Did the King’s Lynn Sailor Witness Cannibalism?

The Certainty

By the time George Vancouver from King’s Lynn left Hawaii in 1779, he had experienced two things that were beyond doubt.

First, the local Hawaiians had become wary of the visiting Captain Cook and his crew. A mixture of insensitive actions and cultural misunderstandings had put a strain on the relationship between the two groups.

Second, Vancouver’s Captain, James Cook, had been killed on the beach. Cook’s body was then taken and butchered by the local people.

The Preamble

Captain Cook had had a successful naval career of discovery. He had previously mapped the St Lawrence River and Newfoundland, as well as New Zealand and parts of Australia. He returned home in 1775 and was given an honorary retirement from the Royal Navy, but set out again the following year on Resolution with HMS Discovery.

This trip’s aim was to find a northwest passage around America. Eleven years later, Vancouver who had learned his mapping skills under Cook, was to set out on his own quest to find the northwest passage.

Cook became the first European to officially make contact with inhabitants of the Hawaiian Islands, which he named the Sandwich Islands. Having explored North America’s west coast he then returned to Hawaii, sailing around it for two months before stopping in at Kealakekua Bay.

At the time the locals were celebrating the harvest festival of the Polynesian god Lono and may have initially mistaken Cook as an embodiment of the god. The god is meant to reappear from his land of exile. Histories narrate that for the people of Hawaii, the arrival of Cook was no less than an epiphany. “The men hurried to the ship to see the god with their own eyes,” wrote the 19th-century Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau. “There they saw a fair man with bright eyes, a high-bridged nose, light hair and handsome features. Good-looking gods they were!”

However, after a while, things started to go wrong. Fighting broke out between the Hawaiians and the crew. A small boat was stolen and Cook attempted to kidnap the King of Hawaii, Kalani‘ōpu‘u, and hold him to ransom. Tension erupted into violence. Two natives died in the kidnap attempt, along with four other marines.

The Event

When Cook waded ashore on 14 February, 1779, hundreds of warriors fell on him with iron daggers and clubs. His corpse was dismembered, his flesh roasted, and his bones separated and portioned out amongst the islanders, with Kalani‘ōpu‘u being given Cook’s jaw bone.

The Death of Captain James Cook 14th February 1779 (Johann Zoffany, 1733-1810)

Two priests from the island rowed to the British ship offering the men a chunk of the captain’s thigh and asking when Cook would return (implying an expectation of a resurrection).

The Interpretation

The stunned British saw this as a hideous desecration of the body of their revered leader, and the tales of cannibalism started.

However, another reading of events is perfectly possible. The cooking of the body was to enable the bones to be easily removed. Following death great care was given to bones which were guarded and respected because a person’s spiritual essence resided in them. All that was happening was that the indigenous Polynesians on Hawaii Island were performing traditional mortuary rites for people they regarded of high status.

So, did the King’s Lynn Sailor Witness Cannibalism? Almost certainly not.

© James Rye 2023

See also: Vancouver: the overshadowed achiever

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