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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Death of Captain Cook

By John Ledyard (1751–1789)

[Born in Groton, Conn., 1751. Died at Cairo, Egypt, 1789. Journal of Capt. Cook’s Last Voyage. 1783.]

OUR return to this bay was as disagreeable to us as it was to the inhabitants, for we were reciprocally tired of each other. They had been oppressed and were weary of our prostituted alliance; and we were aggrieved by the consideration of wanting the provisions and refreshments of the country, which we had every reason to suppose, from their behavior antecedent to our departure, would now be withheld from us, or brought in such small quantities as to be worse than none. What we anticipated was true. When we entered the bay, where before we had the shouts of thousands to welcome our arrival, we had the mortification not to see a single canoe, and hardly any inhabitants in the towns. Cook was chagrined, and his people were soured. Toward night, however, the canoes came in, but the provisions, both in quantity and quality, plainly informed us that times were altered; and what was very remarkable was the exorbitant price they asked, and the particular fancy they all at once took to iron daggers or dirks, which were the only articles that were any ways current, with the chiefs at least. It was also equally evident from the looks of the natives, as well as every other appearance, that our former friendship was at an end, and that we had nothing to do but to hasten our departure to some different island, where our vices were not known, and where our extrinsic virtues might gain us another short space of being wondered at, and doing as we pleased, or, as our tars expressed it, of being happy by the month….

On the thirteenth, at night, the Discovery’s large cutter, which was at her usual moorings at the bower buoy, was taken away. On the fourteenth the captains met to consult what should be done on this alarming occasion; and the issue of their opinions was, that one of the two captains should land with armed boats and a guard of marines at Kiverua, and attempt to persuade Teraiobu, who was then at his house in that town, to come on board upon a visit, and that when he was on board he should be kept prisoner until his subjects should release him by a restitution of the cutter; and if it was afterward thought proper, he, or some of the family who might accompany him, should be kept as perpetual hostages for the good behavior of the people, during the remaining part of our continuance at Kearakekua.

This plan was the more approved of by Cook, as he had so repeatedly on former occasions to the southward employed it with success. Clerke was then in a deep decline of his health and too feeble to undertake the affair, though it naturally devolved upon him, as a point of duty not well transferable; he therefore begged Cook to oblige him so much as to take that part of the business of the day upon himself in his stead. This Cook agreed to, but previous to his landing made some additional arrangements respecting the possible event of things, though it is certain from the appearance of the subsequent arrangements that he guarded more against the flight of Teraiobu, or those he could wish to see, than from an attack or even much insult. The disposition of our guards, when the movements began, was thus: Cook in his pinnace with six private marines; a corporal, sergeant, and two lieutenants of marines went ahead, followed by the launch with other marines and seamen on one quarter, and the small cutter on the other with only the crew on board. This part of the guard rowed for Kearakekua. Our large cutter and two boats from the Discovery, had orders to proceed to the mouth of the bay, form at equal distances across, and prevent any communication by water from any other part of the island to the towns within the bay, or from those without. Cook landed at Kiverua about nine o’clock in the morning with the marines in the pinnace, and went by a circuitous march to the house of Teraiobu, in order to evade the suspicion of any design. This route led through a considerable part of the town which discovered every symptom of mischief, though Cook, blinded by some fatal cause, could not perceive it, or, too self-confident, would not regard it.

The town was evacuated by the women and children, who had retired to the circumjacent hills, and appeared almost destitute of men; but there were at that time two hundred chiefs and more than twice that number of other men detached and secreted in different parts of the houses nearest to Teraiobu, exclusive of unknown numbers without the skirts of the town,—and those that were seen were dressed many of them in black. When the guard reached Teraiobu’s house, Cook ordered the lieutenant of marines to go in and see if he was at home, and if he was, to bring him out; the lieutenant went in, and found the old man sitting with two or three old women of distinction, and when he gave Teraiobu to understand that Cook was without and wanted to see him, he discovered the greatest marks of uneasiness but arose and accompanied the lieutenant out, holding his hand. When he came before Cook, he squatted down upon his hams as a mark of humiliation, and Cook took him by the hand from the lieutenant, and conversed with him.

The appearance of our parade, both by water and on shore, though conducted with the utmost silence, and with as little ostentation as possible, had alarmed the towns on both sides of the bay, but particularly Kiverua, where the people were in complete order for an onset; otherwise it would have been a matter of surprise that though Cook did not see twenty men in passing through the town, yet before he had conversed ten minutes with Teraiobu he was surrounded by three or four hundred people, and above half of them chiefs. Cook grew uneasy when he observed this and was the more urgent in his persuasions with Teraiobu to go on board, and actually persuaded the old man to go at length, and led him within a rod or two of the shore; but the just fears and conjectures of the chiefs at last interposed. They held the old man back, and one of the chiefs threatened Cook, when he attempted to make them quit Teraiobu. Some of the crowd now cried out that Cook was going to take their king from them and kill him, and there was one in particular that advanced toward Cook in an attitude that alarmed one of the guard, who presented his bayonet and opposed him, acquainting Cook in the mean time of the danger of his situation and that the Indians in a few minutes would attack him; that he had overheard the man, whom he had just stopped from rushing in upon him, say that our boats which were out in the harbor had just killed his brother and he would be revenged. Cook attended to what this man said, and desired him to show him the Indian that had dared to attempt a combat with him, and as soon as he was pointed out Cook fired at him with a blank. The Indian, perceiving he received no damage from the fire, rushed from without the crowd a second time and threatened any one that should oppose him. Cook, perceiving this, fired a ball, which entering the Indian’s groin, he fell and was drawn off by the rest.

Cook perceiving the people determined to oppose his designs, and that he should not succeed without further bloodshed, ordered the lieutenant of marines, Mr. Phillips, to withdraw his men and get them into the boats, which were then lying ready to receive them. This was effected by the sergeant; but the instant they began to retreat Cook was hit with a stone, and perceiving the man who threw it shot him dead. The officer in the boats observing the guard retreat and hearing this third discharge ordered the boats to fire. This occasioned the guard to face about and fire, and then the attack became general. Cook and Mr. Phillips were together a few paces in the rear of the guard, and, perceiving a general fire without orders, quitted Teraiobu and ran to the shore to put a stop to it; but not being able to make themselves heard and being close pressed upon by the chiefs they joined the guard, who fired as they retreated. Cook, having at length reached the margin of the water between the fire of the boats, waved with his hat for them to cease firing and come in; and while he was doing this, a chief from behind stabbed him with one of our iron daggers, just under the shoulder-blade, and it passed quite through his body. Cook fell with his face in the water and immediately expired. Mr. Phillips, not being able any longer to use his fusee, drew his sword, and engaging the chief whom he saw kill Cook soon despatched him. His guard in the mean time were all killed but two, and they had plunged into the water, and were swimming to the boats. He stood thus for some time the butt of all their force, and being as complete in the use of his sword as he was accomplished, his noble achievements struck the barbarians with awe; but being wounded, and growing faint from loss of blood and excessive action, he plunged into the sea with his sword in his hand, and swam to the boats; where, however, he was scarcely taken on board before somebody saw one of the marines, that had swum from the shore, lying flat upon the bottom. Phillips, hearing this, ran aft, threw himself in after him, and brought him up with him to the surface of the water, and both were taken in.

The boats had hitherto kept up a very hot fire, and, lying off without the reach of any weapon but stones, had received no damage and, being fully at leisure to keep up an unremitted and uniform action, made great havoc among the Indians, particularly among the chiefs who stood foremost in the crowd and were most exposed; but whether it was from their bravery or ignorance of the real cause that deprived so many of them of life, that they made such a stand, may be questioned, since it is certain that they in general, if not universally, understood heretofore that it was the fire only of our arms that destroyed them. This opinion seems to be strengthened by the circumstance of the large, thick mats they were observed to wear, which were also constantly kept wet; and, furthermore, the Indian that Cook fired at with a blank discovered no fear, when he found his mat unburnt, saying in their language, when he showed it to the by-standers, that no fire had touched it. This may be supposed at least to have had some influence. It is, however, certain, whether from one or both these causes, that the numbers that fell made no apparent impression on those who survived; they were immediately taken off and had their places supplied in a constant succession.

Lieutenant Gore who commanded as first lieutenant under Cook in the Resolution—which lay opposite the place where this attack was made—perceiving with his glass that the guard on shore was cut off and that Cook had fallen, immediately passed a spring upon one of the cables, and, bringing the ship’s starboard guns to bear, fired two round-shot over the boats into the middle of the crowd; and both the thunder of the cannon and the effects of the shot operated so powerfully, that it produced a most precipitate retreat from the shore to the town.

Our mast that was repairing at Kearakekua and our astronomical tents were protected only by a corporal and six marines, exclusive of the carpenters at work upon it, and demanded immediate protection. As soon, therefore, as the people were refreshed with some grog and reinforced, they were ordered thither. In the mean time the marine, who had been taken up by Mr. Phillips, discovered returning life and seemed in a way to recover, and we found Mr. Phillips’s wound not dangerous, though very bad. We also observed at Kiverua that our dead were drawn off by the Indians, which was a mortifying sight; but after the boats were gone they did it in spite of our cannon, which were firing at them several minutes. They had no sooner effected this matter than they retired to the hills to avoid our shot. The expedition to Kiverua had taken up about an hour and a half, and we lost, besides Cook, a corporal and three marines.