• The Death of Captain James Cook by Johann Zoffany (1794) (Wikimedia Commons)Source: Wikimedia Commons
ANALYSIS: Historian and Professor at the University of Hawaiʻi, Lilikalā K. Kameʻeleihiwa explains that Captain Cook's death was a victory for the Hawaiian people, but one that did not end in cannibalism.
Lilikalā Kameʻeleihiwa

14 Feb 2019 - 11:57 AM  UPDATED 14 Feb 2019 - 2:51 PM

Disclaimer: This article contains violent descriptors 

Rumour has it that Hawaiians worshipped Captain James Cook as a god whom we killed, and then ate, in 1779.

Now it is true that we very proudly killed Cook, who brought Venereal Disease (VD) and Tuberculosis to the Hawaiian people with his disease-ridden men. In fact, we Hawaiians still celebrate every 14 February as Hauʻoli Lā Hoʻomake iā Kapena Kuke, of Happy Death of Captain Cook day!

But as we Hawaiians preferred to eat fresh fish over people (especially those who bathed only infrequently), we certainly did not eat Cook. So where did this story come from?

Cook had been well equipped with two ships, the H.M.S.Resolution for whom he was captain, and the H.M.S. Discovery whose captain was Charles Clerke, and their mission was to find the non-existent Northwest passage, across what is now Canada to the Atlantic ocean.

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Cook and his ships first arrived in Hawaiʻi in January 1778 by accident, via. Tahiti on their way to Alaska. Sailing from the South Pacific they spotted the islands of Hawaiʻi, Māui and Oʻahu, but unlike Hawaiian double-hulled canoes which were made to stand the climate, waters and terrain of the archipelago, large European ships had trouble sailing into the wind, and they could not land on those islands.

However, they did manage to steer into the south sides of the northern islands of Kauaʻi and Niʻihau.

Both Captain Cook and Clerke knew that their men were riddled with gonorrhoea and syphilis, and many of the crew would die of Tuberculosis before they returned to England, yet they sent them ashore through the high winter surf to fill their near empty water kegs from the numerous rivers, allowing them to have contact with the natives.

When the surf rose too high to return to the ships, the men stayed the night ashore and slept with Hawaiian women who were curious to see what these white men had in their funny looking pants. Shortly after, Cook and his ships proceeded north to Alaska to share their germs there.

Thus both VD and Tuberculosis were introduced to the Hawaiian people, and later that year in November 1778 when Cook returned to Hawaiian archipelago offshore of Māui. Hawaiian men went aboard to show Cook and his crew the venereal sores on their genitals, and to ask for medicine for them. Our ancestors knew that the disease had come from Cookʻs crew, which ended up devastating our population. This is a key reason we celebrate his death.

Cook eventually came round to moor in the sheltered bay of Kealakekua [lit., the pathway of the gods] in January 1779, where coincidentally the god Lono, a god of peace, returned annually from Tahiti to bring fertility to the people.

There, Cook was met by the Lono priests who took him to Hikiau temple to honour him as the returning god Lono, whose emblem of crossed wood and long pieces of white kapa [barkcloth] looked very much like the sails of Cook’s ships.

Why would the Lono priests mistake Cook for a god? It was simple.

During Makahiki ceremonies for Lono (the four months of the new year) war is forbidden. Yet during this time, King Kalaniʻōpuʻu of Hawaiʻi island, was off on Māui making war. When Cook arrived in Kealakekua, the Lono priests called the King back to attend to the Lono rituals and to offer gifts of food and hospitality to Captain Cook.

However, Makahiki ceremonies usually end in January, and so after a while, the Hawaiians began wondering, and asking, Cook and his men when they were leaving. Finally, Cook left Kealakekua, but a day later, off the coast of Kawaihae, Cook encountered a storm that broke the mast of the Endeavor. He limped back to Kealakekua.

Lono was supposed to be able to control the winds — so what kind of god gets a broken mast? Folks soon began to wonder, was Cook really Lono? After all, he didn’t speak our language, and he didn’t bathe every day which is an absolute Hawaiian requirement. Was he an imposter?!

Then Cook lost his temper when some Hawaiians, doubting his divine designation, stole the small boat used to go ashore from one of Cook’s ships.

Immediately, Cook went to the rocky shores of Kaʻawaloa peninsula, adjacent to Kealakekua bay, to kidnap King Kalaniʻōpuʻu until the small boat should be returned. Cook did not know that the small boat had already been burned so that its prized iron nails could be retrieved.

In this arrogance, Cook went with only one man rowing his own small boat, and one guard to come ashore with him. When King Kalaniʻōpuʻu refused to go with Cook, the crowd surrounding the King quickly became angry. Cook’s guard ran off to the small boat, leaving Cook behind, and his two men quickly rowed back to the safety of their ship deserting their captain.

As Cook turned to make his way through the crowd, some enterprising fellow threw a rock at his back. When Cook groaned, the crowd shouted that he was not a god. The Hawaiians began to stab Cook to death. Many Hawaiian families still claim the honour today.

While it turned out that Cook was not a god, it was evident that with two large ships, he was certainly a high chief of some sort. Tradition demanded that his body be dismembered, and the bones be put into a sennit casket. The Lono priests took Cookʻs hands and his buttocks, wrapped in ceremonial kapa cloth, to his ship. Cook’s men were horrified at the bloody bits and asked, “Oh my god, did you eat him?”

To which the Lono priests replied, “Why? Is that what you do? Do you eat your dead?”. Hence the foolish rumour began.

Our Māori cousins often taunt Hawaiians for being "too nice" to foreigners, to which we reply, “Donʻt forget that you Māori had your chance and you missed it. We Hawaiians killed Cook and rid the world of a very bad man.”


Lilikalā Kameʻeleihiwa, PhD is a historian and Professor at the Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.