Captain James Cook’s Fatal Third Voyage

While Cook fails to find the North-West Passage, it is his discovery of Hawaii that will prove to be his undoing.

Back on solid land and promoted to post-captain personally by George III, it was widely expected that Cook 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.

Why did Cook make a third voyage?

Cook's third and last voyage was to find the North-West Passage believed to link the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. If Britain could find a way to enter the Pacific without having to round the treacherous Cape, it could open up all manner of trade advantages and the western coast of the Americas.

Cook again took the Resolution and another Whitby collier, the Discovery. They made their way to the Pacific through the by now familiar stopping off points of Tahiti and Tasmania to approach the Americas from the eastern side. On his way to interrogating the coastline of Alaska, he chances upon Hawaii and when his best efforts to find a way through the frozen coastlines of North America fail - and the weather deteriorates - he returns to sit winter out on these lands.

Treated like a god

Addressed reverentially as ‘Orono’ and greeted with elaborate welcomes, it seems highly likely that the people of Hawaii considered Cook to be a god on his arrival. Cook seemed to play along with the pretence 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.

A fatal encounter

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.


James Cook's achievements in mapping the Pacific, New Zealand and Australia utterly changed our understanding of geography and proved him in the words of a contemporary, “the most able and enlightened navigator that England ever produced.” His use of surveying techniques, astronomy and timekeepers was radical and exemplary.

His progressive treatment of his men (particularly on his first two voyages) and insistence on good diet would save many lives.

He was without doubt the right man, in the right place, at the right time for all but the very final part of his illustrious career.

Entry to the National Maritime Museum is free, open daily from 10am

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