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The Death of Cook


Object connections:

Gallery locationNot on display
PeopleDepiction: Cook, James

Object details:

Object ID PAI4212
Description This engraving after a drawing by John Webber made after Cook's death on his third voyage to the Pacific. Captain James Cook (1728-1779) made three separate voyages to the Pacific (with the ships Endeavour, Resolution, Adventure, and Discovery) and did more than any other voyager to explore the Pacific and Southern Ocean. Cook not only encountered Pacific cultures for the first time, but also assembled the first large-scale collections of Pacific objects to be brought back to Europe. He was killed in Hawaii in 1779. John Webber was the artist on Cook’s third voyage from 1776-1780. The Resolution and the Discovery visited the Hawaiian Islands for the second time between 17 January-14 March 1779. The morning of February 4th, the two ships left Kealakekua Bay, but after suffering damage, were forced to return four days later. On February 11 the ships anchored again in the bay. The islanders traded with more reluctance than before,, and their behaviour gave reason for complaints. The mutual misunderstanding and the aggression that followed during the next days, mainly over thefts, are well-known. As the final result of it all, on Feb. 14th Cook was killed on the northwest shore of Kealakekua Bay. Four marines fell with him during the hostilities, which several other members of the last landing party managed to gain the boats and safety. Here, Cook is represented at the moment immediately prior to death, when he is just about to be stabbed in the back. Not only is he completely surrounded by an enraged mob of Hawaiians and seen to be virtually defenceless, he is killed just at that moment when, with a raised and appealing hand, he attempts to prevent his men from firing at his antagonists. His death is portrayed as that of an innocent victim, killed in the act of pleading for peace. This engraving was invented after the voyage and we have no evidence that it is based on personal observation. There are no elements of it which Webber could not have found in his sketches or elsewhere. It was composed well after the event, and the creation of the myth of Cook as the victim of his humanity had far-reaching consequences for later treatments of the same subject, and for future relations with the people of Hawaii and the Pacific. Like Webber’s oil painting of the same subject, this picture is full of figures and is Webber’s most ambitious effort at history painting. Mounted in album with PAI4078-PAI4211, PAI4213-PAI4214.; Page 256. A second impression of the plate originally published in 1784 (see PAF4642).
Date made 1 Jul 1785

Artist/Maker Webber, John
Bartolozzi, Francesco
Byrne, William
Credit National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Materials engraving & etching
Measurements Sheet: 320 x 432 mm; Plate: 297 x 410 mm
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