The Miniature Coffin of Captain Cook - Atlas Obscura
Our new kids' book is on sale! Shop now.

The Miniature Coffin of Captain Cook

31 Days of Halloween: On Atlas Obscura this month, we’re celebrating Halloween each day with woeful, wondrous, and wickedly macabre tales all linked to a real locale that you can visit, if you dare. Today we present an article from Benjamin Breen of The Appendix journal. 

article-image

Kealakekua Bay is a verdant cove on the Kona Coast of Hawai’i, its electric blue waters teeming with sea turtles, corals, anemones, puffers, and moray eels. It must have presented an appealing prospect for the ragged band of sailors who gathered on its shore to repair a broken ship mast in January of 1779. These men were the crew of the famous circumnavigator Captain James Cook, and their captain would not leave the beach alive.

In an official report following Cook’s grisly death, Lieutenant James King wrote that he “firmly believed matters would not have been carried to the extremities they were, had not Capt. Cook attempted to chastise a man.” Initially, according to King, the leaders of the island accepted the sailors as friends. A group of priests even visited, who “carried wands tipped with dog’s hair” and “tabooed the place where the mast lay, sticking their wands round it” to mark it as a place of safety. 

Tensions mounted, however, after a series of misunderstandings between Hawaiians and the crew, culminating with a local man named Pareea being “knocked down by a violent blow upon his head with an oar.” In response, the crowd surrounding Cook’s men began pelting them with rocks, forcing them into the waves. 

Pareea had by this time recovered from the blow and began calling for peace, but it was too late. Although Captain Cook hadn’t been present for the altercation, he considered it an affront to his honor that called for “violent measures.” The next morning, King found “Captain Cook loading his double-barreled gun” along with a group of “armored marines.” Soon after dawn, Cook and the marines set off across the bay in a small boat and entered the village of Kowrowa, where Kalaniʻōpuʻu, the King of Hawaii, happened to be staying. Cook paced angrily through a gathering crowd of locals and drew within thirty yards of the “old king.” A tug of war over the king ensued, with Cook attempting to kidnap him by force, and the king’s advisors fighting back “at first with prayers and entreaties, but afterwards having recourse to force and violence.”

In the confusion, a high-ranking Hawaiian noble named Kalimu was shot, and the violence escalated rapidly. The villagers took up their weapons and armor and charged Cook and his crew. The marines surrounding Cook had far superior weaponry with their flint-lock muskets, but no room to maneuver and no time to fire, and four were killed almost instantly. Cook retreated to the shore, but was hit over the head with a club and then repeatedly stabbed. He died in the surf. 

article-imageAnonymous 1830s copy of a painting by John Webber, “A Man of the Sandwich Islands with His Helmet.” This is believed to be a portrait of Kanaina, one of the Hawaiian chiefs who killed Cook. (via Wikimedia)

After his death, Cook’s second-in-command Charles Clerke assumed control of the British forces. He attempted to win back Cook’s body for burial, but the Hawaiian priests told him that Cook’s corpse had been ritually baked, the flesh stripped from the bones, and the remains deposited in a sacred place. Although Cook had aroused the ire of King Kalaniopu’u and his people, they still regarded him as a powerful chief whose bones were potent sources of mana, or spiritual power.  

A remarkable artifact owned by the State Library of New South Wales in Australia confirms that Cook’s men also venerated his mortal remains. This small, intricately-carved coffin was created by an anonymous craftsman on Cook’s ship, the HMS Resolution, during the return journey from Hawai’i to Britain.

article-imageA full view of the coffin and its stand. (courtesy State Library of New South Wales)

It features a number of striking details: the top lid swivels open in two pieces, revealing a watercolor painting of Cook’s death on the beach and, below that, a lock of his hair.

 article-imagePainting revealed inside the coffin (courtesy State Library of New South Wales)

 

article-imageLock of Cook’s hair in the coffin (courtesy State Library of New South Wales)

Carving along the base of the box reveals that the wood itself had once been part of the ship — and that the box was a memento mori intended for Cook’s widow: “Made of Resolution oak for Mrs Cook by crew.” There’s also a curious detail: a silver plate offers up the cryptic inscription “Lono and the Seaman’s Idol.” 

article-imageInscription on the coffin (courtesy State Library of New South Wales)

In the 1820s, a missionary in Hawaii named Hiram Bingham encountered a legend about the god Lono which he believed was inspired by what transpired at Kealakekua Bay. It was the belief of Cook’s crew and that of later Europeans on Hawaii that Cook had become enshrined for eternity as a Hawaiian demigod. (As a side note, Bingham’s grandson would become enshrined as well: he was the inspiration for Indiana Jones).

What became of Cook’s bones is a mystery—as is the truth of European assumptions about his deification in Hawaiian lore. But Cook’s coffin will forever stand as an extremely tiny memorial to the sea captain’s death on that sunny Hawaiian beach.

Benjamin Breen is Executive Editor of The Appendix, a quarterly journal of experimental and narrative history.  An expanded version of this article originally appeared on The Appendix. For more histories with a geographical theme, see the new issue, “Off the Map.”

MEMORIAL TO COOK’S DEATHPLACE: CAPTAIN COOK MONUMENT, Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii


Click here for more of our 31 Days of Halloween, where each day we’re celebrating the strange-but-true unsettling corners of the world. And check in on FacebookTumblr, and Twitter to participate in the daily offerings of unsavory Halloween treats.