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Topic: Captain Cook's third voyage (Jul 1776-Oct 1780)

The painting of James Cook’s death was composed by John Webber, the ship’s artist on board the Resolution during Cook’s last voyage into the Pacific. Webber himself did not witness the incident in which Cook was killed; he made sketches based on the accounts of those who were there. Several years later in his studio, he reconstructed the scene, portraying the famous man’s last moments in a suitably heroic style.

When Cook returned triumphant from his second voyage, he was probably expected to retire from active service. He had been away from home for most of the previous seven years. He was promoted post captain, given a shore position, and set to writing up his journal of the second voyage, for publication.

But for the Admiralty there was more exploring to do; this time, to tackle the question of the north-west passage – a sea way around the top of North America into the Pacific, through the gap between Alaska and Siberia (Bering Strait). Plans were made for another voyage. Cook was, of course, consulted on all matters, including who should command the expedition. He couldn’t resist – maybe he was bored with shore life already – and he volunteered for the job. The Admiralty accepted his offer without hesitation.

Again two ships were selected: the reliable Resolution from the second voyage, and a new sloop, the Discovery. The first task of the voyage was to take Omai home. This ‘living treasure’ from the second voyage had charmed English society for two years, but it was time to restore him, with due honour, to his own people in the Society Islands.

They travelled via the Cape of Good Hope, stopping briefly in Tasmania and Ship Cove, New Zealand, then heading, via Tonga, for the Society Islands. There, at Huahine, Cook negotiated for Omai to have some land. The ship’s carpenters built him a wooden house, and the world traveller was installed once more in his former surroundings, with all his newly acquired trappings of western civilisation.

The ships then headed north-east for North America. On the way, they came across a group of islands where they were amazed to find people who in looks, language, and customs were very similar to the people that they had left behind in the south some two months before. Cook named the group the Sandwich Islands after Lord Sandwich, head of the Admiralty. They are known today as the Hawaiian islands. Even more amazingly, the local people treated Cook in ways that were usually reserved for their chiefs of the highest rank.

After a brief but hospitable stay, the ships headed for America. They reached the coast of Oregon, then travelled northwards. The Resolution was leaking badly by this stage (she had not been thoroughly overhauled after her previous voyage), so they had to stop for four weeks in Nootka Sound, on Vancouver Island, to repair her. By August they were making their way through the Bering Strait and into the Arctic Ocean searching for a sea passage. Ice blocked their way, and the brief northern summer was already over. They returned to Hawaii in November to sit out the winter and to refresh for another attempt the following summer.

They set up base at Kealakekua Bay. The visitors were made welcome, and the usual trade and barter was quickly established. Cook was again treated with utmost deference, and was given gifts such as the Hawaiian feather cloak and helmet. From the accounts of the time, he was regarded by the Hawaiians as the embodiment of Lono, one of their principal gods. 

The stay passed without major incident, and in January  on 4 February 1779 the ships once more headed for the Bering Strait to renew their Arctic Ocean search. A few days later, they were limping back into Kealakekua Bay for repairs, after the Resolution lost one of its masts in a storm.

This time, there was a sense of their having outstayed their welcome. A series of thefts by the local people caused tensions to arise. In one incident, arising from the disappearance of one of the ships’ auxiliary boats, Cook became personally involved in getting it back. He misjudged the mood of a large crowd gathered on the beach. When they became angry at a report that one of their chiefs had been shot by a European a group attacked and killed Cook and several of his crew.

The incident was a matter of great regret on both sides. Captain Clerke of the Discovery took charge of the expedition in its trail to the north. He died of tuberculosis before the summer was out. Lieutenant Gore took over command. No discovery was made of a sea passage through the ice. The expedition returned home in October 1780 without its famous leader.

The news of Cook’s death arrived in Britain some nine months before the ships themselves. Captain Clerke had sent letters overland to the Admiralty in Britain from far-eastern Russia, when the ships had called there during the course of their exploration of the Bering Strait and waters north. There was widespread dismay at the announcement from the Admiralty. Even the King was said to have wept at hearing the news.

So ended Cook’s voyages of discovery to the Pacific. They resulted in volumes of reports in words and pictures, collections of specimens of the natural world, and artefacts from civilisations in places previously unknown. For its time, this was a veritable information explosion about the shape of the world, its plants and animals, and the diversity of its peoples.

Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database.

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