Cook's final voyage

Poor Captain Cook is no more...

Lord Sandwich wrote these words about his friend to Joseph Banks when the news of Cook’s death finally reached England. The mail packages had taken eleven months to travel from Kamchatka, across Russia to the British Admiralty in London.

Cook’s third and final voyage of discovery was an attempt to locate a North-West Passage, an ice-free sea route which linked the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean. Again, Cook commanded Resolution while Charles Clerke commanded Discovery. Leaving England in 1776, Cook first sailed south to Tahiti to return Omai, a Tahitian man, to his home. Omai had been taken on Cook’s second voyage and had been an object of curiosity in London.

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 > See more watercolours by John Webber, official artist aboard the Resolution, via the Library's catalogue catalogue link

Cook sighted the Hawaiian islands in January 1778, becoming the first European to land there. They were named the 'Sandwich Islands' after the fourth Earl of Sandwich, Lord of the Admiralty. Cook was initially impressed with the hospitality of the native people. After a year spent among the islands of the South Pacific, Cook sailed north to explore the northwest coast of America to the Arctic Circle. James King served as second lieutenant on this voyage. 

 > Read the log and journal kept by James King on the Resolution

James King journal

Cook decided to return to Hawaii to spend the northern winter of 1779, a decision which resulted in his own tragic death and the deaths of four marines and 17 Hawaiians at Kealakekua Bay on the island of O’why’he (Hawaii). Initially relations between the Europeans and the Hawaiians had been friendly and peaceful. However, the genial atmosphere broke down after a series of thefts from the European stores. Tensions came to a head on the night of the 13-14 February, 1779 when the Discovery’s cutter boat was stolen. On the morning of the 14th of February, Cook, Lieutenant Molesworth Phillips and nine marines went ashore and attempted to take hostage Terreeoboo, the Hawaiian King.

This strategy of Cook’s intended to force the Hawaiians to return the cutter. However in the confusion, shots were fired and one of the high-ranking chiefs, Kalimu, was killed. At that point, the crowds on the shore responded in anger. As Cook and the marines returned to their boats, they were attacked on the beach. Cook fired his gun and killed a Hawaiian warrior. In return, he was struck on the head by a club and speared by an iron dagger. Falling into the water, he was not seen alive again.

First lieutenant on the Discovery, James Burney, recorded in his diary that ‘the whole affair, from Capt’n Cook leaving the Resolution to the return of the boats, happened in the short space of one hour’. 

 > Read an account of Cook's death by first lieutenant on the Discovery, James Burney

Link to James Burney's journal 

In 1786, David Samwell, surgeon on the Discovery, published an account of Captain Cook's death in Hawaii. As well as an account of the tragic events, his book included an admiring character sketch of Cook himself and a medical description of the introduction of venereal disease to the Sandwich Islands.

 > Read selections from David Samwell's account of the death of Captain Cook

Link to David Samwell's Narrative on the death

 > Read James King's journal for vocabularies of different islands in the Pacific

James King

James Cook’s widow, Elizabeth, treasured keepsakes of her husband long after his death. They included everyday items such as shoe buckles and drinking glasses, as well as mementoes of his travels, such as an unfinished waistcoast made of tapa cloth collected by Cook in Tahiti. Many of these items were purchased by NSW Agent-General Sir Saul Samuel from an exhibition in London in 1886. They were sent back to Sydney to be added to the collections of the Australian Museum. In 1955 these items were transferred to the State Library of NSW to become part of the Mitchell Library's rich collections relating to Cook.

 > View a selection of Elizabeth Cook’s mementos of her late husband

Cook's mementos