murmuring among themselves at their commander's ill temper and wondering at his imprudences.  
Mormon temple, Ohau, Hawaii
Indeed as the Revolution approached Hawaii he was crankier than ever, because his crew, conservative as ever, would not drink the spruce beer had substituted for their grog for the sake of their health. And his crew were cranky at him, spoke 'mutinously' as the phrase went, because instead of stopping at anchorage where they might enjoy the pleasures of the islands, he had, for the sake of manipulating the market on supplies, decided to keep at sea off Hawaii and to drop in only at selected bays.
They had spent hard months mapping and surveying he north-west American coast in a vain effort to find a passage through to the Atlantic and had comforted themselves with dreams of wintering in the islands. instead, for nearly two full months in the winter seas of December and January off Hawaii, since made famous for their enormous surf and commented on by Cook as the largest he had ever seen, they made their slow clockwise voyage around Hawaii, beating constantly against the wind, tacking endlessly, the whole crew angry at Cook and he at them.
When they came close to land to do a little marketing, they noticed several things: on the north coast only commoners, and no chiefs, visited them; the offerings made were extraordinarily generous, the islanders all called Cook 'Lono'. Finding that none of the usual versions of Cook's name - Tuti or Kuki - would satisfy the Hawaiians, Cook's officers also began to refer to him as Lono when they spoke to him. The two vessels with their cross-pieced masts and sails proceeded on their right-handed procession around the island, until on 17 January they anchored at Kealakekua Bay on the south coast of Hawaii.
They received a welcome there the like of which they had never seen in the Pacific, a thousand canoes and ten thousand islanders in complete jubilation. Kealakekua is a large sweeping, half-moon bay. High cliffs in the centre drop to the water's edge and divide the low-lying point on the western edge, where there were the many huts of a settlement, from a shallow valley in the south-east corner, where there was a large stone structure and a few huts. This last was a temple or heiau. It happened to be Lono's temple at which the annual makahiki procession began and ended. It came as no surprise to the priests of Lono and all the people of Kealakekua that the two vessels with Lono's symbols displayed and seen off shore early in the makahiki season should have slowly made their way to where it all began and ended.
Royal hula dancers, Hawaii
It was not the chiefs who welcomed them, but priests. They led Cook immediately to their temple where he let them do with him ritually what they wished. They took him to each of the images of lesser gods and he heard their denunciations of them. He let them hold his arms like the cross piece of Lono's symbol and offer him sacrificial food. He sat through their long litanies and heard them address him again and again as 'Lono'. He then asked the priests whether or not the small enclosure beside the temple might not be his to erect a tent for astronomical observations, sailmaking and a hospital. He needed to watch the stars. So the sailors erected a strange little temple of a tent and talked stars and sun to the priests of Lono who knew all about stars and were watching them themselves because the makahiki feast was determined by the rising and setting of the Pleiades and the setting was nearly upon them.  
The high chief of Hawaii, Kalaniopu'u, did not appear for several days. When he did come on the twenty-fifth he came with a ceremony and majesty that the sailors had not seen before. He came in the great feather cloaks of Hawaii and invested Cook in one of them, which is still in the British museum. Kalaniopu'u would not meet Cook on the Resolution. He circled the Resolution in a large sailing canoe, the priests chanting and displaying their feathered gods. Then he met Cook on the beach in front of Lono's temple. On 2 February, Kalaniopu'u began to ask anxiously when they were going. The Englishmen left on 4 February. It was, as far as computers can calculate, it , the last day of makahiki in that year. They did not go before two more unnerving coincidences. The Englishmen wanted firewood and asked for the fences, scaffolding and wooden images on Lono's temple and were surprised that the priests of Lono readily agreed. The priests demurred only at one statue. It was the image of Ku. That one stayed, the priests said, and watched the sailors dismantle Lono's temple at season's end.
Hula dancers, 1940s
Also, a much loved gunner on the Resolution, William Watman, had a stroke and died. The chiefs asked that he be buried in the temple. Old William Watman was buried with ceremony he could hardly have foreseen. 'As we were filling the grave', the Resolution's journal reads, 'and had finished reading the ceremony (during which they preserved the most profound silence and regard) they would throw in a dead pig and some coconuts, plantains, etc.; and indeed were inclined to have chewed their respect for the dead by a great quantity of these articles, they also repeated some ceremonies, and although they were in some measure stopped from going through their funeral prayers, yet for three nights and in one it lasted the best part of it . . . (they) surrounded the grave, killed hogs, sing a great deal, in which acts of piety and good will they were left undisturbed: at the head of the grave a post was erected and a square piece of board nailed on it with the name of the deceased, his age and the date, this they promised should always remain and we have no doubt but it will as long as the post lasts and be a monument of our being the first discoverers of this group of islands'.
So the Hawaiians made the Englishmen's sacrifice their own. And while the season of ku was thus begun, they had no qualms that it be marked with the cross and sign of Lono. As it happens, William Watman's death is remembered there still with a sign that has lasted longer than his wooden cross. There is a plaque there now celebrating this as the first Christian service on Hawaiian soil.
Makahiki was over and on those last days the people constantly asked when Lono was going. When Cook said his goodbyes and said he would be back next year in the winter from his search of the north-west passage. So Cook went and he would have been back next year, except that a few days out the foremast sprung on the Resolution and he was back in seven days. There was no welcome this time. 'It hurts our vanity', the Englishmen said. The people were insolent and the chiefs sullen and questioning. There were immediately thefts and confrontations. The Englishmen could not believe that the atmosphere could change so rapidly and put id down to the strains that nearly three hundred extra mouths brought. Truth was they were out of season and out of role. They were not of the land: they were of the sea.
They were not native come to power for a season: they were Stranger, usurping power, sharks that walked on the land. The change in the Hawaiians brought changes in the English, and they say as much in their journals - that they displayed power and violence to et their way much more overtly. There were several incidents of violent clashes and on 13 February Cook himself was involved in a strange pursuit, alone except for a marine, running several miles, pistol in hand, after a thief. That night a cutter was stolen and on the morning of 14 February Cook closed the bay with armed men and went ashore looking for Kalaniopu'u to take him hostage for the return of the cutter. Kalaniopu'u was asleep and was obviously ignorant of the cutter's theft. He came willingly enough with Cook down the pathway in his settlement till some of his relatives said something to him and he looked frightened and sat down.
Then came news, first to the crowd and then indirectly to Cook, that another chief had been killed in a clash on the other side of the bay. The crowd around Kalaniopu'u became threatening and Cook fired shot out of his double-barrelled gun at a man who was about to strike him. The shot was ineffectual against the warrior's protective matting, and when Cook fired a ball to kill another assailant it was too late. The crowd rushed forward and, with daggers that the Englishmen had given them, killed six marines and Cook at the water's edge. There was nothing that the waiting boats and the more distant ships could do. They saw their captain lying face down in the water. The Hawaiians were beating him about the head with rocks. Then they carried off the body in triumph.
Hula dancers, Hawaii
The English were enraged and dismayed, unbelieving that they could have shared in so awful a moment for a man of destiny like Cook. They looked for a reason for it all, and found it in the cowardice of Lieutenant Williamson who they thought had withdrawn the boats too early, or in the imprudence of Cook in carelessly exposing himself and being too precipitate, or in their own carelessness at not having demonstrated the power of their guns before it was too late. Clerke, Cook's successor, acted calmly enough and refused to allow wholesale retribution, but there was fighting and slaughter nonetheless. They do not describe in their journals acts which they say are better not described. But the sailors mutilated those they slaughtered, carried back their decapitated heads in the bottom of their boat, hung them around the necks of those they captured. It is difficult to know whether these actions were shocking to the Hawaiians or whether they fitted fairly exactly the expectancies of those who knew that in the time of Ku there would be sacrifice.
Certainly everything that the Hawaiians did was a mystery and a contradiction to the Englishmen. They could not reconcile the savagery they had seen with the nonchalance with which many of the Hawaiians now treated them. Cook's body had been carted up the cliffs to a temple of Ku where it had been ceremonially divided among the chiefs. It is something a conqueror would do to the defeated or the successor to his predecessor - bake or waste the flesh from the bones so that the bones could be distributed. 'Every chief acts as a conqueror when he comes to power', the Hawaiians say. The priests of Lono who had been so friendly got their share of Cook's remains and brought a parcel of flesh to the ships to placate the Englishmen. When would Lono come again, they asked as they gave over Cook's flesh. Return, of course, he did. Makahiki came very year and for forty years and more the right-handed procession of Lono at makahiki time was led by a reliquary bundle of Cook's bones. It did not mean that the annual coming of Lono was more real because of it: Lono's coming was always real. It did mean - it is Marshall Sahlins' point - that god was an Englishman.
E. H. Carr has scandalised his historian colleagues by enunciating the principle that an historical fact is not what happened, but that small part of what has happened that has been used by historians to talk about (Carr 1961: 12). History is not the past: it is a consciousness of the past used for present purposes. In that sense the death of cook immediately became historical. Those on board his ship began to write down what they thought had happened. An interpretation of what had happened mattered to them. They blamed one another for negligence or incompetence or cowardice. They examined the inconsistencies of their most consistent captain to excuse negligence, incompetence and cowardice on their part, to find a cause of his death in his weariness, his bad health, his crankiness. The searched their understanding of the uncivilised savage and of the treachery of natives. Clerke and king, at least, if not the rest of the crew who thirsted to be savage to the savages, sensed that what they had seen in their way the Hawaiians had seen in ways incomprehensible to them. None of them could comprehend why the Hawaiians seemed to presume that nothing had changed. The women still came to the ships at night even after the slaughters of the day. Old friends among the priests and chiefs and people came forward, and inquired for Lono as if he had never died.
Captain Cook at Hawaii
There were two strange scenes in those confused days after the killings. One, on the side of the mountain in the temple of Ku, Cook lying there dismembered but resurrected in those who possessed him. The other, in the great cabin of the Resolution, the gentlemen of the two ships observing the proprieties of the navy in dividing up the clothes and possessions of their late commodore and buying them in a small auction.
We will never really enter the minds of those in the temple of Ku. It is hardly likely that they had killed Cook in order to make actual the ritual death of Lono at the hands of the high chief Kalaniopu'u. But when it was done they understood what had happened because their myths gave them a history and that history was necessary for the maintenance of all that they were. They were Native and Stranger to one another: Kalaniopu'u was the greatest Stranger of them all, the usurper, shark that walked on the land. He was who he was because in the season of sacrifice and war, in the season of Ku, he was conqueror of the land, of the people, whose god was Lono and whose season was makahiki. All Cook's gestures and threats, done in his eyes for the sake of property and discipline, were gestures out of season. It was as  if the right order had not been played out and Lono had not been conquered for the season. Cook was not native now, but Stranger, a shark that walked on the land. In those circumstances the killing was easy and the death made everything come true again. So they kept asking when Lono would come again.
The gentlemen in the great cabin auctioning their captain's goods had their own proprieties. They had to find the correct balance between the pragmatism of navy men a year and more from home, making use of thing their owner no longer needed and making sense of their own emotions. They had to cope with wearing the captain's shirt and briches and the growing realisation that they had lived with a hero. They had difficulty in knowing the line between their own experience and the growing reality of their myths. They knew they had been present at a moment of some destiny. And they tried in their journals and logs to make sense of it. They cursed the corruption of the Deptford naval suppliers who gave them a bad mast whose splitting brought them back. The venality of some small merchant had killed Cook. They remembered all the imprudences of Cook - in landing at low tide when the boats could not get near, in not listening to his marines who told him to get out, in not showing the Hawaiians the real force of their arms. They blamed Lieutenant Williamson commanding the boats for not doing something, anything. Williamson was disliked; they easily made him something of a scapegoat. The gentlemen auctioned off Cook's clothes in the Great Cabin as the chiefs divided up his bones in the temple of Ku. They all - gentlemen and chiefs - had some sense how great men find resurrection in their relics. Even the lower deck had their eye on the value of souvenirs. All the Hawaiian artefacts they had collected went up in value of souvenirs.
All the Hawaiian artefacts they had collected went up in in value and you can find them now in the museums of the world - spears, axes, feather cloaks and beads - marked with the note that they belonged to the men who had belonged to Cook and had seen him die. They all had a clear sense that they were making history. And they knew that making history is a very schizophrenic thing. They knew all the chances and circumstances of the event - they knew crankiness, cowardice, carelessness; they knew the accidents of timing. They knew the inscrutability of heathen savages and their own civilised ignorance. They knew that if they had not done this or had done that, it would not have happened. it would not matter that they were like valets who have no heroes. Whatever they said about what actually happened, what really happened was that Cook had died a heroic death.   
If Captain Cook found resurrection among the Hawaiians in the spirit of Lono, he also found resurrection among his fellow countrymen in the spirit of hero, discoverer and humanitarian. It did not matter whether he was truly hero, discoverer and humanitarian for his fellow countrymen. When news got home to Britain, the British, the continental Europeans and the Americans made myth of it in poetry, drama and paintings. And the myth has had a sustained relevance in continually changing environments for over two hundred years. This has been not just in a proliferation of histories, but in continual rounds of as many metric moments of centenaries, sesquicentenaries and bicentenaries as the birth and death and all significant moments in between can provide.
Two hundred years of celebrating Captain Cook might seem a lot of hero-worshipping, but it is not enough. 'Ways of seeing' Captain Cook in libraries, articles and museums have taken on a life of their own. Exhibitions and publications become a performing art in themselves. Why Captain Cook became a hero will not necessarily be the reasons why he remains one. The greater the value of the cargo of his relics the more sustaining his cult. But Cook has touched some other cultural nerve as well. If the myth of Lono sustained the realities of chieftainship and power, the myth of hero, discover and humanitarian expressed in rituals monuments and anniversaries, sustains our own image of who we are and ho we should be. How the civilised mythologise themselves in possessing the Native, and how the British did this in Captain Cook, is the point of the essay on 'Possessing Tahiti' - our next Web site.  
One can walk from the water's edge where Cook died, through the tangle of undergrowth that covers Kalaniopu'u's village, along the path they both walked on 14 February 1779, up to the temple of Ku. Here in 1825, Lord Byron set a monument when he brought back the bodies of Liholiho and his queen from Britain. They had gone to secure the aid of king George IV but had died of measles. Liholiho was laying claims on a special relationship that had begun with Cook's death and resurrection. Lord Byron set a cross on a cairn in Ku's temple. Its replacement is there still, always the double entendre that is ever was when different eyes see the same symbol as sign of the cross and sign of makahiki. When the world is full of sharks and gods as well as heroes and discoveries, who can write the history of them all?
Captain Cook was killed by Hawaiians who were frightened of him or who were angry at him. They welcome him and his ships as hungry, lustful, ignorant, culturally deprived, linguistic poor, absurdly behaving men from beyond the sky. Their mythic consciousness gave them no programme of action and they were not slaves to the structures of their minds. Their stories and rituals of Lono did not predict how they would act. When they saw what was happening, and then what had happened, they had nowhere else to turn but to their own mythic consciousness. In this respect, the meaning of what happened then became more important than their experience of what happened.

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Link to an extract of the text from THE HAPPY ISLES OF OCEANIA by Paul Theroux, published in London by Hamish Hamilton, 1992. 

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