Death and Legacy


The Islanders, who had been friendly enough before the ships departed, had now become distinctly unfriendly. As tensions rose, quarrels broke out between the local people and their European visitors.

After one of the ships' boats was stolen, Cook landed with an armed party on 14 February 1779 to retrieve it by holding King Kalaniʻōpuʻu for ransom. While he was taking the ruler back to the ships, a scuffle broke out on the beach. As Cook turned to help launch the boats, he was struck on the head and stabbed as he lay in the surf. Four marines also died in the confrontation, and two more were wounded.

Although the Islanders carried Cook's body away and carried out funerary rituals usually reserved for chiefs and island dignitaries, some of Cook's remains were eventually returned to the ships and formally buried at sea.

Charles Clerke took over as leader of the expedition, but a final attempt to pass through the Bering Strait was unsuccessful. John Gore, who had been a lieutenant on Cook's first voyage, replaced Clerke when he died from tuberculosis on 22 August 1779, and the expedition eventually returned to England in October 1780.

In the course of his three voyages, Cook crossed thousands of kilometres of mostly uncharted waters, charted coastlines in detail and on a scale not previously achieved. He displayed superb leadership, seamanship, surveying and cartographic skills, physical courage and left a scientific and geographical legacy which lasted well into the 20th century.

© Ian Hughes 2017