The Death of Captain Cook – Voyage of the Damned

Going to sea is a dangerous business. Ahead of our Halloween event Voyage of the Damned, we’re looking at some of the more gruesome tales that can be found in our archive. Today we look at what happened to the famous explorer Captain Cook.

Captain James Cook was no stranger to near death experiences. On his first voyage to the Pacific, the process of charting the east coast of Australia led the ship to run aground on the Great Barrier Reef. Hours were spent trying to pull the Endeavour off, while desperately pumping away the water that ran in through breaches in the hull. As Cook recorded in his Journal ‘this was an alarming and I may say terrible circumstance and threatened immediate destruction to us.’

Print showing repairing of Capt Cook's Ship in Endeavour River

But Captain Cook did get his crew safely to land, and the time spent repairing the ship, in what would be called Endeavour River, proved one of the most profitable for collecting and recording botanical specimens. It’s also most likely where the voyage naturalists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander were able to observe and catch a kangaroo. Its skin would provide the basis for Stubbs’ well-known portrait.

However it’s a very different event that we will be exploring this Halloween.

After his second voyage to the pacific Captain Cook was promoted to post-captain personally by George III, and it was widely expected that he would spend his remaining days in semi-retirement.As it turned out, within half a year he would be discussing an expedition to find the fabled North-West passage over dinner and six months after that he would be on his way.

En route to find the North West Passage, Captain Cook chanced upon Hawaii where the locals treated him like a god. Addressed reverentially as ‘Orono’ and greeted with elaborate welcomes, Cook seemed to play along with the pretense while his crew were intent on having a good time and trading with the locals. After receiving elaborate tributes, Cook and his crew seemed to wear out their welcome and when they finally left Kealakekua Bay, it would appear the previously welcoming locals were happy to see them go.

Poedua, the Daughter of Orio

Poedua, the Daughter of Orio. From a sketch made on Cook’s third voyage, near Tahiti


Captain Cook’s ships were forced to return just four days later because the Resolution needed repairs to her mast. This time the mood had changed. When Cook tried to take the king hostage after the theft of a ship’s boat, the islanders became alarmed and during a struggle Cook was stabbed and killed on 14 February 1779. Captain Clerke took command of the ships, but he too died on the voyage and Lieutenant Gore finally brought the ships home.

Proof state of Webber's Death of Cook, (c.1783)

Proof state of Webber’s Death of Cook

The National Maritime Museum collections include many responses to Captain Cook’s death, from the voyage artist John Webber’s print after the event, to Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant’s eulogy to Cook as the hero explorer.