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We Have Lost Our Father


Sunday Morning, 14 February, 1779

Sometime Saturday night the large cutter of Discovery was stolen; it had been moored to an anchor buoy and, as protection from the hot sun, had been filled with water and submerged. So cleverly was the deed carried out that the theft was not detected until daybreak, when James Burney, the Officer of the Watch, noticed to his complete consternation and dismay that the craft was missing. Short and broad, the large cutter was indispensable for carrying supplies. This was the most serious theft of the voyage, and a grave loss that Clerke could ill afford to sustain. At once, despite his grave weakness, he had himself rowed over to Resolution to report what had happened. It was about six o'clock, Sunday morning, February 14, 1779.

Aboard Ship

Several Hawaiians, while prowling around King's camp during the night, meanwhile, had been driven off by musket fire. About the time that Clerke departed Discovery, King put off from shore in his jolly boat, which was a light, small craft used for carrying messages; he also brought Cook disquieting news. After some conversation with Clerke, who apparently arrived first, Cook determined that come what may he would get back that large cutter, which could not be spared. The early morning quiet was over. Without any hesitation he began to issue a stream of orders to that end. Relations with the Hawaiians were beyond repair.

Cook decided to seize a number of valuable canoes, reported Clerke, and hold them as ransom until the large cutter was released. Or, if canoes could not be taken, the entire bay would be sealed off so that they could not be used.44 This was probably a sensible plan; Palea's reaction to an attempted seizure the day before showed how valuable the canoes were in the local economy; more valuable and useful, actually, than the large cutter. Before long, a second plan seems to have been attached to the first when Cook began to suspect that the king himself was behind the theft. Whether the seizure of canoes would work or not, the best course of action in his view was to bring the king aboard Resolution, by guile if possible, by force if necessary, and to keep him there as a hostage until the cutter was returned. It was always a disagreeable business, taking a hostage, but it had worked in the Society Islands, and would work again.45

So it was that, within an hour of hearing Clerke report the stolen cutter, Cook had set in motion two separate operations: seizing canoes and taking the king hostage. In the rush of events, he could not have fully explained his intention to his senior officers, let alone solicit their views. The agenda for the morning was such that in the end a scapegoat would have to be found.

According to King, because Clerke was far too weak to make the trip to the village of Kaawaloa (Kowrowha) where the king was in residence, Cook decided to go himself in the pinnace and launch of Resolution; the former boat was the smaller, carrying about eight men as a crew and was used by the Captain in going between ship and shore; the latter was the largest of the ship's boats, carrying perhaps two dozen men and supplies. Shortly after Clerke's arrival on Resolution, King climbed aboard to report the shooting incidence of the night before and to get his orders for the day. He came upon a hectic scene: sailors rushing about, the boats being made ready, and his Captain in a highly agitated state. Cook was angrily loading his double-barrel musket, small shot in one barrel and ball in the other, and the marines similarly arming themselves with all haste.46 Cook was certainly irate; loading with ball meant that if necessary he was prepared to kill a Hawaiian. He interrupted King, explaining himself with passion that he was not getting ready to take revenge for the indignities and insults of the night before, but rather in order merely to get back the stolen cutter. Samwell, remaining aboard Discovery, was not in the shore party, but he wrote a valuable report of what the sailors told him.


The plan was to seal off the bay with small boats from Resolution at the northwest point and with small boats from Discovery at the south, which was the greater distance away. Clerke, harboring no doubt that the problem would be settled quickly, returned forthwith to Discovery to dispatch Second Lieutenant John Rickman in the launch and small cutter with an armed party to the south point. King would take the pendulum clock in the jolly boat to his observatory on shore, calm the apprehensions of the Hawaiians in the neighborhood of the foremast, and get on with his work. Adding to the excitement and tension were sailors firing at canoes that were already attempting to slip though the blockade and out of the bay; the large cutter of Resolution, under the command of the highly competent and no-nonsense William Bligh, had been sent to chase a large double canoe under sail that was fleeing toward the beach, to the south, across the bay from Kaawaloa.47 While the marines scrambled into the boats alongside Resolution, Cook was asked what should be done if the Hawaiians resisted the seizure of any of their canoes. He replied sternly that they surely would not be troublesome as they could easily be repulsed with only a single musket shot.48 All was ready and the boats put off. The time was about seven A.M.

Clerke, having dispatched his own boats from Discovery, returned to Resolution in his own jolly boat to consult further with Cook. But as he approached the ship, Gore called down to him that Cook had already left for the northwest point, taking the pinnace, launch, and small cutter. Clerke then returned to Discovery, assuming that since Cook had gone to meet the king, matters would soon be settled. Quite possibly he did not realize that Cook had decided to take the king hostage. Meanwhile, when James King landed at his work station, a corporal asked permission to fire a musket, which had remained loaded for some time, in order to clear its barrel. So strict were Cook's orders that even one musket could not be fired for this purpose without permission. King refused, for fear of causing alarm, but, as Cook had directed, he ordered his men to keep their muskets always at hand and to load with ball. He had a talk with the high priest Kao, Clerke's "bishop" (not Koa), giving him assurance that no one would be harmed, least of all "Terreeoboo"; and since Erono was merely going to have a talk with the king and ask for the return of the large cutter, there was no emergency and everyone should remain calm. He then set an example of calmness by proceeding to take a set of equal altitudes.49 Thus it was that the three most articulate and literate of the officers--Clerke, King, and Samwell--were not eye-witnesses of what happened when Cook's shore party landed.

On The Beach

As Cook's three boats approached the landing in front of the king's village, about a quarter mile north of Resolution, a large crowd of Hawaiians could be seen milling about on the beach, but they did not oppose the arrival of the boats. About forty people were in the landing party, including the boats' crews. Riding with Cook in the pinnace were twenty-three year-old Mollesworth Phillips and nine armed marines; the crew of the pinnace was under the command of Master's Mate Henry Roberts, aged thirty-two. Third Lieutenant John Williamson and his also heavily armed marines were in the launch just offshore. Cook landed across the rocks, taking with him Phillips and the nine marines. The pinnace remained near the rocks in readiness to receive Cook on his return. The launch with Williamson in command retired to some distance off-shore, ostensibly to render assistance if needed. And the small cutter, under command of Master's Mate William Lanyon, with Midshipman William Charlton, William Taylor, James Trevenen, and James Ward, was sent to the northwest point, not far away, to guard against fleeing canoes.50

Many accounts were written to describe and analyze what happened after Cook made his landing. Of these, only one was written by an eyewitness. This was Mollesworth Phillips, who was with Cook until a minute or two of the end. All of the other accounts were derived largely from what Phillips wrote, and from what was reported by the marines and sailors who observed the events from just offshore. Clerke watched from Discovery with his telescope, but he could not always distinguish individuals in the final confusion; he included the eyewitness report made by Phillips in his own official report.51 Samwell and King wrote their own detailed reports on the basis of what they were told by Phillips, by the marines, and the boats' crews.52 Accounts and commentaries also came from Bayly, Burney, Edgar, Gilbert, Harvey, Trevenen, and Watts.53 Some had been in the boats, some had not. Inevitably opinion was mixed with fact; nuances of interpretation and contradiction arose in the testimony, inevitably an attempt to determine why it happened and what it meant, and inevitably to name a scapegoat.

To the sailors and marines waiting in the boats it was to be like any other landing. They had seen their captain step ashore times without number in the past. Every beach looked the same, although in years to come the rocks on this particular beach would remain etched in their memory. They sat idly at their oars and muskets in the gathering sunshine of that particular Sunday morning, engaged in their usual sailor talk. Once Cook was out of earshot they likely gossiped about how just another theft should have made him so upset this time. No, this could not be Tonga and Moorea all over again, because the welcome they had all received from the Hawaiians had been more generous and friendly and sincere than anywhere else in the Pacific. And so those particular sailors and marines in their particular boats offshore watched their dispirited captain pick his way over those particular rocks and begin to make his way up that particular beach with his armed guards. Then they saw him pause and engage in a brief conversation with someone in the crowd, and presently several Hawaiians were seen to hurry off quickly into the nearby village.54

For Cook to seek an audience with the king of all the Hawaiians was not exactly like going to Buckingham palace in London. The king lived in a hut like everyone else, and the sixty or seventy huts scattered about and forming the village of Kaawaloa all looked alike to the Englishmen.55 After a few minutes, the king's two small boys, who liked Cook and had been visiting the ship almost every day, scampered down to meet him. They took him by the hand to lead him to their father's house, about one hundred yards from the landing. The people along the way prostrated themselves before Lono in their usual manner. They were not hostile, nor did they threaten, but, as always, were deferential and reverential. Some of them were eating their breakfast at the water's edge; the chiefs kept order, and the king's sons led the way to the family hut.

How Cook conducted himself at the hut was probably crucial for the events that followed. Phillips reported:

After waiting some time on the outside Capt Cook doubted the old Gentlemans being there and sent me in that I might inform Him. I found our old acquaintance just awoke from Sleep when upon my acquainting him that Capt Cook was at the door he very readily went with me to Him.

A possible explanation of Cook's strange behavior in this incident is that Cook was afraid that the king had given him the slip; and Phillips, in order to find out for him, had been obliged to trespass. Now, entering someone's house without permission, let alone entering the royal presence unbidden, was scarcely the way to foster good will or to engage in diplomacy. Samwell, who was not there, said that when the king emerged, Cook took him by the hand, ostensibly in a friendly manner; we do not know.56 If so, the Hawaiian onlookers would have regarded such an act as an even more serious trespass on their king's person than entering his hut. At any rate, Cook wanted a showdown. But he became convinced that the king was entirely innocent of the theft. Cook nevertheless invited him to come aboard Resolution for a visit, and the king readily agreed. The Hawaiian onlookers, meanwhile, could tell that this was no ordinary meeting. Lono was very serious. The red-coated men with him carried those strange, iron sticks that made frightening noises and belched smoke and fire; the visitors could only mean trouble. And Lono had sent one of them into their king's house without permission.


Keeping close together, Cook, Phillips, and the nine marines began escorting the king through the crowd back to the beach, and the two boys, looking forward to another happy visit on the great ship, scampered ahead and swam out to wait in the pinnace. Without a few minutes the boats would have put off from shore. But the crowd of bystanders, hitherto reasonably quiet, began to grow restive and noisy when they saw their king walking down to the beach with an armed guard. If Samwell is correct, Cook may have been leading him by the hand, making a serious breach of tapu. This time the Hawaiians did not prostrate themselves before Cook. Instead, fearing for the safety of their king, they entreated him not to go.

Then, as Cook and his marines approached the water's edge a canoe landed. News raced through the crowd, then numbering about two or three thousand and increasingly angry and hostile, that a favorite chief had been killed at the south end of the bay. Cook and Phillips apparently heard the musket firing, but they did not know its location; the sound came indeed from the south point of the bay, where Rickman was on station. Nor did they know what effect the news of the chief's death would have on the mood of the crowd. One of the king's wives, named "Kor'na'cab'ra," begged the king with tears not to go aboard, several chiefs made him sit down, and he himself became frightened and disconsolate. Only then did Cook and Phillips, huddled with the marines, think that the crowd posed a threat. Hemmed in by the mob, which was growing more ugly and violent, Cook agreed to Phillips's entreaty that he, Phillips, extricate his marines and have them line up at the water's edge.

The crowd without hesitation made way for the marines to walk down to the water's edge and to line up on the rocks facing inland, and in a moment or two Cook would have been off the beach. Men brandished iron daggers and spears, and put on their heavy matt as armor. Breadfruit were hurled this way and that. Stones flew. Cook hesitated. Phillips stood with him a few feet from shore. He later quoted Cook as saying, '"We can never think of compelling him to go on board without killing a number of these people."'57 With that realization he abandoned all thought of taking the king hostage.

Cook was on the point of giving the order to embark when someone threatened him with a rock and an iron spike. Even then he could have walked slowly backward to safety, ignoring the threats, while facing the angry crowd. But instead he fired a load of small shot, which, not penetrating the matt of the man who had threatened him, only provoked the crowd to laughter and fresh insolence. The boys in the pinnace took fright and fled back to shore. A stone struck a marine. Cook fired the other barrel, but killed the wrong man. This shot brought on a general attack. Cook shouted for the marines to fire, which action dropped several Hawaiians. But contrary to expectations, instead of retreating from the musket fire, the Hawaiians not only stood their ground, but actually fell on the marines in a frenzy--whether because of ignorance or bravery is not material--not giving them time to reload. Cook shouted: '"Take to the Boats!"'58 The marines turned and scrambled off in disarray to the pinnace. Four of the marines who were cut off from their retreat, or could not swim, were beaten and stabbed to death on the rocks.

During the melee Resolution dropped a shot on the beach, partially dispersing the multitude. Lanyon in the small cutter, meanwhile, was already coming in close. King, at his work station on the beach, had just finished telling his Hawaiian neighbors that no one would be harmed, when just then, Discovery threw two four-pounders in their direction. A fusillade of musket fire came from the pinnace and small cutter. Williamson and his marines in the launch apparently remained where they were and withheld their fire.

For an instant Cook and Phillips were left standing alone in the mounting horror. Then Phillips was struck down, wounded by a long iron spike, and barely escaped to the pinnace with his life. Bravely he rescued a marine from certain death. Cook was last seen alive standing on the rocks and waving to the boats to cease fire and to come in closer. A man slunk up behind him, hesitated once or twice as he approached, and struck Cook on the back of the head with a club. Cook staggered to his knees. Another man then sprang up behind him and drove an iron dagger into the back of his head. A marine immediately dropped him with a musket shot. Cook crumpled into the water in a heap. The mob fell upon him and held him under water. He struggled up with a final gesture and was beaten with rocks about the head and repeatedly stabbed with iron daggers that were snatched from one hand by another to share in the killing.

All firing ceased. The mob, with fury spent, fled the scene. The ships waited in silence for the boats to return. Subdued, uncomprehending, and silent, the sailors in the boats pulled off from shore. The smoke drifted away in the morning sunshine. The bleeding and broken bodies of Cook and four marines were left exposed and alone on the rocks.

A mile away, King paced the beach in suspense, waiting for news. He had witnessed only the smoke and clamor of the disaster and was mortified and vexed by the four-pounders of Discovery which landed near his Hawaiian neighbors, with whom he was on good terms. A sudden quietness settled over the bay. Some of the marines who escaped did not know what had happened until they looked back. When the boats pulled alongside the ships, Samwell overheard one of the sailors gasp out in anguish that they had lost their father. The time was about eight o'clock.

Seaman George Gilbert described the atmosphere:59

When on the return of the boats informing us of the Captains Death; a general silence ensued throughout the ship, for the space of near half an hour;--it appearing to us some what like a dream that we cou'd not reconcile our selves to for some time. Greif was visible in evry Countenance; Some expressing it by tears; and others by a kind of Gloomy dejection: more easy to be conceived than described: for us all our hopes centrd in him; our loss became irrepairable and the Sense of it was so deeply impressed upon our minds as not to be forgot.

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