Home > Aftermath



Then came Clerke's finest hour. So gaunt and emaciated that he could scarcely stand, he nevertheless dragged himself again over to Resolution and by his presence brought a steadiness to both ships' companies during that critical time when the realization of what had happened began to sweep over them all. In no way did his declining health alter his character or will. His one thought was the integrity of the voyage. Sorry only that his health was such as "hardly to suffer me to keep the Deck," he quickly took steps to prevent further outbursts of violence and to make possible the second search for the Northwest Passage. "The unfortunate business was now done and it behov'd me to take the most effectual methods I could suggest to prevent more."60 Swiftly he channeled rising emotions into useful and necessary work. For their part, officers and seamen alike quickly rallied around Clerke as next in command. King automatically referred to him as captain, even before the several shifts of officers had officially taken place. Two tasks remained before the ships could quit the bay: to finish the repairs on the foremast and to secure the remains of Cook.

Suddenly Clerke had the responsibility and worry of the foremast and all the sails spread out on the beach. At once he sent Bligh with an armed guard. As the cutter approached the landing, King saw at once from Bligh's face and the ashen faces of the sailors with him what had happened. "Strike the Observatory as quick as possible," shouted Bligh, even before he blurted out the awful reason.61 At that hour--it was but a short time after eight o'clock--he knew only that five bodies had been left lying on the rocks, Cook's among them. Never had the two young men felt such agitation. Taking counsel on the beach while reeling before the duties that loomed before them, they had presence of mind to allay the fears of their friend, the priest Kaireekeea, who heard the news as soon as King did; they also sent word to another friend, the high priest Kao, who was Kaireekeea's father, to protect himself. Bligh remained with the guard at the foremast while king hurried back to Resolution with his priceless clocks.

Aboard both ships, a babble of voices had erupted about what should be done. One group was all for turning the ships broadside and levelling the entire region, and while the arguing continued several cannon of Discovery were brought up from below. Another group said they should wait until the ships were ready to sail, and then take revenge, for besides, they still needed fresh water and food. And a third called for reconciliation, taking into account the obvious lack of premeditation in the death of Cook, which was done and irreparable, and the past generosity and kind behavior of the Hawaiians. In the end the last party prevailed. Although a couple of cannon on Resolution were fired toward the beach to disperse a crowd, which flew forthwith to the hills and returned shortly bearing white flags, no broadsides were fired, and during the remaining ten days in the bay, despite one sordid episode, the Hawaiians sought to reach out to the ships until a reconciliation was achieved. No one had time for revenge.62

Before the morning was out Clerke had fresh worries about his foremast. If the Hawaiians took to it in a fury, the exploration in the north could not proceed; not a word was written about cancelling the projected Arctic probe. Everything must come off the beach. Most of the sailors were rushed ashore. Rocks and stones were being hurled down onto the beach from the cliffs above. Muskets were fired in angry reply. Before the sailors and marines were brought under conrol, eight Hawaiians lay dead. In a burst of hard work and desperate urgency, the foremast was floated back to Resolution--sails, spars, tents, and observatory with it--and by 4 P.M. it was hoisted up and stretched the length of the ship from forecastle to quarterdeck. In a tangle of ropes and rigging scattered everywhere the carpenters of both ships fell to work.63

For several days taunts were hurled out from shore. The first of these provocations occurred late the first afternoon when Clerke sought information about the ships' dead. Because the five mangled corpses had already been dragged off the beach and carried inland, he was anxious to retrieve at least Cook's remains as soon as possible. He therefore sent King with several heavily armed boats displaying white flags toward the landing to treat with the chiefs. Of course, the Hawaiians from their point of view were not obliged to treat with the foreign ships. Least of all could they understand the importance that had been attached to the stolen large cutter. Clerke had no bargaining power, except to rely on their inherent good will and desire to restore friendship. He was equal to the sudden challenge in diplomacy. He kept his distance, remaining aboard ship, as he had to, if only for reasons of health, but let them know, through King's mediation, that peace would come only when Cook's bones were returned.

James King was the ideal choice for the delicate and essential mission of establishing contact. Well regarded by the Hawaiians, he was looked upon as Cook's son; Cook had even fostered this impression. By King's humane actions throughout the stay he often took the lead in bringing about effective communication; he got on well with them. Clerke gave him strict orders on no account to set foot on land and not to commence hostilities. With his boats standing offshore, the negotiations began. Many of the Hawaiians, having understood the white flags, had already discarded their protective matts and were sitting on the beach. Koa the priest came swimming out with a flood of tears and entered King's boat with a dagger in one hand and a piece of cloth in the other. "I never liked the man," wrote King; to distinguish him from Kao the high priest, King was referring to Koa as the priest "who named himself Brittanee."64 Koa gave assurances that he would go and get Cook's body right away, and swam back to shore. King did not expect much of Brittanee, but he felt obliged to wait, his expectations inevitably waning. Various other Hawaiians urged him to step ashore--visit the king and fetch the body yourself, they said. Burney heard someone say all the bodies had been carried up country and could not be delivered before morning; another said they had been chopped up. At length, King became convinced that the bodies of the marines had been allocated among the various chiefs, and that Cook's remains were the property of Kalani'op'u. As best he could, he extracted a promise from the chiefs on shore that Cook's remains would be returned, and he promised that peace would come when that was done.

While King was engaged in these proceedings, many Hawaiians on shore paraded about wearing the clothes of the marines, flaunting Cook's sword before the sailors, all the while laughing and shouting in exultation. Trevenen said that the sword was dripping with blood. The man holding it washed it in the sea not ten yards from the boats, held it up, and said he had been busy cutting up the sailors' chief and he would do likewise to them the minute they stepped ashore. Some of them turned away and slapped their bare backsides in derision at the boats; others presented their backsides as targets for musket fire. The sailors bore these insults as well as could be expected, although they were angry and sullen as they returned to the ship. Only once did King waver, shortly before departing the beach, when he raised his musket at one of the displays, but Burney quietly laid his hand on the barrel, reminding him that the boats carried white flags.

In the change of command, the chief officers moved one step up. Clerke took over command of Resolution and of the voyage. He appointed Gore as captain of Discovery; King became first lieutenant in place of Gore on Resolution, and Williamson moved into King's former position. Then, carrying out Cook's frequently expressed intention to make young William Harvey a lieutenant, Clerke promoted him to the post vacated by Williamson. Harvey was the former culprit involved in the mutiny at the island of Huaheine, when he was demoted from mate to midshipman; his rehabilitation was complete. Cook's clothes were sold among the officers. This was not a callous act of disrespect; it was the custom of the time following a death at sea. The clothes were very much in need; after three years at sea, the clothes of officers and seamen alike were patched and threadbare. Cook's personal papers and effects, in-cluding his Bible, were set aside for his widow.65

The taunts continued. From time to time Koa came aboard with a vague promise but he wanted only to snoop. One evening a man in a canoe just outside musket range waved Cook's hat in an especially insulting way and slapped his bare backside for good measure. This insult aroused the sailors to a towering rage. They stormed in before Clerke with the demand that they be given leave to wreak their revenge on all the villages along the shore. Clerke retired for a few minutes to discuss the matter with his officers. Williamson and Phillips, who had seen enough, pointed out that the seamen would have to land over the rocks only to be outnumbered and would almost certainly suffer severe casualties. They were too undisciplined to shoot straight, King added, and besides, the flints of the muskets were all bad. Gore, with an older head, counselled caution.

When Clerke returned to face his outraged crew, he showed that he knew how to be a leader. He replied that he could not possibly spare them while so much work remained to be done on the foremast; besides they did not yet have the Captain's bones back; but in several days when things were in better order, he would let them have muskets and time off for this worthy purpose. Within a few days, of course, they were tired out from the work--their thirty-six year-old captain saw to that--and a few of them had second thoughts as their emotions cooled. And, from on shore, there were fewer taunts and less slapping of the backsides as the anger of the Hawaiians also abated.66


The Hawaiians began to reach out almost at once. White flags appeared from time to time along the beach. On the first evening an especially affecting scene occurred under the stern of Discovery when two small boys swam out. They remained in the water a half hour singing mournfully and pointing to the beach while repeating the name "Orono." On the second evening two priests, not identified in the journals, with considerable danger to themselves, came out under cover of darkness to avoid being seen by their own people while facing the risk of being shot by the sentries. When they asked for "Tinnee," King promptly escorted them aboard. One of them was apparently related to Kaireekeea; with obvious sincerity this man brought a package of "a part of him" consisting of six or eight pounds of thigh. The flesh, from which the bones had been removed, stank; the man said that all the bones and skull had been burned and were in the king's possession. They both warned that Koa (Brittanee) was not to be trusted. The officers did not neglect the opportunity to inquire if the Hawaiians were cannibals, for understandably, the thought had crossed their minds that Cook might have been eaten; the two priests expressed horror at the idea of eating human flesh. In fact, what the officers possibly did not fully comprehend was that the disposal of Cook's body was in keeping with the honors due a high chief at death, and cannibalism was not essential to such a ritual. Before leaving the ship, the priests asked when "Erono" would return, an inquiry that others were also making. Both priests expressed their desire for friendship, but Clerke insisted that he must have the bones back.

The tragedy had yet to be completed. This was accomplished with a fell deed on the third day after Cook's death. It commenced when a shower of stones thrown at a watering party near the heiau brought on the firing of the four-pounders of Resolution. Several Hawaiians were wounded including Kamehameha, the nephew of the king, and who, as the future king of all the islands, would be known as Kamehameha I. The stoning continued; muskets were fired in reprisals; and a half dozen more Hawaiians lay dead in pools of blood. Finally the order was given by the duty officer on shore, John Rickman, that several houses in the nearby village of "Kerag-egooa"--the village of Kealakekua--should be burned. But in their zeal the sailors torched the entire village of about one hundred fifty houses. Many of the inhabitants were shot down as they ran screaming from the flaming huts, others were run through with bayonets, and two or three were beheaded and their heads impaled on poles and waved about by the crazed sailors. An elderly Hawaiian, having brought a coconut as a peace offering, was shot at several times, but the sailors all missed, so trembling were they with rage; too frightened to flee, he was bound and dumped into a boat where a sailor waved a skull still dripping with blood in his face, saying he would be likewise in a few minutes. Hauled topside, the poor creature crept about on deck, and finding himself alive, flung himself in rapture around the knees of an officer. At length he escaped to shore, to return with a canoe-full of provisions. The atrocity was too much even for Samwell, who had been nursing his anger against the Hawaiians. "This shocking piece of Cruelty was certainly a refinement upon savage barbarity and which no Provocation whatever can excuse."67

Even as the smoke rose from the village, a procession was seen wending its way down from the hills bearing branches and white cloths. Leading the frightened group was once again the benevolent Kaireekeea, who willingly went on board, visibly shaken by the sight of the heads, which were thrown overboard lest he think he was among cannibals. It was left to King to explain to him why the houses had to be burned and to express the regrets of the ships. Only then did the officers realize to what extent the priests had been friends of Cook. Kaireekeea spoke gravely and solemnly and said that he and his friend had never done any injury to the sailors. To his complete remorse and humiliation King learned that they had so placed their trust in him that they had left their new possessions in a house in the village which the sailors had burned. Kaireekeea it was who had brought food every day to the observatory, and who had sent other priests to wait on Cook and on the sailors during their excursions. He brought a message that the king ardently desired friendship, but again Clerke replied that peace would be fully restored when Cook's bones were returned. That evening Kaireekeea had a full load of provisions sent by canoe as a further testimony of his good will; his people had been carrying the food down to the beach at the time they were being fired upon by the sailors.68

White flags with sugar cane and taro roots were left on the beach for the watering parties to find. Roasted breadfruit was floated out on a surf board. Finally, on February 20, a black flag was seen on the cliff as a signal to the Hawaiians for silence. In mid-afternoon, to the sound of lamentations and drums, a procession led by a man named Eapo was seen wending its way down the hillside and bringing to the water's edge a large bundle respectfully wrapped in a black and white feathered cloak. Clerke went in the pinnace to accept the package but remained in the boat. Eapo stepped into the boat with composure and dignity, and out of respect would not remain long on board ship.

Inside the great cabin of Resolution Clerke and the officers solemnly opened the bundle to find Cook's bones carefully wrapped in white cloth. The detailed descriptions in the journals suggest that the officers wanted to make sure the remains were actually Cook's. Before leaving, Eapo had told them that the lower jaw, leg bones and feet had been given to various chiefs. The officers found the skull with the scalp separate but lacking the lower jaw; hands and arms separated; thigh and leg bones connected. The vertebrae and ribs were missing. All the bones showed marks of fire. All the flesh of the body had been removed and salted for preservation. No one doubted that the remains were Cook's when a known scar was found between the thumb and index finger of the right hand. Although the scalp had an inch-long gash on it, the skull was not fractured; the officers decided that the first blow with a club had not been mortal. The next day the jaw and feet were returned.69

The late afternoon shadows were lengthening by the time the gruesome task was done. All of the officers gathered there had special memories of their fallen captain. For Clerke, King, Gore, and the others, his ordinary, routine orders would become cherished memories. Some had been honored with particular assignments. William Bligh, for one, was even then preparing a chart of the Hawaiians Islands. On at least one occasion Cook had reached outside the quarterdeck to make an assignment when the American corporal, John Ledyard, had been sent to meet the Russians. Cook had depended on all of them. All, David Samwell might have reflected, save himself; in some respects he was an outsider. He was writing a journal, but what had Cook asked him to do for the voyage? Yet because of his regret and longing for what might have been, he was, perhaps, best able to express the anguish that welled up like a benediction in every breast that day:70

Such was the Condition in which those, who looked upon Captn Cook as their father & whose great Qualities they venerated almost to adoration, were doomed to behold his remains.


On February 22, the funeral of James Cook was conducted with all the solemnity the circumstances permitted. On request a tapu was placed on the bay, which was cleared of canoes and spectators. The ships were warped out to the edge of Kealakekua Bay, where about 4 P.M. the colors were dipped to halfmast and the yards were crossed. Clerke read the service, and shortly before 6 P.M. Cook's coffin was committed to the sea under the sound of guns at half minute intervals and the tolling of the ship's bell.71

I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger. We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can take nothing out. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away: blessed be the name of the Lord.

Kairkeekeea came on board again, as did Eapo, the priest Kaimeekee who had entertained Samwell, and one of the king's sons. They wept unashamedly and expressed their sorrow for what had happened. Besides Cook, four marines from Resolution were killed: John Allen, Thomas Fatchett, Theophilus Hinks, and James Thomas. Another package was delivered aboard containing arm and leg bones, said to be those of a marine. King was told that the remains of the four marines had been taken to various chiefs in different parts of the island; the remains were never recovered. The Hawaiians lost thirty people in the various skirmishes, including Kanina, who had helped to keep order on the ships, and other chiefs.72 With the lifting of tapu the canoes came out as they had done before; Clerke even had to turn away about thirty canoes full of provisions. Some of the Hawaiians wanted to know when Orono would come back, and if he would be angry with them. King assured them that as the bones of Orono were buried, so were all recollections of the affair with them.73


Early on Clerke and the officers recognized that the killing of Cook and the four marines was entirely unpremeditated. The king was absolved of all complicity in the theft of the large cutter, which was broken up for its iron, and in the deaths that followed. The man named Nu'ah was identified as the first person who plunged a fatal dagger, but he was not thought to be part of a conspiracy.74 In years to come other Hawaiians admitted striking the first blow with an iron dagger. Whether the first dagger was similarly multiplied for the museums of the world is not known. The mariners on the contrary felt that in a sense they had brought the tragedy on themselves. Clerke wrote that Cook's firing of his musket had transformed the crowd into a frenzied mob; just a few minutes earlier the people had willingly opened a path for the marines; and that the brandishing of the daggers and clubs arose from fears for the king's safety, not hostility to Cook. A heavy burden was the remembrance that the daggers had been obtained aboard ship. Cook himself gave two daggers to the king on Saturday afternoon, Clerke recalled, and Clerke admitted giving the king a third. Cook's long success in dealing with native populations, King reflected with gloom, had blunted a healthy distrust of what a crowd could do, particularly among the Hawaiians, who among all the peoples of the Pacific had welcomed them the most nobly and the most generously.75

In the first few days of the aftermath a great deal of blame was heaped on those at the scene. The marines had not stood fast, some said. Turning their back on the Hawaiians and falling into disorder had brought on the disaster, said another. "All those who were wounded were wounded in the Back," wrote Samwell, who was not there to see. Cook would not have been killed if he had faced the multitude, he added, and the fellow with the club had even paused as he advanced, as though he were afraid. William Bligh, who was never known to withhold criticism, wrote that the marines turned and ran. But Phillips in his report to Clerke stated clearly that Cook gave the order to take to "Take to the Boats."76

Most of the criticism was directed at Williamson, who insisted on an inquiry into his behavior. One of his accusers, William Harvey, claimed that Williamson, in the launch farther offshore, had forbidden his marines to fire. Certainly his behavior was ambiguous, for by all accounts he did not fire and apparently he did mistake Cook's final wave as a signal to move off rather than to come in to assist. And since the pinnace, near the shore, was full when the surviving marines climbed in, Williamson could easily have taken off the bodies in the launch. Written depositions from the mates of Resolution were taken and perused by the officers. When the time came for Williamson's critics to set down on paper their specific accusations, however, contradictions and dissents modified their first opinions, and he was exonerated, or at least he escaped a formal accusation.77

Clerke and King, except for sadly noting Cook's behavior at the scene and the general lack of a healthy distrust, to their credit did not place blame on anyone in the ships' companies. Nor were the marines and boats' crews blamed for leaving the bodies on the rocks, even though the sudden flight of the Hawaiians would have made removal an easy matter. In the end, the consensus was that in the final moments nothing could have saved Cook's life, not even a fusillade from Williamson's launch. Still, the opinion lingered that three boats and forty armed men at the scene should have provided a different ending.

Tragic ironies abound in the death of Cook. Williamson always argued for ball in a first confrontation with native peoples, but when the moment came, he did not fire. Cook's abhorrence of violence and insistence on the use of small shot meant that the Hawaiians did not acquire that dread which would have spared his life. If Cook had followed Williamson's advice, Hawaiians would likely have been killed much earlier in the visit--something which Cook above all was determined to avoid--but his life would have been saved; and earlier killings likely would have been far fewer in number. As already indicated, the Hawaiians had been ignorant of the power of muskets. Cook had made no demonstration of fire power; Williamson did not plug a matt with ball as he had done at Nootka Sound and the small shot in the first barrel that Cook had fired, failing to penetrate the heavy matt, led to derision. King even thought for a time that Cook's first shot was a blank; but Phillips, who was with Cook, said it was small shot.78 Cook was in no mood for blanks. His own success in dealing with local populations had led to over-confidence. Ordinarily he was cool-headed when facing suspicious and armed peoples. But he lost his temper on the beach on Saturday morning, and Sunday morning he did not remain calm when the multitude pressed around him at the landing place. Cook was killed by people who had given him the grandest welcome he had ever known.

It is useful to recall Cook's behavior in Tonga, where under dreadful circumstances he still maintained cordial relations with Paulaho, and, in a gentlemanly manner, even held him hostage for a time.

To these sad considerations must be added the unconscious motivations of the Hawaiians themselves. However generous and kind, they could not have been pleased by the tremendous drain on their food supplies required by those hungry sailors. Also, while the Hawaiians did not openly blame the sailors for venereal disease, against which Cook struggled in vain and for which he had no direct responsibility, they were not so benighted that they could not realize, in general terms, the source of their infirmities. Resentment might have been building for some time.

On February 23, 1779, Resolution and Discovery, lonely and sad, weighed anchor and stood upon the wind.

Captain Clerke remained in Hawaiian waters for another five weeks before making sail for the north again. One worry he did not have: the very thought of desertion was an abomination to every member of his two crews. A curious note written by William Bligh turns up about this time; Clerke was so ill, said Bligh, that Clerke gave him authority to conduct the ships as he saw fit, and to search for the Northwest Passage. But Clerke remained in command, notwithstanding. Nor was Bligh next in line of command.

Rather like two lost creatures looking for their master, the ships nuzzled first one coast, then another, as the mariners went through their accustomed motions of gathering knowledge and looking for food and water. They plied off the southwest coast of Mauai, Lani, and of Molokai, then sailed around the north coast of Oahu to pause for a couple of hours off the fertile landscape of Waimea Bay. For a week they anchored at the familiar roadstead at Kauai to allow time for watering, and where Kamakahelei, the Queen of Kauai, came to visit Clerke aboard ship. It was a baleful farewell the mariners were given at Kauai: they were accused by the Hawaiians of having given them the venereal disease. "They say it does not go away, that they have no Antidote for it," said Clerke, "but that they grow worse and worse." The symptoms were more dreadful and violent than in the South Seas. "Our Seamen are in these matters so infernal and dissolute a Crew that for the gratification of the present passion that affects them they would entail universal destruction upon the whole of the Human Species." The ships spent another week for watering off Niihau.79

It was a time in which the mariners could take account of their grief and face the reality that the unthinkable had happened. A few of them, perhaps, came to terms with their own solitude, and so entered the mystery of things. After attempting a westing for several days, Clerke decided to make directly for Kamchatka and the coming season in the north, the hardships of which were still of too recent memory. On March 31, 1779, the ships stood north on a light breeze.

Gloom and melancholy hung heavy over the mariners as they took up the voyage and their lives again. King wrote:80

How uncertain is our existence, of all kind of death's no one would have suppos'd Captain Cook liable to die in the way he did, he who had so particularly a happiness, often by a well timed boldness & apparent Confidence, of gaining the friendship of Indians, in the most distant parts of the World, of the most contrary disposition; or of soon fathoming their Views & avoiding their Machinations.

Sort by:
profile photo
Laurance, thank you for your interesting question. If you are seeking to extend the provenance of the items prior to Sir Ashton Lever, then the original owner was, as you know, Captain Cook. Both Cook and Clerke had promised that any items which they collected on the voyage should go to Sir Ashton Lever. Their wishes were honoured after their deaths on the voyage, and their collections were delivered to Leicester House in London, and in January 1781 they went on display in the Leverian museum.
By Cliff Thornton on 7/27/2022 9:44:45 AM Like:1 DisLike:0
profile photo
Ia ora na from Moorea,
Thank you for this fabulous article.
Possibly you can answer a question for me,
In January 1779, Chief Kalani'opu'u gave Captain Cook a fabulous orange-yellow feather cloak
(which he threw over Cook's shoulders and a feather helmut. Eventually they found their way into
the Leverian Museum. Where was this cloak and helmut, when they first arrived back in London, up until the time they entered the Leverian museum?
Allow me to thank you in advance for your kind help.

Most sincerely,

By Laurance Alexander Rudzinoff on 7/26/2022 8:39:04 AM Like:0 DisLike:0
profile photo
thankyou for your stirring details of the Aftermath ., Captain James Cook. I am a retired Australian history teacher., nsw Australia
By Jennifer Stocks on 1/27/2019 1:20:06 AM Like:0 DisLike:0

Unsolicited e-mail warning

It has come to our attention that spam mailers (senders of bulk unsolicited e-mail) have been forging their mail with this domain as the point of origin. As a matter of policy, we do not send out e-mail from our domain name. If you have received an email that appears to be from "@CaptainCookSociety.com" it was forged and sent without our consent, knowledge, or the use of our servers.