Aloha! It seems fitting that this opening post on our revamped website should be about the legendary 18th Century British naval explorer, Captain James Cook. After all, it’s arguable that the enduring fascination of Westerners with the islands of the South Pacific began the moment that Cook’s written accounts of the customs of the native Tahitians first hit the literary and scientific salons of London.
Cook may not have been the first westerner to visit Tahiti, but he and the crew of his ship, The Endeavour, were the first to stick around long enough to witness the ‘extraordinary and barbarous’ spectacle of a ritual human sacrifice – something which may have seriously undermined romanticised perceptions of Polynesia at the time as an earthly paradise populated by good natured ‘noble savages’ living in harmony with the natural world.
But though Cook may have followed a trail blazed by others with regard to Tahiti, in his desire as a seafarer to ‘not only go farther than man had gone before, but to go as far as it was possible to go,’ he can lay claim to having been the first Haole (pale-skinned European) to make formal contact with the peoples of the Hawaiian archipelegio. This, on his third and what was fatefully to be his last, Pacific expedition. Although he and the crew of his ship, Discovery, had visited the nearby island of Kauai the year before, Cook’s decision to drop anchor in Kaelakekua Bay, Hawaii island, in 1779 caused quite a stir.
Having inadvertently landed during the middle of a Makahiki, or harvest festival, in which the islanders were expressing gratitude to the Polynesian god Lono, Cook was initially mistaken for a flesh and blood incarnation of the god. However, the locals’ awed reception of both captain and crew was to last barely a month. With the death of one of Cook’s company suggesting to the natives that their guests were somewhat less divine than had previously been assumed, tolerance of their overseas visitors began to wear thin. Relations spiralled into mutual distrust and eventually violence, culminating in the brutal slaying of Cook on the shoreline of the bay!