Published: January 2, 2017
Captain James Cook, the legendary British explorer, was savagely murdered on this day after a confrontation with islanders at Hawaii who had mistaken him for a god.
Cook discovered and charted New Zealand and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – since noted as one of the world's most dangerous areas to navigate.
His voyages around the world helped guide other explorers for generations. He provided the first accurate map of the Pacific and many believe that he did more to fill the map of the world than any other explorer in history.
The son of a Scottish farm worker, Cook was born in 1728 and worked on the land alongside his father until he was 18, when he was offered an apprenticeship by a Quaker shipowner.
With seafaring blood soon coursing through his veins, he joined the Royal Navy and became ship’s master at the age of 29. In 1768, he took command of the first scientific expedition to the Pacific aboard his ship, the Endeavour, leading to the discovery of New Zealand and the Great Barrier Reef.
During Cook’s third major voyage, he became the first European to set foot on Hawaii, landing his ship Discovery at Kealakekua Bay. His arrival coincided with an annual festival in honour of the fertility god Lono.
The Hawaiian people had never seen white men before, nor anything like the huge sailing ship in which they arrived. The only explanation was that Captain Cook must be Lono himself and as a result he and his men were lavished with feasts and gifts.
Soon, however, one of Cook’s sailors died from a stroke, possibly brought on by over-indulgence. Whatever the cause, the Hawaiians realised that their guests were not immortal after all and relationships became strained.
Any doubts were removed for the Hawaiians after Cook set sail but had to return for repairs when his mast was broken in a storm. Such setbacks do not happen to gods.
While anchored offshore on this day, Cook was furious when told that one of his cutter boats had been stolen. He went ashore to confront the Hawaiian king.
Unfortunately, crew aboard the Discovery fired its cannons at another group of Hawaiians, which caused Cook to panic and flee to a waiting boat.
He didn’t make it. Staggering after being pelted by stones and struck by a club, the explorer was then stabbed in the back by a warrior brandishing a knife that had been a gift from Cook himself. When he fell into the surf he was repeatedly stabbed and pounded with rocks.
Ironically, the Hawaiians ritualistically prepared Cook’s corpse as they would that of a king. They preserved his hands in sea salt, then roasted the rest of his body in a pit before cleansing his bones.