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The Death of Captain Cook, 1784

John Webber, Francesco Bartolozzi (engraver) and William Byrne (engraver)

engraving (sheet: 50.3 cm x 60.4 cm, image: 42.3 x 57.7)

Cook’s assassination in Kealakekua Bay, Hawai‘i, in 1779 produced an explosion of commentary, both in eighteenth-century popular culture and in twentieth-century historical scholarship. Cook had enjoyed a mostly warm welcome from Hawaiians when he revisited their islands in late 1778. When he had to return unexpectedly in February 1779, however, due to a broken mast, the reception was different. Cook may have been aware that earlier he had benefited from arriving during the carnivalesque season of peace called Makahiki. During this season, where all is upside down, ‘strangers’ are afforded the privileges of ‘natives.’ Even if Cook knew that his return in February now coincided with the new season of war, he may not have realised how deeply implicated his ships had become in the everyday cosmology of Hawai‘i. Cook’s changed cultural status, coupled with increasing reports of poor British behaviour, pushed Hawaiians to show their fresh displeasure with him. During one of many minor altercations, they stabbed and clubbed the captain to death.

Later commentators thought John Webber’s depiction showed Cook trying to halt British violence. Officer reports at the time suggest, though, that he was trying instead to call in the boat to rescue him.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Purchased with funds provided by Robert Oatley AO 2007

Accession number: 2007.28

Currently not on display

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Artist and subject

John Webber (age 33 in 1784)

Francesco Bartolozzi (age 57 in 1784)

William Byrne (age 41 in 1784)

Captain James Cook RN

Subject professions

Exploration and settlement

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