Jan. 18, 2022

Captain Cook Comes to Hawaii

Captain Cook Comes to Hawaii

January 18, 1778. Captain James Cook becomes the first European to travel to the Hawaiian Islands, but Cook’s journey will lead to his brutal killing on a Hawaiian beach.

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January 18, 1778. Captain James Cook becomes the first European to travel to the Hawaiian Islands, but Cook’s journey will lead to his brutal killing on a Hawaiian beach.



Cold Open

It’s February 1779 on a beach on the Island of Hawaii.

Captain James Cook of the British Royal Navy steps onto the shore with a small group of men. Cook is one of the world’s greatest explorers, but today he is anxious. Native Hawaiians have gathered on the beach, and they’re not pleased.

The Hawaiians shout and raise rocks over their heads, threatening to attack. Captain Cook is in shock. He remembers a time when the native people of Hawaii welcomed him with open arms.

This is Cook’s third trip to the Hawaiian Islands. He is credited with being the first European to ever travel here, having first sailed around Oahu a year earlier on January 18th, 1778. In the past, Cook and his men enjoyed a peaceful relationship with Hawaii’s inhabitants. They traded together and developed a mutual respect. But now it's clear to Cook that the Hawaiin’s patience for their European visitors has run out.

One of the Hawaiians steps forward and hurls his rock through the air. It lands with a thud in the sand in front of Cook and his men. Cook barely has time to react before the rest of the Hawaiians let out something akin to a war cry.

More rocks are hurled as well as insults. Cook cries out, “fall back”! And he and his men flee across the beach as the onslaught continues. Finally, the British sailors make it safely back to their ship, The Resolution. But for Cook, the near-violent confrontation on the beach is a portend of the tragedy yet to come.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is January 18th: Captain Cook Comes to Hawaii.

Act One: Cook’s Early Explorations

It’s June 11th, 1770 on the deck of the HMS Endeavour, seven-and-a-half years before James Cook comes to the Hawaiian Islands.

Cook is worried. His ship has crashed into what will come to be known as the Great Barrier Reef, off the northeast coast of Australia. The Endeavour is taking on water and starting to sink. Cook orders his crew to throw all heavy objects overboard to try and lighten the load and save the ship. The men make their way across the deck, tossing anything made of iron or stone into the sea. But still, the ship continues to sink.

Cook and the Endeavour have traveled to Australia’s shores in service of the growing British Empire. The British fear the Spanish are gaining a stronghold in the South Pacific, so they send Cook in search of new lands to claim in the name of King George III. The Royal Navy tasked Cook with finding “Terra Australis,” a legendary southern continent first theorized by Ancient Greek philosophers like Aristotle. While Cook didn’t find the mythic land, he did map out large swaths of New Zealand and Tahiti, and came to know the native people of those areas. It's Cook’s commitment to charting the region’s topography and engaging with its inhabitants that has led his ship onto the Great Barrier Reef.

Now Cook and his crew rush up and down the deck, still trying to lighten the ship’s load before it sinks into the water. Cook orders the ship’s cannons to be thrown overboard. And as his crew members hurl them into the sea, the Endeavour stops taking on water. After almost 24 hours of fighting to keep the ship afloat, Cook gets the Endeavour free from the Reef and back into open water. But it's in bad shape. So Cook sails to the mouth of a river where repairs can be made.


While the aboriginal people of Australia have known and traveled the Great Barrier Reef for thousands of years, Cook’s maps and records of the Reef will garner him credit for its “discovery.” The area where Cook and his crew settled to make repairs on their ship will one day be known as Cooktown, Australia. And the river that lies just beyond it will be christened the Endeavour River.

By the summer of 1770, after almost two months of work, the Endeavour is finally ready for the open sea again. As Cook continues his journey across the South Pacific, he claims more and more land for the British. Eventually satisfied with the fruits of his labor, Cook sails for home.

In July 1771, Cook and the Endeavour arrive in England. The captain is greeted as a hero. And upon publishing his journals from his expedition, Cook gains worldwide acclaim as an explorer and adventurer. But it's his maps and charts of the South Pacific that lay the groundwork for further exploration of the region. Cook’s navigational guides of the Great Barrier Reef are so detailed that they will be used by sailors and scientists well into the 20th Century.

But Cook gains notoriety for more than just his journals and maps. He has become widely known for his expertise in keeping his crews healthy. In the 1770s, Scurvy has taken a toll on the British fleet. The disease has hit ships all over the world and will be responsible for the deaths of millions of sailors. But Scurvy has rarely taken hold on ships helmed by James Cook. In order to combat Scurvy and other elements, Cook maintains a level of cleanliness on his ships that few can rival. Cook also makes sure that his men keep an ample supply onboard of concentrated juices, sauerkraut, and carrot marmalade; known remedies for Scurvy. Cook’s commitment to fighting disease catches the attention of his superiors, puts him in line for an important new mission.

By the mid-1770s, the British are eager to find the Northwest Passage, a link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that European powers believe lies above North America. When the British search for a man to lead the expedition, James Cook is the obvious choice. Not only has Cook traveled to places on Earth that were previously unseen by Europeans, he has done so all while keeping his sailors healthy and alive. 

On July 12th, 1776, James Cook sets sail from Plymouth, England in search of the Northwest Passage. Cook’s travels will add to his celebrity and lead him across the world to a place he never intended to find: The Hawaiian Islands.

Act Two: Cook’s First and Second Trips to Hawaii

It’s January 18th, 1778 on the deck of the HMS Resolution.

James Cook is ecstatic. He peers out over the water. In the distance, sees a land mass that has never before been recorded or mapped by Europeans. It's the Island of Oahu.

Cook set sail from England in July of 1776, not long after the war between his native country and its American Colonies erupted. As that war raged on, Cook led the Resolution and another British ship, the Discovery, on a journey to find the Northwest Passage. Some in the British Navy feared Cook would be attacked by Colonial or French ships on his voyage. But Cook’s role in exploration and scientific discovery has gained him respect, even from England’s enemies.

The French and Spanish and Americans let Cook’s ships pass without incident. Ben Franklin, who is an admirer of Cook, wrote to colonial ship captains, urging them to “treat… Captain Cook and his people with all civility and kindness, affording them as common friends to mankind, all the assistance in your power which they may happen to stand in need of.” Cook’s reputation has helped him journey unimpeded and now he's reached the Hawaiian Islands. 

Onboard the Resolution, Cook orders his men to sail around the coast of Oahu. Cook is eager to see if there are other islands in the area. And it doesn’t take long for his curiosity to be rewarded. Two days after spotting Oahu, Cook instructs his men to land on the Island of Kauai. Cook calls this collection of landmasses the Sandwich Islands, in honor of one of his patrons, John Montague, the Earl of Sandwich.

But Cook’s first stay on the islands is brief. He and his men are greeted kindly by the Hawaiians, who are fascinated by the amount of iron on the two British ships. Cook trades them iron for food and supplies, while his men discover that they can trade iron nails for sex with native women.

It is believed that many of the native Hawaiians think their European visitors have a connection to the sacred or supernatural world. Some may even think that Cook and his men are gods. But Cook’s time on the island is too brief for them to fully understand what the natives are truly thinking. Cook must disembark and returns to his main task.

Cook searches for the Northwest Passage for months with no luck. In January of 1779, after failing to find any Northwest Passage, Cook leads the Resolution and Discovery back to Hawaii. Cook sends his sailing master, William Bligh, ahead to make landfall. Bligh finds a bay that will provide a perfect mooring spot for the British ships.

But what Bligh and Cook do not yet know is that their arrival happens to coincide with a festival celebrating the Hawaiian fertility god, Lono. Upon seeing Cook and his men, the Hawaiians instantly connect them to their fertility deity and treat them like emissaries of the gods. For a full month, Cook and his crew take advantage of their newfound standing. They enjoy all the feasts, gifts, and dancing they can handle. Many of Cook’s men come to see intercourse with native women and girls as their right. And Cook makes continual demands for supplies from the inland’s inhabitants.

But then, one of Cook’s crewmen dies from what is believed to be a stroke. When the Hawaiians realize that their visitors aren’t immortal, relations between the two groups grow strained. The native Hawaiians are no longer willing to provide endless supplies for Cook’s ships and his men. And in February, Cook decides it’s time to leave Hawaii and head back to England. But the sea has other plans.

Upon their departure, the Resolution and the Discovery are battered by high winds and storms. The foremast of the Resolution is badly damaged. And after only a few days on the water, Cook is forced to turn back and seek refuge in the Hawaiian bay he just left behind. But this time when they arrive on shore, Cook and his men are greeted by angry Hawaiians who hurl rocks and shout insults. The British sailors make it back to their ships unscathed, but the conflict between the Hawaiians and the European interlopers is just beginning.

On February 13th, 1779, a small band of Hawaiians decide to harass the British. They make their way onto the Discovery and steal supplies. One Hawaiian makes off with a cutter vessel from the ship. When Cook learns about the theft, he flies into a rage. He gathers a group of his men and heads for the shore to confront the Hawaiians and their king. But this will prove to be a mistake, one of the last decisions James Cook will ever make.

Act Three: Cook Gets Killed

It’s February 14th, 1779 on the Island of Hawaii outside the home of the Hawaiian King.

James Cook is furious that one of his ships’ cutter vessels has been stolen. Determined to show the Hawaiians that he’s in charge, Cook and his men storm into the home of the king and drag the ruler outside.

Some of Cook’s men will later argue that Cook simply wanted to negotiate the return of the stolen vessel. But most believe Cook’s intention was to kidnap the king.

Back out on the beach, Cook and his men are met by a growing group of Hawaiians who fear their leader is in danger. A standoff ensues. And in the midst of the confrontation, one of Cook’s men panics and fires his weapon. A Hawaiian chief in the crowd drops dead. The Hawaiians swarm, brandishing rocks and clubs. Cook fights through the melee, but he’s unable to break free. One of the natives plunges a knife into Cook’s neck, and he falls to the ground where he’s stabbed repeatedly. The rest of the British sailors flee as James Cook dies face down in the sand.

After Cook’s death though, the Hawaiians treat him as they would an honored warrior. They boil his flesh and remove it from his bones. This will lead to rumors that the Hawaiians are cannibals who feasted on Cook’s corpse. But in reality, the ritual is a show of respect for the fallen sailor. Eventually, the Hawaiians return Cook’s remains to his men for burial. And the crew of the Resolution and the Discovery return to England without their commander.

While James Cook is viewed as a hero by many, his legacy is complicated. He has been celebrated as an explorer, cartographer, and sailor for centuries. Monuments to Cook can be found all over the world.

But others view Cook as an extension of British and European imperialism. They see him as a man credited for “discovering” lands that had been inhabited for thousands of years. And they blame Cook and explorers who followed him for bringing disease and subjugation that plagued the native inhabitants of Hawaii.

But for all the good and bad that has happened since the European discovery of Hawaii, it’s clear that Cook's actions altered the course of history. And it all started by chance when Cook happened to look off onto the horizon and see the coast of Oahu on January 18th, 1778.


Next on History Daily. January 19th, 1977. A Japanese-American radio broadcaster known as the mythical “Tokyo Rose” is pardoned after being falsely convicted of treason following World War Two.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack. 

Sound design by Mischa Stanton.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.