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On This Day: Captain Cook Discovers the Hawaiian Islands

Last updated: February 14, 2023

On Jan. 18, 1778, Capt. James Cook arrived at the Hawaiian Islands. Just over a year later, he was killed by one of the islands’ inhabitants.

Cook Reaches Hawaiian Islands

British Royal Navy Capt. James Cook and his crew made three voyages through the Pacific Ocean between 1768 and 1779. Cook had earned fame and honors in Britain for his first two voyages and was dubbed “the first navigator in Europe” by a member of the House of Lords.

Cook began his third voyage in 1776, setting out to return a native of Tasmania to his home island and then continue to the American Northwest to find the Northwest Passage. In January 1778, having sailed to Tasmania and other known South Pacific islands, Cook’s two ships, the Resolution and Discovery, reached the unknown Hawaiian Islands.

Cook encountered friendly natives who “thought that Cook was a god and that his men were supernatural beings,” according to the Mariner’s Museum. He named the islands the “Sandwich Islands,” after the voyage’s sponsor, the Earl of Sandwich.

After two weeks of trading with the natives and making note of the islands’ environment, Cook left to continue sailing northwest toward North America. He traveled from California to northern Alaska, charting territory that had never previously been explored.

It was not until August 1778 that Cook decided to return to Hawaii. The crew arrived in Kealakekua Bay in November during a religious festival celebrating the god Lono. The islanders again treated him and his crew with great reverence, supplying them with food and gifts.

Famous Explorers

Relations between the crew and natives deteriorated, however. Cook decided to leave the islands, but he was forced to return because of damage done to the Resolution. As the crew repaired the ship, conflicts with the natives continued; the Resolution’s cutter was allegedly stolen and a member of Cook’s crew retaliated by killing a native.

On Feb. 14, 1779, Cook was stabbed and killed by a Hawaiian. John Rickman, the lieutenant on the Resolution, described the captain’s death as follows: “A Chief came behind and stabd him between the shoulders with an Iron instrument like a Dirk of which they had many made by Capt. Cook by their own directions. He fell immediately at the receipt of the Blow with his face in the water but did not expire till he had recd. several other wounds in different parts of his Body.”

Biography: Capt. James Cook

Sources in this Story

  • The BBC: Captain Cook: Explorer, Navigator and Pioneer
  • The Mariner’s Museum: James Cook
  • The National Archives (U.K.): Captain Cook in Hawaii
  • Captain Cook Memorial Museum Whitby: James Cook in Whitby
  • National Maritime Museum: Biographies-Cook and Nelson

Born on Oct. 27, 1728, James Cook started his life working on a farm with his father. He then worked in a grocery store. Before he was 20 years old, he began working on the Freelove, a cargo ship traveling from Whitby, England, to London. Cook then joined the Royal Navy, and quickly moved up the ranks.

He went on to lead three privately funded voyages of exploration. Cook accomplished many things in the fields of exploration and astronomy. His second voyage made him the first man to sail around the world east to west and west to east. He was also the first to cross the Antarctic Circle.

Some of his most notable accomplishments were the debunking of nautical myths. He sailed around New Zealand to prove it was not part of a larger continent; he found no large continent in the South Pacific; and although he charted the northwest coast of America, he found ice instead of the Northwest Passage.

“James Cook left Britain a great legacy of knowledge about foreign lands, solved the question of the southern continent and provided a map of much of the Pacific for those that followed him,” writes the U.K. National Archives. “His exploration of places that were formerly unknown in Britain, and his territorial claims, made a major contribution to the growth of the British empire.”

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