Death in Paradise

The Life of Captain James Cook by Andrew KippisThe Revd Andrew Kippis (1725–95) was a Presbyterian minister.  Highly educated, although as a dissenter he was barred from the universities, he was appointed to the Presbyterian congregation in Princes Street, Westminster on Hanover Square), in 1753, and kept the post until his death. He also taught at various ‘Dissenting Academies’ (at one point alongside Joseph Priestley), and wrote for the Gentleman’s Magazine and other periodicals, but his greatest claim to fame was as a biographer. And his first stand-alone biography, published in 1788, nine years after its subject’s death, was of Captain James Cook.

Kippis was a synthesiser, and his description of the first great voyage (of 1768–71) draws very heavily on the account published by John Hawkesworth in 1773 (a controversial work, which was swiftly followed by a short pamphlet called A Letter from Mr. Dalrymple to Dr. Hawkesworth: Occasioned by Some Groundless and Illiberal Imputations in his Account of the Late Voyages to the South). Hawkesworth, to whom Kippis gives full acknowledgment, had at his disposal the journals of both Lieutenant (as he was then) Cook, and Joseph (as he was then) Banks. Kippis acknowledges the latter in his preface: ‘… my acknowledgments are, above all, due to Sir Joseph Banks, … his assistance has been invariable through every part of the undertaking… The exertions of zeal and friendship, I have been so happy as to experience … have corresponded with that ardour which Sir Joseph Banks is already to display in promoting whatever he judges to be subservient to the cause of science and literature’.  (And so say all of us.)

The version of the first edition of the book that we have reissued is a very big one – over 500 pages in a quarto volume – but it is quite a quick read because the font is very large, so much so indeed that at first glance it looks as though it has been photographically inceased. (Especially if you open it at the dedication to the King, where the print is even bigger.) Another edition of the same year, printed in Dublin, is octavo; one can only assume that the different publishers knew what their market would expect or bear. But the advantage of the larger print version was brought literally home to me a few days ago, when our area of town was blacked out for a couple of hours by a power failure: I was able to educate and enchant my family circle by reading aloud by candle-light Cook’s discovery of Australia. I very much doubt if I would have been able to read, for example, the small print of a periodical such as ‘All The Year Round’ with such relative ease.

The reason I had the book at home was that I wanted to read Kippis’ account of Cook’s death and compare it with the version which the modern consensus has produced. Baldly, in January 1779, Cook returned the Hawaiian archipelago (which he had named the Sandwich Islands,  after his patron at the Admiralty), where he planned to winter before sailing north to continue a survey of the north-west coast of America, and perhaps locate the ‘Pacific’ end of the North-West Passage. An initial welcome from the islanders of Hawaii turned sour when the cutter (the small boat used to ferry people and things from the ship to shore) was stolen from one of his ships, the Discovery. On 14 February, Cook went ashore with a company of marines to persuade one of the local chiefs to surrender himself as a hostage for the return of the boat. The chief agreed, but a hostile mob prevented them from getting back on to the boat, and Cook himself and four of the marines were killed in the skirmish that followed. The bodies were carried away by the crowd, and were apparently butchered, with the flesh scraped from the bones and burnt, the bones being given to various of the chiefs. (This was honourable ceremonial treatment, usually reserved for men of the highest status, though of course Cook’s crew did not see it in this light.) The captain of the Discovery, Charles Clerke, took command, and managed to persuade the Hawaiians to give back most of the bones, which were placed in a coffin and buried in the bay in which the ships were anchored, before the expedition set sail. Clerke himself died of tuberculosis close to Kamchatka, where he was attempting to carry out the purpose of the expedition, and the ships returned home with news of the deaths in October 1780.

Kippis’ account derives mostly from a manuscript supplied to him by David Samwell (1751–98), Welsh nationalist poet and the surgeon aboard Cook’s own ship, the Resolution. This was published in 1786, but Kippis is at pains to point out that it ‘was originally written for my use and freely consigned to my disposal’, and that he himself urged Samwell to publish it: ‘As the narrative hath continued for more than two years unimpeached and uncontradicted, I esteem myself most fully authorized to insert it in this place, as containing the most complete and authentic account of the melancholy catastrophe which, at Owhyhee, befell our illustrious navigator and Commander.’

Samwell emphasises the cordial relations between Cook and the chiefs on their first arrival: the captain was given ‘a beautiful and splendid feathered cloak’, and gave in exchange one of his own linen shirts and a cutlass; and the expedition was supplied with large numbers of hogs, fruit and vegetables. He also takes care to note that he could detect no change in the disposition of the ‘Indians’ since Cook’s previous visits: pre-existing friendly relationships continued. However, on 13 February there was a disagreeable skirmish over some metal tools which had been snatched from the Discovery’s forge, and this seems to have left both sides uneasy.  When the theft of the cutter was revealed the next day, Cook took the steps which he had successfully used before to force the return of stolen goods: he sent boats to seal off the two sides of the bay, and himself went ashore to demand that one of the chiefs accompany him to the ship until the cutter was restored. (Another officer later told Kippis that he had been concerned that Cook had placed too much trust in his own status among the natives.)

When Cook first landed, he was taken by two of the chief’s sons to the house where their father was sleeping. He agreed to go on board the ship, but an increasingly large crowd (augmented by people who had arrived in the last few days from more distant villages) prevented anyone from moving. Meanwhile word came in that one of the Discovery’s boats had killed a man, and the crowd grew more angry. Cook used the marines to clear a path back to the boat, but the chief refused to go on board, fearing that he would be killed by his own people if he did so.

By now the crowd was actively hostile, and one man with a knife attacked Cook directly; he was pushed away by the lieutenant of marines, but Cook refused to give him the order to use firearms, anticipating that a massacre would ensue. At this stage it looked as though the mob would calm down, and one of the chief’s sons, who was already sitting in the boat, went back on shore at his own request. Then a man threw a spear at Cook, who fired back; after a short pause, sticks and stones began to be hurled at the British, and the marines fired back; the boats offshore also started firing, though Cook immediately commanded them to stop. The boats were too far off to help: four marines were killed, and the lieutenant wounded (though he was later rescued). This left Cook alone, and as he was making his way along the shore to the nearer boat, a native darted up behind and hit him on the head with a club, stunning him. As he rose to his feet, another man struck him in the neck with an iron dagger, and the mob pushed him into the water and tried to hold him down. The nearest boat was only 5 or 6 yards away, but unable to help: Cook appears to have died after a final blow from a club.

There follows a description of the turmoil among the crew: Cook’s body could have been retrieved but the opportunity was missed, owing, it is hinted, to the cowardice of a lieutenant. Samwell’s narrative concludes with an emphatic repetition of his belief that there was no conspiracy or design to murder among the natives, but simply that a relatively trivial incident – the attempt to recover stolen goods – led to an ugly and finally fatal upsurge of violence. His only condemnation refers to the treatment of the body, but that, it has since been demonstrated by anthropologists, was in fact a sign of respect for Cook.

Dealing with the aftermath of Cook’s death, Kippis has one very cheering anecdote. Benjamin Franklin, while U.S. ambassador to the court of France, had urged the United States Congress to pass a resolution not to attack Cook’s expedition, which was on a mission which was ‘to the benefit of mankind in general’, but to ‘treat the said Captain Cook and his people with all civility and kindness, affording them, as common friends to mankind, all the assistance in your power’. Louis XVI’s minister of the navy issued a similar decree in March 1779, though sadly Congress would not ratify Franklin’s proposal, and the Spanish government would have nothing to do with it either – both these countries presumably feeling they had something to lose if British ships became familiar with the western coast of North America. The irony that Cook himself had been dead for a month when the decree was published does not make the gesture any less civilised, enlightened and humane.


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