Death of Captain Cook
By James Burney
James Burney, first lieutenant of Cook’s Discovery gives this account of the great navigator’s last days.
Saturday, February 6, 1779. At 4 in the afternoon a fresh breeze suddenly sprang up from the NW. The canoes all left us, making towards the land, which was about ten miles distant. In less than an hour the wind increased to a gale and we lost sight of the Resolution to the northward of us. At midnight were within three leagues of the south side of Mowwlie. Stood backwards and forwards till morning.
Sunday, 7th. At daylight, not seeing the Resolution and the gale continuing, stood back to the SE to get under the lee of Owhyhe. At 1 in the afternoon saw the Resolution. Towards evening the weather moderated. All night standing off and on near NW part of Owhyhe.
Monday, 8th. In the morning, being to windward of the Resolution, took all the sails in and set our rigging up afresh. Afternoon, running to the southward along the west side of Owhyhe, found a current against us. In the night the Resolution hailed us that they had sprung their foremast.
Tuesday, 9th. The Resolution’s boat came on board and informed us the head of their foremast was so badly sprung as to make it necessary to get the mast out, and that their old leak had broken out afresh, on which accounts Captain Cook was bound back to Karacacooa Bay again, there being no certainty of finding a harbor at Mowwhe, and the road at Atoui too exposed a place for getting a mast out….
Wednesday, 10th. At 2 in the morning, the Resolution having made too free with the shore found themselves very near breakers and made signal of danger. Both ships hauled off till near daylight and then ran along shore again. In the forenoon, being moderate weather and in sight of Karacacooa Bay, many canoes came off to us with provisions. The Indians told us that eight men in a double canoe were lost in the bad weather.
Thursday, 11th. At 6 in the morning the Resolution anchored in Karacacooa Bay, as did we two hours after, nearly in our old berth, and moored the ship. The natives flocked about us with hogs, vegetables, curiosities, etc. as formerly.
Friday, 12th. The astronomers’ tents were erected at the same place as before. A great many canoes arrived in the bay from the northward, Kerrioboo with his followers amongst the rest. He was very inquisitive, as were several of the Owhyhe chiefs, to know the reason of our return, and appeared much dissatisfied with it.
Saturday, 18th. The Resolution’s foremast was taken out and hauled up on the beach between the tents and the watering place. All the carpenters of both ships were set to work to repair it.
This morning, an Indian snatched away a pair of tongs from the armorer’s forge, with which he jumped overboard and put them into a canoe. Our boat was so quick after him that he had not time to get in himself but was seized and brought on board, though the canoe escaped. He was severely flogged and kept in irons till the tongs were sent from the shore to procure his release. Our launch watering on shore this forenoon was much disturbed by the Indians, who threw stones and played other mischievous tricks, which made it necessary to have a guard when she was next sent.
In the afternoon the same unlucky tongs were again stolen and in the same manner by an Indian who jumped overboard and got into a canoe with them. They were fired at with muskets from the ship but without execution, whilst Mr. Edgar, our master, in the small cutter pursued them to the shore near the south point of the bay. Parrear, the Indian chief before mentioned, was in Captain Clerke’s cabin when the theft was committed, and immediately left the ship promising to get the tongs restored. At the same time the Resolution’s pinnace, which was at the tent, seeing the bustle, rowed alongshore and joined in the chase. The thief got first on shore and immediately put the tongs with a chisel and the lid of a harness cask, that had been stolen but not missed, into another canoe, which came out and delivered them to the small cutter. Mr. Edgar then thought of returning to the ship, satisfied with what he had got, but seeing the Resolution’s pinnace at hand and Captain Cook walking that way from the tents, he thought he might safely venture to seize the canoe in which the thief had landed. For this purpose he got on shore and was pushing her off, when Parrear, to whom it seems the canoe belonged and who probably was the contriver of the theft, laid hold to prevent him, which was resented by one of the pinnace’s men, striking Parrear with an oar. A crowd of Indians, who had been by the waterside all the time, and till then quiet, immediately began to throw stones. There being no arms in either boat, the pinnace men were so roughly handled that to avoid the stones they all jumped into the water and swam to some rocks at a little distance. Mr. Edgar and one of our midshipmen, Mr. Vancouver, who were on shore, fared very little better, till Parrear ordered the Indians to desist, and told our people to go on board with the boats. This they would gladly have done but all the pinnace’s oars had been taken away. Parrear said he would fetch them, but he was no sooner out of sight than the mob began to throw stones again. Mr. Edgar, on this, attempted to walk towards the tents, expecting to meet Captain Cook, but was prevented by some Indians who said they would lead him to Parrear. He followed these people and soon met Parrear and another man with an oar and a broken one. He was conducted back to the boats and put off, rowing towards the tents.
In their way thither, Parrear overtook them in a canoe and brought Mr. Vancouver’s cap, which had been lost in the fray. He then asked if he might come on board the next morning and whether we should hurt him for what had happened. Being promised he should suffer no harm if he came, he went away paddling towards the town of Kavarooa where Kerrioboo lived. Captain Cook, who at the beginning of the disturbance was at the astronomers’ tents, ran around alongshore towards the boats with Lieutenant King and two of the marines, but was misled by some of the Indian chiefs, and did not know anything of the ill usage of the boats till he returned to the tents, by which time it was dark and too late to take any notice of it.
Sunday, 14th. At daylight our great cutter, which had been moored to the buoy of the small bower anchor, was missing and on examining, the rope which fastened her was found to have been cut. This theft was the more easily committed as the boat was left full of water to preserve her from the sun, making the upper part of her gunwale even with the water’s edge. Captain Clerke having informed Captain Cook of this, orders were given for our launch and small cutter to go armed to the south point of the bay and prevent any of the sailing canoes going out, but not to molest the small ones.
The Resolution’s great cutter was sent in chase of a large sailing canoe that was making off; their small cutter was dispatched to guard the west point, whilst Captain Cook himself prepared to go with his pinnace and launch to the town of Kavarooa with an intention to bring Kerrioboo on board. The canoe chased by the Resolution’s great cutter was not overtaken, but her retreat was cut off in such a manner that she was forced to the nearest shore within the south point of the harbor, where the Indians hauled her up, the cutter not being able to follow for the rocks. Captain Cook, who was then leaving the ship, seeing the canoe ashore, said he was sure she could not escape; and being asked how the cutter was to get her if the natives made resistance, he answered there could be no great difficulty, for he was very positive the Indians would not stand the fire of a single musket. Indeed, so many instances have occurred which have all helped to confirm this opinion that it is not to be wondered at if everybody thought the same.
A little before 8, Captain Cook landed at the town of Kavarooa with Lieutenant Phillips of the Marines, a sergeant, corporal, and seven privates; in all, reckoning himself, eleven. The Indians made a lane for him to march along, having always showed great respect to both captains, however insolent they may have been at times to others. Captain Cook had scarcely got on shore when the boats near the south point of the harbor fired several muskets at some large canoes that were trying to get out, by which an Indian chief named Nooekemar was killed. The first notice we had of this was from two Indians that came off to the ships in a small canoe to complain of it, but finding they were not attended to, they inquired for Captain Cook. Being told he was at the town of Kavarooa, they went thither.
About half an hour after this, we heard the firing of muskets on shore, which was followed by the Resolution’s pinnace and launch firing. With glasses we could see Captain Cook receive a blow from a club and fall off a rock into the water. The ships then fired, but at too great a distance to make certain of any particular mark. The boats soon after came off with an account that Captain Cook and four of the marines were killed and their bodies in possession of the Indians.
The particulars of this misfortune, gathered from those who were on the spot, are as follows. When Captain Cook with his party landed, the Indians made a lane and some of them brought hogs which they offered him. He inquired for Kerrioboo and his two sons; the Indians immediately dispatched messengers and the boys came, who conducted them to Kerrioboo’s house.
Having waited some time without, Captain Cook doubted his being there. Lieutenant Phillips went in to see and found Kerrioboo just awakened. He came out to Captain Cook, who after some inquiries appeared perfectly satisfied that Kerrioboo was innocent of the cutter’s being stolen, and desired he would go on board with him, to which Kerrioboo readily agreed, and they walked down towards the boats. Kaoowa, the youngest of Kerrioboo’s sons, who was a great favorite of Captain Cook, went before and got into the pinnace. When Kerrioboo came near the waterside, two chiefs and an old woman who was crying, stopped him, and made him sit down. He then seemed irresolute and frightened. At this tune our people began to suspect mischief. The marines were stationed on a rock close to the waterside that they might not be surrounded by the natives who were seen to be arming themselves; whilst an old man who seemed to be one of the priesthood was singing to Captain Cook and Kerrioboo, as was thought, to prevent suspicion. Captain Cook then let Kerrioboo go, and said he was not to be forced on board without killing a number of people.
The old chief was immediately taken away and no more seen. Captain Cook likewise was about to give orders for embarking, when he was provoked by the insolence of a man armed with a thick mat and a long spike, at whom he fired with small shot, which neither penetrated the mat nor frightened the Indians as was expected. Another man with an iron spike came near Mr. Phillips, who, suspecting his intentions, drove him back with the butt end of his musket. Two or three stones were then thrown and one of the marines knocked down. Captain Cook, who had a double-barreled gun, immediately fired with ball. The sergeant said he had shot the wrong man, on which he told the sergeant to shoot the right. The Indians gave a general volley of stones and began to close on our people; Captain Cook therefore gave orders for the marines to fire, which they did amongst the crowd and were seconded by the boats. The Indians at first gave back, but directly after, before the marines had time to load again, advanced. Captain Cook called out to take to the boats. The pinnace was near the shore, but ten or twelve yards distant from the rock where the marines stood, and this short space was uneven slippery rocks, so that being pressed upon in their retreat, they were obliged to take to the water. Captain Cook in coming down was struck by an Indian behind him with a staff, on which he turned and beat the man back with his musket. He was again followed and received at the same instant a blow on the head and a stab with a spike in the neck, which tumbled him into the water. Being no swimmer and stunned by the blow, he turned towards the shore again, and a number of Indians surrounded and dragged him on the rocks, where they beat and stabbed him in several places, snatching the daggers from each other out of eagerness to have their share in killing him. Four of the marines were killed, one of them on shore (Thomas Fatchet), whom nobody knew what became of; the other three in the water, James Thomas, corporal, and John Allen and Theophilus Hinks, privates.
The corporal had loaded again, and received a stab in the belly when up to the in middle in the water. He fired at the Indian who gave it and directly after fell dead. They were all dragged on shore.
Of those that escaped, the lieutenant of marines was wounded in the shoulder by a spike, the sergeant received a slight wound, and one of the marines, Jackson, was struck in the face with a stone, by which he is in danger of losing an eye. Being unable to swim he would probably have been drowned or fell into the hands of the Indians, had not Lieutenant Phillips jumped overboard out of the pinnace and assisted him. The people in the boats at first had so little apprehensions of any danger from the Indians that when the firing began on shore, the pinnace put close in to the rocks to let Kaoowa land, as he was much frightened and asked to go.
The whole of this affair, from Captain Cook’s leaving the Resolution to the return of the boats, happened in the short space of one hour. Nine stand of arms with iron ramrods, besides Captain Cook’s double-barreled gun and hanger, fell into the hands of the Indians.
On notice of our defeat, the boats stationed near the points of the harbor were recalled and a strong reinforcement sent to Lieutenant King at the tents, and soon after orders to strike them and get the Resolution’s foremast off. Many Indians being seen assembling to the right of the tents, we kept firing with our great guns to disperse them; and a large party of our people were posted on the marai, which overlooked that part of the beach where the mast lay, to protect those who were busied in launching it.
About everything came off from the shore without any other molestation from the Indians than a few stones, in return for which some of them were shot who ventured nearer than otherwise they would have done, from an idea that their armor (thick mats soaked in water) were musketproof.
The Indians were observed to be very careful of conveying away their dead. Proofs of great courage were shown by two men in carrying off a dead body from within reach of our fire.
At 4 in the afternoon the boats were sent to the town of Kavarooa to demand the dead bodies. On approaching the shore, stones were thrown which fell short. Lieutenant King went in with our small cutter waving a white flag, whilst the other boats lay on their oars. The Indians left off throwing and waved a white flag in return. They had already made a number of little stone breastworks to screen them from our firearms, and during this conference they several times counted our numbers. In answer to the demand, some chiefs said that tomorrow the bodies should be brought, of which word was sent to Captain Clerke. An old man, named Kooaha, whom we have all along taken to be the chief priest, had the confidence to swim off and get into the boat, where he remained some time. He had an iron dagger in his hand. This is the same man who performed the strange ceremonies when Captain Cook landed at our first coming here. The reason given why the bodies were not delivered tonight was that they were carried some distance up into the country.
At another part of the town, however, the Indians made motions which we thought signified they were cut to pieces. And one fellow came to the waterside flourishing Captain Cook’s hanger with many tokens of exultation and defiance. Orders soon after came for the boats to return.
After dark, a guard boat was stationed to row round the ship, lest any of the Indians should swim off and attempt to cut the cables. They were very busy on shore all night, making much noise, running about with lights, and howling, as we supposed, over their dead.