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The other side of the Island: the infamous Captain Cook
by Dianne Kochenburg

Cook's death scene
"The Death of Cook"
(Published with permission of The Lahaina Printsellers, all rights reserved)


The day I chose to visit Captain Cook’s landing spot on Kauai was gray and overcast. The kind of day tourists think about checking out sites instead of going to the beach. It was not raining, but it looked like it might.

You can’t get lost on Kauai, at least while you’re driving. I took Hwy. 50 towards Waimea figuring I’d see something along the way to point me to my ultimate destination. I guess it’s about 25 miles from Lihue to Waimea along the southwestern shoreline. The roads stays just enough inland to obscure any ocean views so I’m watching volunteer sugar cane and kiawe trees pass me along the highway. The sugar plantations and mills are closed now. I wonder what happens to wild sugar cane.

I'm in Waimea before I know it. It’s a small town by mainland standards, but large by Hawaiian ones. A bank, a variety store, supermarket, gas station, car repair, traffic, side streets, all indicators of economic activity beyond bare subsistence. In the center of town is a smallish triangle of a park with a statue in the middle of it.


A familiar King Kamehameha historical marker points to something in the park. Well, lo and behold, Captain Cook himself, standing tall, in bronze, maps under his arm. The plaque beneath his feet says:
Captain James Cook, RN 1728 to 1779; a replica of the original statue in Whitby England by Sir John Tweed, RA. State of Hawaii, Department of Accounting and General Services.

Statue in the park


A second plaque embedded in a volcanic rock pillar reads as follows:

1778-1928; To commemorate the discovery of the Hawaiian Islands by Captain James Cook, RN who made his first landing at Waimea on the island of Kauai - January 20, 1778; erected by the people of Hawaii.

As I look around I’m wondering if this is the only marker to this truly significant historical event. It’s not a welcoming sight, just a couple of palm trees and other local shrubbery, no benches or picnic tables.

I turn the car around to head back and then I notice a very small county park at the mouth of the river that flows through Waimea. There are no road signs pointing it out but I know that it’s a park because of the public lavatories I can see from the road. There’s not much to see. An outrigger canoe club has parked some old weathered boats beside the parking lot. I walk out to the beach. It’s dirty, most likely from the silt that washes down from the canyon. The surf comes in listlessly, murkily, the waves just barely have the strength to roll ashore.

One of the dreariest beaches on Kauai
Cook's Landing spot on Kauai, a dreary place

There’s probably no coral reef here, the ocean floor is sandy, safe for anchoring Cook’s Endeavor. Here is where he first put to shore to get fresh supplies and water. It’s dreary today, January 19th, 1998, almost exactly 220 years from the day he landed here. Not much has altered the physical landmarks since then. It probably looked the same when Captain Cook waded ashore. It’s one of the least attractive beaches or bays on the whole island, but it might be one of the safest, as far as outcroppings of lava rock and underwater obstacles are concerned.

The parking area is not paved, just a cleared brown track leading to the ocean, with a levee supporting the riverbank that runs alongside the park. No plants, no shrubbery, no coconut palms, not even any chickens lurking around.

Cook's memorial on Kauai
Nancy poses by Captain Cook's rock marker

One lone rock stands in the middle of the dirty, weed-choked area. I mosey over to it. Well, what do you know. On the face of the rock is another plaque. It’s weathered and bird stained, but still readable:

Cook Landing Site Has been Designated a registered national historical landmark under the provisions of the Historic Sites Act of August 21, 1935. This site possesses exceptional value in commemorating and illustrating the history of the United States. US Department of the Interior, National Park Service. 1963.

Well, there you have it. The exceptional value is not readily apparent from where I stand. Historians agree that Captain Cook was one of the truly great and remarkable of the 18th century explorers. He came onto the island of Kauai as a cartographer and explorer in the service of his country.

He held no ill-intentions towards the inhabitants of the islands he found. In fact his journals show that his interests in the native people were scholarly and objective. He wanted to leave them as free from harm as possible. He understood the wretched diseases his ships carried and did everything he could to keep the islanders from becoming contaminated. Of course, his precautions and rules were unenforceable, but the islanders were as much to blame as his sailors. They were irresistibly attracted to each other.

Captain Cook has been the victim of character assassination ever since the unfortunate moment that he laid foot on Kauai. He has been cursed by Hawaiians ever since for bringing them to the circumstances they are in today. They blame him for the diseases he brought, and for the loss of culture that came with contact. They blame him for the missionaries, for the economic and cultural incompatibilities between the English who first stole their lands from them, and then the Americans, who took overthrew their political system and changed their lives forever more.

Cook is Hawaii’s icon for evil, and an easier and safer target never existed. The Hawaiians killed him a year later on the Island of Hawaii. He came ashore there for much the same reason he came to Kauai, supplies, fresh water, rest and relaxation for his crew.

The Hawaiians mistook him for a god, he didn’t set them straight. Cook was not a religious man, so he saw no harm in letting them think that way, if it meant that his crew would be treated with kindness. That oversight backfired. Even his crew accused him of blasphemy and the natives thought that since he was a god, he would be impervious to harm.

When one of his crew members died, the Hawaiians discovered to their dismay that Cook and his crew were mortal just like the rest of them. Then in the middle of a disastrous misunderstanding, they clubbed him to death, cut up his body and carried him off, thinking that even though he wasn’t a god, he was still a very potent man and therefore, even body parts would hold some charm.

There is another marker to Captain Cook in Hawaii.  It's at Kealakekua Bay, to mark the spot where he died. It's an out-of-the-way stop for tourists on the Big Island, a four mile drive down a windy road from the highway. When you eventually get to the spot, it's possible to see the slim white monument on a small stand of ground now owned by England. To see it up close, a person would have to hike a nearly impassible trail, paddle a kayak across the bay, or sign up for an excursion. Once a year Australian sailors come by and clean up the monument and the grounds around it -- a little piece of England on this far away island.

Cook's monument
Here's an old postcard
 of Cook's monument from the small park in Kealakekua Bay

Is it fair to blame Captain Cook for ruining the old Hawaiian culture? That, of course, is a sociological question. Finding somebody to blame is an easy way to shift the burdens of life’s problems. It might be easier to blame Cook, who died years ago, than to fix things now. Some more radical factions claim that Hawaii’s problems won’t be solved until the wrongs done by Captain Cook are overturned. By that they mean that Hawaii must revert back to the pre-contact era and the land must be returned to the native people. It’s a complicated and fairly unrealistic theory that keeps resurfacing and growing, especially in the uneven economic times that Hawaii has gone through in past years.

So when visitors stumble upon that lonely rock in that weedy Waimea park, or gaze across the water of Kealakekua Bay, what is left unstated speaks eloquently about the way many Hawaiians feel today. Mainlanders come and spend a few pleasant days enjoying the beauty of the islands, very often ignorant of the cultural problems and resentment simmering just below the surface.


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