Explorer, circumnavigator, Royal Navy captain and cartographer, Captain James Cook is infamous for his voyages of discovery. Yet the circumstances of his death on 14 February 1779 in Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii are still relatively mysterious. We know he was killed by a member of the local Hawaiian population during a skirmish between the tribe and his crew but historians are still in dispute as to why.
One theory is that the Hawaiians had revered him as the incarnation of their god, Lono – the god of fertility – but moods soured and Cook was killed after it became clear he wasn’t immortal. A more modern explanation for Cook’s death is that tempers flared after a tribesman stole one of Cook’s boats and Cook retaliated by taking their chief hostage. In both accounts, the ensuing fight led to Cook’s demise on the beach of Kealakekua Bay.
Cook’s voyages are marked by their achievements in the fields of astronomy, anthropology, botany and medicine, as well as in the mapping of the southern hemisphere. His talents for cartography were initially spotted in Quebec during the Seven Years' War and Cook captained his first sea voyage in 1768. This first expedition set out to observe the path of Venus across the Pacific Ocean and also to discover Terra Australis (a hypothetical continent based on the hypothesis that continents in the Northern Hemisphere should be balanced by land in the south).
Cook circumnavigated the globe on three voyages and eventually managed to disprove the existence of Terra Australis as well as making many discoveries in the natural world. He also accurately mapped much of the land he did come across including New Zealand, Hawaii and Eastern Australia – Cook being the first European to reach this part of the continent. He is also famously credited with inadvertently discovering dietary cures for scurvy and thereby preventing many maritime deaths.