Story of Captain Cook - John Lang

Cook's Third and Last Voyage—His Death

Cook was now promoted to the rank of Post-Captain, and he was given an appointment which brought with it a good income. But he did not long stop at home to enjoy his honours. Before a year, had passed he had started on his third and last voyage of discovery.

But this time he was not to confine himself to the seas south of the equator.

Besides the question of the Great Unknown Land, there was another question which had filled men's minds for perhaps two hundred years before Cook's day, and over which people puzzled even down to the time when your grandfathers were young men. This was the question of what was called, the "North-West Passage."

To understand what is meant by the North-West Passage, you must know that it used to be the dream of sailors, and of many other men, to find a way round the north of America, whereby ships might sail to China and India without having to make the weary voyage round the Cape of Good Hope. For more than two hundred years men looked for this way, and at one time the English Government even offered a reward of 20,000 to the owners of any ship that should happen to find it. For more than two hundred years men searched, and lost their ships, and often their lives, in the search.

If you look at a map of North America, as it is now known, it may seem to you a simple thing to sail up Davis Strait past Greenland to Baffin's Bay, thence through Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, and Banks Strait, and so to Behring Strait and Asia: And that is what men thought, long ago. They had then no maps of that part of North America, but they believed that there must be such a passage round its northern end.

But the sea there is covered from year's end to year's end with ice, which opens, in parts, only now and again; and when it breaks up it is piled in wild confusion in what are called "hummocks." Any ship sailing into the open water between the moving masses of ice is very likely to be "nipped," and perhaps may never again get out. It was the terrible ice that prevented men from finding this North-West Passage. But always they believed that some day it would be found. Every explorer before Cook had tried it by way of Greenland and Davis Strait. Now it was thought that by starting from the other end, through Behring Strait (the narrow passage between Asia and America) there might be better fortune.

Cook offered to take command of this new expedition, and, on 12th July 1776, he sailed from Plymouth in his old ship, the Resolution. With him went a smaller vessel, the Discovery, commanded by Captain Clerke, who as lieutenant, had been with Cook on his last voyage.

Cook's plans were to go by way of the Cape of Good Hope to Van Diemen's Land and New Zealand, thence to Otaheite, where he was to leave Omai, the man who had come from that island to England with Captain Furneaux, on the Adventure. From Otaheite he was to make for the coast of America, and so up to Behring Strait.

Whilst the Resolution  lay in Table Bay, at the Cape of Good Hope, a terrible storm came on and blew for three days, doing great damage. The anchorage in Table Bay in those days gave little shelter to vessels during a gale from the north-west, and many a fine ship then dragged her anchors and went to pieces on the beach. Such storms often come up without much warning, and vessels were sometimes caught unprepared. Even when they were prepared, sometimes the wind blew with such violence that nothing could save them. On 5th November 1779 such a gale blew in Table Bay, and ship after ship dragged her anchor and was dashed to pieces. The English war-ship Jupiter, of 50 guns, was one of the few in the bay that rode the storm out in safety. But the Sceptre, of 64 guns, the Danish war-vessel Oldenborg, of 64 guns, and eight others, were all driven ashore and their crews drowned. Three waggon-loads of dead were taken next morning to be buried near the hospital, and about one hundred other bodies, terribly mangled, were buried in one grave on the beach. The Sceptre  was taking home to England much of the plunder and many of the trophies taken at the battle of Seringapatam, in India, and these are now all lying under the sand of Table Bay.

It was in such a gale as this that the Resolution  found herself, and she was the only vessel in the bay that did not drag her anchors. Cook was never caught unprepared. Luckily, perhaps, the Discovery  had not then reached Table Bay. But she felt the full force of the storm out at sea, and lost one man overboard.

After leaving the Cape, rough weather followed the ships as they headed east past the storm-beaten Marion and Crozet Islands. Thence Cook went in search of Kerguelen Land, a large island discovered in 1772 by the French sailor Kerguelen. On this desolate spot Cook landed, and explored the whole island. Penguins and other sea-birds and seals were found in plenty, but no other form of life. Trees or shrubs there were none, but a small plant growing on the sides of the hills gave to them the look of being covered with green grass. In the bays enormous plants of seaweed were seen, some of them nearly 400 feet in length. Fastened to a rock by a bit of wire a bottle was found, in which, on a bit of parchment, was a record of the island having been visited in 1772 and 1773 by the French. Cook wrote on the back of the parchment that the Resolution  and Discovery  had also been there in 1776, and the bottle was then hidden in a cairn of stones. Perhaps, if you look, it may be there to this day.

The ships then left for Van Diemen's Land, where they anchored on 26th January 1777. Here natives were seen, all entirely without clothing; they were quite friendly and harmless, and very easily alarmed by the sound of a gun. It is pitiful to think that this harmless race now no longer lives, and that the natives of Australia are also quickly dying out. Except in the far interior, it is seldom that an Australian "black-fellow" is now seen. Very soon there will be none left anywhere.

From Van Diemen's Land the ships now made for Queen Charlotte Sound, where they anchored on 12th February. This time, at first none of the Maoris would venture on board; the sight of Omai, who had been with the Adventure  when her boat's crew was murdered, seemed to alarm them. But after a little their alarm wore off, and they became again quite friendly. Even the chief who led the party that killed the boat's crew did not fear to come on board; and after so long a time, Captain Cook did not think it right to take any revenge on him. This was greatly to the regret of Omai, whose wishes always ran in the direction of killing his enemies whenever he had the chance.

Leaving New Zealand, the two ships now again headed for the Society Islands. On the way several islands were discovered, and many of those seen on the last voyage were revisited.

At every place there was the old story of thieving, and some of the cases now were so bad that Cook more than once took strong means to punish the natives, sometimes flogging them, sometimes destroying canoes, or burning houses. Once, at Anamooka, a thief was caught in the act of stealing, and he was given a dozen lashes and was ordered to pay a fine of a hog.

After this, no chiefs ever stole; they made their servants steal for them, and when the servants were punished the chiefs only laughed. It did not hurt them!  Nor did the servants care much for a flogging: it did not keep them from stealing again. A better way of punishing was at last found. Every thief when caught had his head shaved by the ships' barbers; he was then a marked man, and was never again allowed to come on board either ship.

At Huaheine, Omai was put on shore, taking with him a huge quantity of presents. He had been very popular during his long stay in England, and probably he was very much spoiled by too much notice having been taken of him. Like most natives, Omni very quickly went back to the customs and dress, or want of dress, of his own people, and no good came from his visit to England. It is said that often afterwards in Huaheine he used to shoot with one of his Muskets at a man, just for the fun of seeing how far the musket could carry; and that with his pistols he often, for the pleasure of the thing, used to shoot persons of whom the king of the island wanted to get rid. Omai lived only about ten years after Cook left him, and no one was sorry when he died.

On 18th January 1778 high islands were sighted, part of a group till now unknown, a group which will live in history for all time, because of the terrible thing that happened there little more than a year later.

The islands now sighted were some of those named by Cook the Sandwich Islands. On two of them, Atooi and Oneeheow, Cook when he now landed was treated with extraordinary honour. Wherever he went, the natives threw themselves on the ground and covered their faces, till signs were made for them to rise. But in spite of this great respect, things were stolen from the ships, just as had been the case at other islands.

By the crews of the Resolution  and Discovery  these islands were looked on as a Paradise almost as lovely as Otaheite, and great was their sorrow when on 2nd February the ships sailed for the cold waters and snowy shores of North America. Mr. Gilbert, one of the officers of the Discovery  says in his journal that they left the islands "with the greatest regret . . . . supposing all the pleasures of the voyage to be now at an end; having nothing to expect in future but excess of cold, hunger, and every kind of hardship and distress.

On 7th March the first American land was sighted. This was part of that coast which Sir Francis Drake two hundred years before had named New Albion, the part that is now known as Oregon. And here the "excess of cold," feared by Mr. Gilbert, began, for, snow was lying on the hills. Owing to bad weather the two ships were more than three weeks in sailing about three hundred miles to 'the north, and it was not till 29th March that they anchored in a fine harbour, called Nootka Sound, in what is now known as Vancouver Island, part of the great Dominion of, Canada.

Here indeed did the country differ from the lovely coral islands amongst which they had sailed so lately, islands to which officers and men longed to return. Here, instead of waving palm trees, were gloomy forests of pine; instead of beautiful hills covered to their tops with green trees and shrubs, were high mountains covered with snow. In place of the soft-skinned, smiling Tahitians, paddling in their canoes or swimming in the warm water round the ships, were natives who seemed both dirty and stupid. They had little to sell except skins and furs of bears and beavers, of sea-otters and other animals, articles not wanted by men whose wishes were all fixed on things they had left in sunny Otaheite.

At Nootka Sound the ships stayed four weeks, repairing the masts and rigging of the Resolution. Stormy weather followed them as they went north, and the Resolution  sprang a bad leak, which gave the crew hard work at the pumps for some days. So stormy was the weather that it was not till the 2nd of May that the ships dared to run in towards the land. On every side were seen snow-clad mountains, Mount St. Elias, not far short of twenty thousand feet in height, towering over everything, a splendid sight in his glittering white coat. To the north of Mount St. Elias, in a corner of the great inlet which Cook named Prince William's Sound, the ship's carpenters managed to stop the leak of the Resolution.

On this part of the coast the natives were very different from those of Nootka Sound. They were short and stout, and were clothed in the skins of seals and of other animals; only in their dirt were they something like the Nootka men. Their canoes too were different; they were made of the skins of seals stretched over a light wooden frame. In the centre of these canoes is a hole just big enough for a man to sit in with his legs pushed forward under the deck. Though so light that a man can easily lift one of the single canoes with one hand, they can safely go out in a very heavy sea, and the natives sit them with such skill that they can use their spears freely to kill seals, without any risk of upsetting.

The men that Cook saw here had a curious custom of slitting the upper lip till the gash looked like a second mouth, and in this they stuck shells, or bones, by way of ornament. Through the end of the nose also they stuck shells. They were very friendly, but, like most savages, terrible thieves.

The great bay called Cook's Inlet was next visited. Skirting along the coast from here, the ships were more than once in danger, for often the fog was so thick that they were only saved by letting go their anchors as soon as the sound of breakers was heard. Once, in thick fog, they ran between rocks so close to each other Cook says in his journal he would "not have ventured in a clear day," and they came, in the fog, "to such an anchoring place that I could not have chosen a better." He named a point of land near this spot Cape Providence.

Rounding the end of the Peninsula of Alaska, the ships felt their way, in cold, foggy weather, through shoals and reefs, up, to Bristol Bay and Cape Newenham, round by the most westerly point of America, Cape Prince of Wales, and so through Behring Strait. In about latitude 65 the coast of Asia was sighted, and three boats' crews landed in St. Lawrence Bay, where friendly natives were met. These men used sledges drawn by dogs.

On 17th August what is called the "blink" of ice was seen to the north, and the same afternoon, in latitude 70 44', the ships were stopped by large ice-fields. The land, near at hand on the American coast Cook named Icy Cape. Till 29th August he tried to find an opening through the ice. This way and that he pushed, but all to no purpose; it was not possible to get through; and Cook. gave up the search for the passage round the north of America.

Captain Cook


Whilst the ships were amongst the ice, as well as at many places along the coast, vast numbers of seals and walruses—sea-lions and sea-horses they were called—were seen on the rocks and on the floating ice; and many were killed and eaten by the crews. It is not very choice food, but the sailors thought it was better than salt junk.

Coming back along the American coast from Norton Sound to Cape Newenham, the ships found water so shallow that they were forced to keep farther out to sea. It was thought that the shoal water and the muddy look of the sea must be caused by some big river. And so it was. Had they but known it, that is where the mighty Yukon, one of the largest rivers in the world, flows into the sea—the great river on whose banks of late years so much gold has been found.

Cook now sailed again towards the south, meaning to revisit the Society Islands. Great was the delight of the sailors at the thought of getting back to the joys of their beloved coral islands. On 26th November the ships came in sight of Mowee, one of the Sandwich group, and soon afterwards they sighted Owhyhee—or, as it is now called, Hawaii. Neither of these islands had been seen on the first visit of the Resolution  and Discovery. The sailors gazed with longing eyes at the beautiful shores, and at a vast mountain whose snow-clad top towered into the sky to a height of near fourteen thousand feet.

But though canoes brought out food and fruit, the ships did not anchor till they had worked their way round the south end of the island into Karakakooa Bay. Here hundreds of canoes, crowded with natives, came off; the beach was covered with people, and hundreds more, like shoals of fish, swam around the ships. Nowhere in his travels had Cook seen such crowds.

And now a strange thing was noticed! Wherever Captain Cook went, he was treated by the people as if he were something more than man. Priests put over his shoulders a red cloth, which to them was sacred, used only to drape their idols. They fell on their faces before him; they came to him with offerings of pigs and of fowls, priests solemnly chanting the while. In everything they treated him as if they believed him to be a God.

Very long ago there had lived in this island a great chief named Orono. After Orono's wife died, he left the island, and sailed away to foreign lands. But before sailing, he told his people that long years afterwards he would come back "on an island bearing cocoa-nut trees, swine, and dogs."

Long the people had looked for Orono, and now, at last, he had come! Who could the strangers be who came to their shores in ships as big as islands, in ships that had treelike things growing out of them? Who could they be but Orono and his friends? And so the people worshipped Cook, and thought that he and all his sailors were more than mortal.

But after a few weeks things began to change. One of the Resolution's  men died, and was buried on shore. It may have been that the natives thought it strange that one of Orono's friends should die. Perhaps, too, they grew tired of supplying the ships with so many pigs and so many cocoa-nuts. Then some of the sailors gave offence by taking the images from a native temple; and soon the people began to wish that Orono would go away.

On 4th February 1779, to the relief of the natives, the ships sailed. Unluckily, it chanced that in a violent gale a few days later the Resolution  badly damaged her fore-mast, and in less than a week the two vessels were back in Karakakooa Bay.

Now all was changed. The chiefs were no longer friendly; there was quarrel after quarrel, and the natives stole, everything they could lay hands on. Once or twice men on shore were attacked with stones, and at last one of the Discovery's  boats was stolen from her moorings.

Cook was very angry, and on 14th February he went himself on shore with an armed boat's crew and nine marines to try to get it back. Failing that, he meant to bring the king on board, and to keep him there till the stolen boat was given up.

Captain Cook


There was a good deal of excitement on shore, and the natives crowded round. Cook had not been able to persuade the king to come with him, and he did not want to use force. He was walking down the beach back to his boat, when suddenly a native from another part of the bay ran hurriedly into the crowd shouting, "It is war, They have killed a chief." At once all was confusion. The natives rushed to seize the muskets of the marines, and a stone was thrown at Cook, who fired with small shot at the man who threw it, but without doing much damage. The native was then about to throw his spear, when Cook knocked him down with the butt of his double-barreled gun. Then he was forced to fire at a man who was in the act of throwing a spear. Showers of stones were hurled at the marines, and they, Without waiting for orders, began to fire. Captain Cook waved his hand and shouted to them to stop firing, but in the noise and confusion his orders were not heard.

The natives now made a rush, and four of the marines were killed; the others managed to get into one of the boats which had come in close to the shore.

Cook was left alone on the beach. He turned to walk towards the boat, when a chief ran up and struck him with a heavy club on the back of the head. The captain staggered forward and fell on his hands and knees, dropping his gun. As he struggled to his feet, another native, rushing in, stabbed him in the back of the neck, and he fell in the water. Then the natives poured over him, trying to keep him under. Again and again he got his head above water, fighting for his life. Again and again the weight of numbers forced him back. And now, at length, strength left him; there was none to help; he could struggle no longer. He was stabbed by every native who could get near enough to him; his head was battered against a rock till he ceased to move.

So sank and died Captain James Cook, the greatest navigator of all time, a man whom all the world honours, whose name will live as long as the English language is spoken.

His bones were recovered some days later, but only his bones, and not all of them. It is likely that the rest of him was burned, for the natives of Owhyhee were not cannibals.

They were sad ships that left Karakakooa Bay a week later; sad were his sailors that their officers allowed them to take no fitting revenge. And a sad day it was for England when the news came home of the death of her great sailor in the far Pacific.