James Cook
Maritime Topics On Stamps :

Captain Cook's third and last voyage to the Pacific.


In 1776, Cook started out on his third and last expedition to the Pacific. The voyage ended in the year 1780, but without him -- he had found death by the hands of Hawaiian natives. This block of stamps shows the routes until Cook's demise in red; the return under the command of Capt. Clerke is marked in blue. The principal objective was the search for a potential Northwest Passage, this time from West to East, i.e. for a northern route from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans. Along the way, there was the quest for discoveries in the as yet unkwown areas of the North Pacific.
Cook, courses

Cook's ship on this trip was again the former collier 'Resolution' used during the second voyage. She was a three-masted bark of 462 tons, length 112ft, beam 30ft, draft 13ft. (See stamp at left.) As before, he was assisted by a support vessel. The 'Discovery', measuring 299 tons and 92ft long, was under the command of Capt. Charles Clerke who also had accompanied Cook during both preceding voyages.

Christmas Island
landing 2
The vessels sailed on well-known routes from Plymouth via Capetown to Tasmania and New Zealand. Then they discovered three new islands which today bear the name 'Cook Islands'. Not finding any suitable feedstuff for the farm animals aboard, Cook continued on to Tonga -- the 'Friendly Islands'. Here he remained for 2-1/2 months. Then he went on to Tahiti, but after just a brief stay set sails again on a northerly course. At Christmastime 1777 the ships encountered a group of atolls which Cook named 'Christmas Islands'. The left stamp shows a symbolized landing scene, and another one on the right, with a palm frond being waved as a sign of friendship.

Hawai 5
Hawai 6
Cook had been reluctant to undertake this third Pacific voyage, but then succumbed to artful persuasion. This time, the formerly patient and just commander displayed a very different personality full of human weakness and an often violent and sometimes cruel behavior. Islanders' thieveries were punished with floggings, some were marked with crosses carved into their arms. He is said to have cut off natives' ears, to have shot at some with grapeshot, and to have pierced others with a boat's hook. There are reports of brutal punishment raids with many dead and canoes destroyed. The demands for success and the pressures of responsibility had taken their toll. Cook was past his psychological and physical limitations.

Hawai map
Hawai 3
In January of 1778 the ships encountered another previously unknown group of islands. James Cook, Royal Navy officer, named them 'Sandwich Islands' in honor of the First Lord of the Admiralty. Later they became known as 'Hawaii'. This was and has remained this voyage's most important discovery. Yet, Cook stayed there for a limited time only. His principal goal was the search for the Northwest Passage which pressed him on.

northest point
Setting a northeasterly course towards North America, Cook reached the California coast at the site of today's San Francisco. With drizzling rains and contrary winds he arrived at a bay he named 'Nootka Sound'. The ships continued north along the coast, crossed bays, and explored the mouths of large rivers. Finally, they reached the Bering Strait and then entered the Chukchi Sea where solid barriers of ice prevented farther advance. Numerous attempts to continue were foiled -- the ice was not to be conquered. With the onset of winter, in November of 1778, Cook abandoned the search and sailed back to Hawaii.

Hawai canoes
Hawai 4
An overwhelming reception awaited Cook upon his return to Hawaii. A large flotilla welcomed him surrounding the ships (stamp at left). It so happened that Cook arrived in the midst of an annual major mythical event celebrated by the islanders. By lucky chance, he also appeared from just the right direction foretold in ancient myths that 'Lono', God of Peace and Light, was expected to arrive some day. Not surprisingly, Cook was adored as the god 'Lono', celebrated in rituals, and accompanied by priests wherever he went. Chiefs from various islands appeared and paid tribute with plentiful gifts. The stamp at right shows a masked priest or warrior, as drawn by the ship's artist.

cooks death
But after many rounds of partying the islanders' provisions became depleted. And according to the old myth, the god should have left the island quite some time earlier, on his own accord. The mood among the natives started to change. Thefts became more common and there were frequent fights between sailors and islanders. Cook realized the situation and set sails. Yet, just a few miles out he ran into a violent storm and 'Resolution' suffered a broken fore-mast. Cook returned; the mast had to be repaired ashore.

death 4
death 3
This time around he met with a cool reception. The islanders realized that Cook was not a god, as 'Lono' would not have returned with a damaged vessel. The Europeans were ridiculed, robbed, and humiliated. A landing party out to obtain freshwater was met with a hail of stones. Cook became enraged when informed of the theft of one of 'Discovery's boats. He had the bay cordoned off with six boats manned by armed sailors, then grabbed a musket and went ashore by himself. His intention was to take the chief hostage until the stolen boat was returned.

There are differing versions describing Cook's death. In one he is said to have been stabbed while holding the chief in his grip. Another version states that he was stabbed in the back with a knife or lance. Yet others reported a fight resulting in the death of Cook and four seamen. The survivors rowed back to their ships. Their dead remained on the beach. Cook's body was mutilated by the natives.

death 2
Captain Clerke of 'Discovery' assumed command of the expedition. When islanders dressed in Cook's clothing performed provocative dances on the beach, Clerke ordered punitive action. Broadsides from the ships' guns blasted the bay, followed by armed landing parties killing anyone appearing in their muskets' sights. Some days later, an island chief showed up with scraped human bones and Cook's right hand, identified by a scar. The body parts were placed in a coffin and received a burial at sea.

Captain Clerke made yet another attempt to find the Northwest Passage. Once more, the ships sailed through the Bering Strait and, as previously, got stuck in the ice packs. Following Clerke's death, both ships were sailed back to England by their officers, reaching Plymouth after an absence of almost four years.
Captain Cook's voyages of discovery and exploration filled in huge spreads of formerly white spaces on the maps. He discovered a vast number of islands and shorelines and documented them with precise cartography. He sailed distances so far as no man had before him. He ended the search for 'terra incognita' and proved that there is no useable northern connection betwee the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Just click on this line if you want to see the report about Cook's first Pacific voyage.

Just click on this line if you want to see the report about Cook's second Pacific voyage.

Source, the german book 'Unterm Kreuz des Südens, Entdeckungsfahrten ans andere Ende der Welt' by W.Ebert, G.Graffe und G.Klein, Hoffmann und Campe Verlag.
(Under the Southern Cross, discovery voyages to the other end of the world)

© 1998 - 2003 Bjoern Moritz, all rights reserved. email to

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