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Captain Cook's Death on the Beach, Hawaii, 1779

by Peter T. Young



George Vancouver was born on June 22, 1757 at King's Lynn, Norfolk, England, the youngest of five children of John Jasper Vancouver (collector of customs) and his wife Bridget.

At about age 15, Vancouver joined the navy and spent seven years under Captain James Cook on Cook’s second (1772-74) and third (1776-80) voyages of discovery (the latter was when Cook commanded the first European exploring expedition to visit the Hawaiian Islands.)


The story of Cook's death at Kealakekua Bay, on February 14, 1779, has been often described, but the small part played by midshipman George Vancouver is not widely known.

The day before Cook's death, for the second time in one day, a Hawaiian took some tools from the Discovery and escaped in a canoe. Thomas Edgar, master of the Discovery, and midshipman Vancouver were part of the chase to retrieve the stolen tools - a scuffle later occurred, which included Edgar marooned on a rock close to shore.


As Edgar later reported the incident in his journal: “I not being able to swim had got upon a small rock up to my knees in water, when a man came up with a broken Oar, and most certainly would have knock'd me off the rock, into the water, if Mr. Vancover, the Midshipman, had not at that Inst Step'd out of the Pinnace, between the Indian & me, & receiv'd the Blowe, which took him on the side, and knock'd him down.” (Speakman, HJH)


That same night the cutter itself was taken, setting off the events which culminated in Cook's death on the beach. The following day, Vancouver was again involved in momentous events when Lieutenant King chose him to accompany the armed party ashore to recover Cook’s body. (Speakman, HJH)


In 1791, Captain George Vancouver entered the Pacific a dozen years later in command of the second British exploring expedition. (HJH)


In the introduction to Vancouver’s journals of his voyage to the Pacific, his brother John wrote, "that from the age of thirteen, his whole life to the commencement of this expedition, (to the Pacific) has been devoted to constant employment in His Majesty's naval service."

Vancouver visited Hawaiʻi three times, in 1792, 1793 and 1794. He completed the charting of the Islands begun by Cook and William Bligh.


On the first trip, Vancouver’s ships “Discovery” and “Chatham” first rounded the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, and traveled to Tahiti, via Australia and New Zealand, and then sailed north to the Hawaiian Islands.


Arriving off South Point, on March 1, 1792, the Discovery and the Chatham sailed close to the western coast of the island of Hawaiʻi. Later, leaving Kawaihae Bay, Vancouver's ships made their way past Maui, Kahoʻolawe, Molokai and Lānʻi, to Oʻahu, anchoring off Waikīkī - they later made their way to Kauai.


It is clear from Vancouver’s Journal and other accounts of events in Hawaiʻi in 1792, that neither Vancouver nor the Hawaiian chiefs were completely confident of the good will of each other. On Hawaiʻi, he had found that the people refused to trade except for arms and ammunition, which Vancouver refused to agree to, and on Kauai he was alarmed by tales of Hawaiian hostility. (Speakman, HJH)


Vancouver was also concerned about the apparent drop in the Hawaiian population since his earlier visit with Captain Cook. Waikīkī was “thinly inhabited, and many [houses] appeared to be entirely abandoned.” On Kauai, the village of Waimea had been “reduced at least two-thirds of its size, since the years 1778 and 1779.” (Speakman, HJH)


Vancouver did not seem to have been conscious of disease among the Hawaiian people, but he was aware of the arms trade and interisland warfare and attributed the decrease in the population to the deplorable sale of arms by avaricious European traders to “ambitious and enterprizing chieftains.” (Vancouver, Speakman, HJH) He later left Hawaiʻi and sailed to survey the Northwest coast of the American continent.


On his second trip in February 1793, the “Discovery” and “Chatham” first circled and surveyed the Island Hawaiʻi. From a meeting he had with Kamehameha, he noted in his Journal, that he was “agreeably surprised in finding that his riper years had softened that stern ferocity, which his younger days had exhibited, and had changed his general deportment to an address characteristic of an open, cheerful, and sensible mind; combined with great generosity, and goodness of disposition.” (Vancouver, 1798)


He also met John Young and Kaʻahumanu, noting, “the kindness and fond attention, with which on all occasions (Kamehameha and Kaʻahumanu) … seemed to regard each other.” Vancouver was delighted at “the decorum and general conduct of this royal party. … They seemed to be particularly cautious to avoid giving the least cause for offence….” (Vancouver, 1798)


When Kamehameha came aboard the ship, taking Vancouver’s hand, he “demanded, if we were sincerely his friends”, to which Vancouver answered in the affirmative. Kamehameha then said “he understood we belonged to King George, and asked if he was likewise his friend. On receiving a satisfactory answer to this question, he declared the he was our firm good friend; and according to the custom of the country, in testimony of the sincerity of our declarations we saluted by touching noses.” (Vancouver, 1798)


In the exchange of gifts, after that, Kamehameha presented four feathered helmets and other items, Vancouver gave Kamehameha the remaining livestock on board, “five cows, two ewes and a ram.”


The farewell between the British and the Hawaiians was emotional, but both understood that Vancouver would be returning the following winter. Just before Vancouver left Kawaihae on March 9, 1793, he gave Isaac Davis and John Young a letter testifying that "Tamaah Maah, with the generality of the Chiefs, and the whole of the lower order of People, have conducted themselves toward us with the strictest honest, civility and friendly attention." (Speakman, HJH)


On the third trip to the islands, arriving in early-January 1794, Vancouver brought three ships, “Discovery,” “Chatham” and “Daedalus.” They headed to Hilo. Here, he met Kamehameha and Vancouver noted Kamehameha was “with his usual confidence and cheerful disposition. It was impossible to mistake the happiness he expressed on seeing us again which seemed to be greatly increased by his meeting us at this, his most favorite part of the island.” (Vancouver 1801)


Shortly after, Kamehameha assembled the principal chiefs from all over the island for a meeting at Kealakekua. There they had a serious discussion of cession. A treaty was discussed that afforded British protection of Hawaiians from unscrupulous traders and predatory foreign powers. It would be achieved through the cession of the Island of Hawaiʻi to Great Britain.


“Tamaahmaah opened the business in a speech, which he delivered with great moderation and equal firmness. He explained the reasons that had induced him to offer the island to the protection of Great Britain; and recounted the numerous advantages that himself, the chiefs, and the people, were likely to derive by the surrender they were about to make.” (Vancouver, 1801)


The chiefs stated clearly that this cession was not to alter their religion, economy, or government, and that Kamehameha, the chiefs and priests "were to continue as usual to officiate with the same authority as before in their respective stations ….”


The king repeated his former proposition, which was now unanimously approved of, and the whole party declared their consent by saying, that they were no longer ‘Tanata no Owhyhee,’ the people of Owhyhee; but ‘Tananta no Britannee,’ the people of Britain.” (Vancouver, 1801)


To commemorate the event, an inscription on copper was made stating, “On the 25th of February, 1794, Tamaahmaah, king of Owhyhee, in council with the principal chiefs of the island, assembled on board His Britannic Majesty's sloop Discovery in Karakakooa bay, in the presence of George Vancouver, commander of the said sloop; Lieutenant Peter Puget, commander of his said Majesty's armed tender the Chatham; and the other officers of the Discovery; after due consideration, unanimously ceded the said island of Owhyhee to His Britannic Majesty, and acknowledged themselves to be subjects of Great Britain.” (Vancouver, 1801)


Vancouver then noted in his Journal, “Thus concluded the ceremonies of ceding the island of Owhyhee to the British crown; but whether this addition to the empire will ever be of any importance of Great Britain, or whether the surrender of the island will ever be attended with any additional happiness to its people, time alone must determine.” (Vancouver, 1801)


The British government did not receive a copy of the "cession" until after Vancouver's return to England a year later, and then the British parliament never acted on it. The British ship and men expected by the Hawaiians never arrived, and Kamehameha and his chiefs resumed the wars against Maui and the other islands until, in 1810, Kamehameha was King not only of Hawai'i but of all the islands of the Hawaiian chain. (Speakman, HJH)


Captain George Vancouver died on May 10, 1798 at the age of 40.

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