The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

James Cook's Final Voyage and the Significance of his Death

Cook’s third and final voyage of discovery was an attempt to locate a North-West Passage, an ice-free sea route that links the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean. 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 (Finnis, 195).  Cook sighted the Hawaiian Islands in 1778 and became the first European to set foot there (Finnis, 197). Part of what sets James Cook apart as an explorer is his demeanor towards natives. Good relations were deemed essential by Cook to successful exploration, and his outstanding moral integrity leant to distinguished interactions with the uncivilized world that embodied a new age of imperialism. Cook, very rarely, and for sufficient reason, had a native flogged. His justice and moderation were clear and his journals show him working out his policy of friendly investigation when people were hostile, unequivocally or equivocally (Beaglehole, 428). Comparing Cook’s work to that of his contemporaries is convincing of the stature of his genius and humanity. It is ironic, then, that the conclusion of Cook’s voyage was with his death on the island of Hawaii at the hands of natives. Cook, revered for his self-control and civility, suffered a credulous moment of weakness notorious for its bad timing. The intention of Cook and his crew was to peacefully capture a chief, something they had done before with successful outcomes (Beaglehole, 429).  Cook suddenly faced a mob of Hawaiians throwing rocks and holding clubs, and he briefly lost the self control that he famously maintained throughout his life. Cook shot a man dead, and this point of hubris led to his demise. The captain was struck in the head and beaten on the beach. His last gesture was to his men to stop firing (Beaglehole, 429), a testament to the tragedy of the great man betrayed by the tiny flaw in his greatness. His death is central to academic discourse on legendary explorers, due to its significance in world history and speculative quality as his final journal was never found (Nicholas, 44). Cook dead was more famous than Cook alive, which prompts more general reflections on the nature of celebrity status in eighteenth century. The nefarious side of the western “civilizing mission” was realized with Cook’s death, which is that brutality was often used with natives despite the new imperialism of the time.  None the less, he had made a name for himself as one of the most famous explorers in history, and his work changed the geographical knowledge of the western world. 


Death of Captain James Cook

James Cook
Maps of the Voyages of James Cook
James Cook's Final Voyage and the Significance of his Death