James Cook was born in November 1728 and joined the Merchant Navy in his teens. He transferred to the Royal Navy in 1755 and during the seven years war was tasked with mapping the St Lawrence River in Canada. The results of his work impressed the Admiralty and he was given command of HMS Endeavour in 1776 and sent on 3 expeditions to map the Pacific Ocean. His work was the most complete mapping of that Ocean and the countries contained in it that had been carried out. On his first voyage, he became the first European to visit the East coast of Australia at a place he called ‘Botany Bay’ (in April 1770). He later travelled up the coast and in June he ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef and had to spend a number of weeks repairing his ship in the estuary of the Endeavour River (near Cookstown, Queensland) before continuing his journey.
In January 1779 on the last of these 3 voyages, he put in at Hawaii. There was an exchange of gifts with the local Hawaiian rulers, but there was also a story that some items were removed from the town without payment or permission. Cook’s ships set sail but was caught in a storm and had to return to Hawaii to carry out repairs. It is not very clear what happened but relations between the native population and the Europeans were not friendly. During this visit, a boat was stolen by the Hawaiians and maybe in an attempt to get it returned Cook tried to capture the local chief and hold him as a hostage. They got as far as the beach but were confronted by an angry crowd of native Hawaiians. Shots were fired by Captain Cook’s marine escort and during the melee that ensued Captain Cook was stabbed. The marines and sailors managed to get to the boats and escape leaving behind the chief and the body of their dead Captain. Repairs on the ships took a further week to complete and during this time the ships bombarded the town causing a lot of destruction.
Despite all that happened, and contrary to some later reports, the Hawaiians treated Captain Cook’s body with the same reverence as one of their own people, carrying out the local funeral rites before returning his preserved remains to the Navy who buried them at Sea.
This statue of Captain James Cook by Thomas Brock can be found on the Mall near Admiralty Arch.