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King Kamehameha's Arrow - How a mystery was uncovered

 

Summary of a talk given to a meeting of the Captain Cook Study Unit

at Marton, U.K on 23 September 2000

According to the history books, several days after the death of James Cook on the shore of Hawaii, a native priest delivered a parcel containing the Captain's remains to the Resolution, from whence they were ceremonially buried at sea in Kealakekua Bay.

Some 30 years later, reports began to reach England suggesting that some of Cook's remains were still on the island where they were held in a temple devoted to the god Lono. The initial scepticism which greeted these reports began to recede as their number increased as the standing rose of those making the reports. This culminated in the account of William Ellis, who in the early 1820s was a missionary on the island. He not only confirmed the location of the temple in which Cook's remains were kept, but stated that the bones were "...preserved in a small basket of wicker-work, completely covered over with red feathers..."

The efforts of the missionaries resulted in the conversion of the Hawaiian monarchy to Christianity in 1820. As Christianity was adopted by the population, the monarchy ordered the destruction of many images and sites which had once been considered sacred. What happened to Cook's bones is not known but native priests are thought to have hidden their more sacred possessions to prevent their destruction. There is also an account which alleges that King Kamehameha II brought some of Cook's remains to England in 1824, intending to return them to Cook's family, or failing that, then to present them to the King on behalf of the nation.

King Kamehameha II, his Queen, and their entourage arrived in London in May 1824 and were treated with the respect and dignity afforded to any visiting head of state. Unfortunately neither the King nor Queen had any resistance to European diseases and within 6 weeks of their arrival they had contracted measles. King George IV assigned his royal physicians to attend to them but despite their administrations the disease proved fatal to them both.

Whilst contemporary accounts of the King's visit did not report that he had brought any gifts to England, a relative of the Cook family subsequently claimed to possess an arrow which he alleged had been brought to England by the King. The arrow was unusual in its construction as it comprised a short foreshaft made of bone, said to have come from one of the small leg-bones of Captain Cook.

In 1878 this arrow was in the possession of William Adams, a distant cousin of the late Mrs Cook. To authenticate the provenance of the arrow Adams produced two statements. One had been written in 1828 by Joseph Henry Green, subsequently a President of the Royal College of Surgeons in London. The other statement was from Bishop Staley, late Bishop of Hawaii. The Bishop had queried the origin of the arrow with the King of Hawaii who after making appropriate enquiries indicated that the claimed source of the bone was most likely to be true.

In 1886 the arrow and its supporting statements were exhibited in London at The Colonial and Indian Exhibition. It lay alongside other Cook-related exhibits which relatives of the Cook family had loaned to form part of the display of the Government of New South Wales. The following year the artefacts were acquired by that Australian State, and passed into the collection of its museum. The arrow now lies in the anthropology collection of The Australian Museum, Sydney. It is hoped that one day a DNA analysis of the bone may indicate whether of not there is any truth in its legendary association with Captain Cook.

Cliff Thornton


Originally published in Cook's Log, page 1813, volume 24, number 1 (2001).


 

Cliff Thornton  holding a replica of the arrow
Cliff Thornton holding a replica of the arrow

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 9, volume 27, number 1 (2004).

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