Gananath Obeyesekere

The Battle Over Captain Cook’s Corpse Part 1

Artistic representation of Cook's final moments

Artistic representation of Cook’s final moments

When the famous British explorer Captain James Cook was killed on a Hawaiian island in 1779 the Hawaiian tribesmen responsible removed his body from the beach, disemboweled it, baked it and then distributed the bones across a variety of their villages. These actions are not disputed by historians and were also not motivated by spite. They were, in fact, the traditional mortuary rites performed on the island for those of high status.

Unsurprisingly, these actions were interpreted by Cook’s crew as something entirely different. Rather than seeing the actions as displaying respect for a revered leader they regarded them as a hideous attempt to desecrate the remains of a fallen enemy. This difference of perception very nearly caused more bloodshed as, in the face of growing tension and a barely contained fury, Cook’s crew attempted to negotiate with the islanders for the return of his body, so that he could receive a traditional naval burial. The volatility of the situation is evident in the accounts written at the time, which contain reports describing how a number of the crew favoured attacking the islander’s villages and taking the body back by force and accounts of islanders performing a range of provocative acts on the shore directed towards the crew.

A large scale and bloody battle was avoided however as, after a few days and a number of minor skirmishes, the Hawaiians relented and returned enough of Cook’s remains to satisfy his furious crew (although there remains some doubt as to whether the remains returned were actually authentic). With the return of Cook’s remains to his crew the first (very literal) battle for Captain Cook’s corpse came to an end. After performing a Christian burial for Cook’s recovered remains his crew finally departed the Hawaiian islands to return to England and report their captain’s death.

Cook’s physical remains were now lost to the sea (or preserved in Hawaiian villages), yet this not be the final battle that his corpse was involved in.