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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

The Death of Captain Cook

1784
Francesco Bartolozzi (engraver) and William Byrne (engraver) after John Webber

engraving on paper (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

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

Supported by

Mr Robert Oatley AO (7 portraits supported)

Related information

The Companion

Permanent collection catalogue

Café and shop

On one level The Companion talks about the most famous and frontline Australians, but on another it tells us about ourselves: who we read, who we watch, who we listen to, who we cheer for, who we aspire to be, and who we'll never forget. The Companion is available to buy online and in the Portrait Gallery Store.

'The portraits of Captain Cook'

An interview with Betty Churcher

Portrait story

Betty Churcher describes the creation of the portrait of Captain James Cook in the National Portrait Gallery.

Captain Cook

'The photojournalists of their time'

Portrait story

An exploration of the role of artists such as John Webber who, whilst a member of Cook’s crew over many voyages, created paintings and drawings of the situations and people the explorers encountered.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

The National Portrait Gallery is an Australian Government Agency