The Death of Captain Cook: a hero made and unmade. Williams, Glyn. 2008

The Death of Captain Cook: a hero made and unmade. Williams, Glyn. 2008

Williams, Glyn. 
The Death of Captain Cook: a hero made and unmade.
Profile Books Ltd.
ISBN 978-1-86197-842-4.

Captain James Cook died on 14 February 1779 and on that day and ever since people have argued over how he died, why he died, who killed him, with what, how much his own actions contributed to his death, how he should be regarded and lots more.

In this book Glyn Williams covers the circumstances that led to Cook's death, the reports of his officers and company as to what happened, how the news was taken back in London (and elsewhere), the glorification of him as a hero, the reassessment that began almost immediately, and the conflicting views of the man and the events during the colonial age and in modern times. Williams argues "that the circumstances and reporting of his death are the key to his reputation."

Williams begins with whether Cook should have sailed on the Third Voyage or retired, as most captains of his age in the Whitby coal trade would have done. Quickly, we are on the Alaskan coast "when Cook, already a season later than planned, was driven to distraction by his failure to find a passage." So, by the time Cook arrived at Hawai'i in January 1779 he was a "weary, disappointed, and possibly quite sick man."

Leaving what happened on the island until later in the book, Williams turns to how Charles Clerke's report of Cook's death reached England in 1780. A summary was presented by the Admiralty for publication that left out the Hawaiians' reverent attitude towards Cook so it was not until his ships arrived that the sensational aspects became widely discussed. John Rickman's account of the voyage, published in 1781, described a more violent Cook than was expected, and how he was first felled by a club then stabbed in the back by a dagger. It was not until 1784 that the official account was published. So eagerly was it awaited that it was almost sold out on the first day. It remained the standard account until Beaglehole's work of 1967.

Williams describes how Cook's account was edited by Dr John Douglas, who made many changes to the words of James Cook, some of which "amounted to a manipulation of the record." Williams goes on to relate the events in January 1779 in Hawai'i quoting occasionally from the official account. Then he tells of what followed the return to the island in February quoting from several accounts, most of which have been published only in the last 40 years. These accounts differ remarkably from one to another, perhaps due, as Williams puts it, to "the protective urge of individuals when they set down their recollections in writing to absolve themselves from any blame for the catastrophe on the beach." So, it is difficult to decide "whether Cook died because of his excessive anger or his excessive humanity."

An important diversion is then made by Williams into why Cook's own journal stopped on 6 January 1779. A separate log by Cook goes on for only another eleven days. Two pieces of evidence are produced that "seem to support the possibility that Douglas had in his possession more of Cook's journal than was published."

After working through the various accounts and the edited words that appeared in the official account, Williams points out that Douglas "made much of Cook's humanity in ordering the boats to stop firing, but omitted [Lieutenant Molesworth] Phillips's recollection that it was Cook who had given the order to fire in the first place." Indeed, the official account "played a major part in establishing Cook as a hero."

Another part was played by John Webber's painting of Cook's death, produced after the return to England and published as an engraving before the official account came out. Williams compares it in some detail with the other contemporary paintings of the death scene by George Carter, D.P. Dodd and John Cleveley, and considers whether they tell us anything about the actual event as none of them had seen what happened.

To understand more about his death, Williams explores the accounts of the subsequent visitors to the Hawaiian Islands, such as Nathaniel Portlock in 1786, James Colnett in 1788 and George Vancouver in 1792 and 1793. These and later visitors added many contradictory details about Cook's death, so that even today "scholars differ in emphasis on the Lono issue, and... whether Cook was being given the status of a high chief or that of a god".

The first biography of Cook was by Andrew Kippis in 1788, though it was more a summary of his voyages. It became the standard biography with at least 48 editions up to 1925, not giving way to George Young's work of 1836 nor Walter Besant's book of 1890. The last two were published during the colonial age, when abridged accounts of Cook's voyages and short biographies appeared by the dozen. Although prints of Cook's death appear on the walls of rooms in two of the books by Charles Dickens, Williams notes the centenary of Cook's death in 1879 "passed without much notice in Britain", whereas a statue of him was erected that year in Hyde Park, Sydney. It was part of various Cook celebrations that took place in Australia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in which "Cook, the self-made man of humble beginnings, represented the pioneering virtues of the new nation", which Williams calls a cult. Although the Dutch had discovered the west coast of Australia in the seventeenth century, for many people (and I've come across many in Britain) "Cook discovered Australia".

Williams documents show how hostile attitudes to Cook emerged in the Hawaiian Islands "as American traders and missionaries jostled with their British counterparts for positions of influence." Several books about the island group's history were produced in the nineteenth century. Sheldon Dibble's described Cook as "taking as his sexual partner a Kauai princess". David Malo's later book threw much light on the identification of Cook as Lono, explaining how his arrival at Hawai'i coincided with the Makahiki season of pleasure and leisure and the ships' sails bore a resemblance to the tapa of the god. Even Mark Twain, who visited the islands in 1866, recounted the story of how Cook took advantage of the Hawaiian people's assumption he was the god Lono.

Williams brings the story of Cook's reputation up-to-date by describing the effect of Beaglehole's "mighty volumes". This work "marked the beginning of a new stage in Cook scholarship, much of which opened up very different paths from those he [Beaglehole] had followed". Williams explores them notably through the works of Bernard Smith, Alan Moorehead, Marshall Sahlins, Gananath Obeyesekere and the 1978 conference held in Vancouver.

Williams ends by looking at the "rise of popular interest during the 1990s" with dozens of Cook statues, monuments marking where he landed, philatelists putting together "whole albums of stamps showing Cook or his ships", and relics of him fetching high prices at auctions, including "the spear that killed Cook" though there is no record he was struck by one.

Unlike so many people who review Cook's life and death, Williams uses the latest research of the 21st century to enhance our knowledge of what took place over 229 years ago.

If you have read everything that has been written about Cook then you will not need this book but, if not, then reading this summary (over 197 pages) of the most relevant facts and interpretations will better help you make up your own mind as to what to believe about Cook's death and his reputation.

There are no footnotes in the book, which I found made it easier to read than many academic books. Instead there is a section on Further Reading. It is full of the titles of the books, articles and journals (including Cook's Log) referred to within the pages. But I disliked the way they are so densely packed together, making it difficult to find the source of any particular quotation.

One aspect of Cook's reputation touched upon but not really covered in the book is the difference in the way he is regarded by academics, interested laymen and the general public. Perhaps there is room for another book?

Ian Boreham

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 18, volume 31, number 4 (2008).

Leave a comment

your email address will not be published

Thank you for your response. It will be evaluated by a moderator and published.