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Kaawaloa is site of brilliant explorer’s death

Capt. Cook’s Monument at Kaawaloa

The white obelisk at Kaawaloa commemorates Capt. James Cook, England’s brilliant explorer and navigator, who was killed there on Feb. 14, 1779. After his death his partial remains were buried at sea in Kealakekua Bay. In 1878, a few of Cook’s “fellow countrymen” erected the monument standing today.

It was during Cook’s third voyage of exploration, on Jan. 18, 1778, that he first saw Oahu and Kauai. He named them the Sandwich Islands in honor of the Earl of Sandwich, the first lord of the British Admiralty, and Cook’s friend and patron. After a two-week visit on Kauai and Niihau, he sailed north to the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage. Unsuccessful, he returned to the Sandwich Islands in November 1778 to escape the winter weather. Skirting the rocky coastlines of Maui and Hawaii, he chose Kealakekua Bay as a safe refuge. As the Resolution and Discovery sailed into Kealakekua’s blue waters, the English sailors on board were greeted by a flotilla of Hawaiians in canoes, offering gifts of food and words of welcome. Cook was greeted by Koa, the powerful priest of Lono, and treated like a visiting king or, as some say, a visiting god. After a peaceful and pleasant visit, Cook left Kealakekua Bay, planning to return to the Arctic. A storm broke Resolution’s foremast, forcing a return to Kealakekua Bay to repair the ship and resupply the vessels with food and water.

Cook’s second sojourn at Kealakekua Bay started calmly. However, after the theft of a small boat by the Hawaiians, Cook decided to bring Kalaniopuu, the powerful but aging high chief, on board the Resolution as a hostage. Once the missing boat was returned, the chief would go free. Cook had used this strategy successfully elsewhere in Polynesia during his travels and expected no trouble.

While Cook was on shore at Kaawaloa, attempting to persuade Kalaniopuu to accompany him back to his ship, news reached the village that the English had shot a prominent chief. Cook decided to abandon his scheme and return to his ship. Unfortunately, fighting broke out before he and his marines could escape. In Capt. James King’s account of Cook’s death, he wrote: “Four of the marines were cut off amongst the rocks in their retreat, and fell as a sacrifice to the fury of the enemy; three more were dangerously wounded; and the Lieutenant, who had received a stab between the shoulders with a pahooa, having fortunately reserved his fire, shot the man who had wounded him just as he was going to repeat his blow. Our unfortunate Commander, the last time he was seen distinctly, was standing at the water’s edge and calling out to the boats to cease firing and to pull in.”

Was Cook actually asking his men to stop firing, or did he need the boats to come ashore because he could not swim? No one can say for certain, but Cook died on the rocks of Kaawaloa. More Hawaiians died than British seamen in this unfortunate mishap. King wrote that 17 Hawaiians were killed at Kaawaloa, five of them chiefs. Eight died at the observatory near Hikiau Heiau in a subsequent fight.

The repercussions of that fateful encounter are felt even today. A hero to some and a symbol of western imperialism to others, one fact remains: Cook died at this spot, and his memory lingers.

Copyright 1998 Kona Historical Society. Reprinted by permission.