On 12 July 1776 James Cook sailed from Plymouth in HMS Resolution. The main purpose of Cook’s third and final voyage was to find the rumoured entrance to the ‘Northwest Passage’ between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. For almost three centuries, European navigators had searched for this route. Cook was also charged with the responsibility to return Raiatean man Mai to his home.  

Resolution called at Cape Town for provisions. There it was joined by the expedition’s other ship, HMS Discovery. Cook continued on to his old base at Queen Charlotte Sound, Totaranui, in New Zealand, via Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). From there, he sailed first to Tonga and then to the Society Islands before crossing the equator into the North Pacific.

On 18 January 1778 Cook sighted the Hawaiian or Sandwich Islands. During a brief stopover one of Cook’s officers shot and killed a Hawaiian man.

Cook needed to make repairs to Resolution, which he undertook at Nootka Sound, on Vancouver Island. 

A present from Tahiti

A Young Woman of Otaheite Bringing a Present is a well-known image from Cook’s third voyage. It shows a young woman wrapped in an enormous length of tapa cloth, intended as a gift for the European visitors. Tapa or barkcloth is typically made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree. Ceremonial gorgets for presentation to commanders Cook and Clerke are also illustrated.  

The Society Islands (Tahiti) came to be a special place for Cook and his men, and they visited on each voyage. Europeans and islanders explored shared knowledge, formed relationships, and traded goods and favours, even portraits of each other. 

A young woman with short, curly hair wearing a dress embellished with patters. The dress stops just above her ankles. She is walking outside, barefoot, and the left-side of her chest is showing. She has one arm on her stomach, and the other hand to her mouth. She is smiling a little, and looking up at the sky.
Francesco Bartolozzi (engraver), after John Webber (artist), A Young Woman of Otaheite Bringing a Present, 1784. From the National Library of Australia. Click here to view this item digitally in Trove.

The search for the Northwest Passage

The ships sailed north up the coast and around the Alaskan peninsula. They passed through the Bering Strait and headed due north into the Bering Sea. They crossed the Arctic Circle on 11 August 1778.
When the pack ice became impenetrable, Cook decided to turn back. He planned to winter in the Sandwich Islands and try again the following summer.


Cook and his men sighted the island Maui first, then Hawaii. When they anchored in Kealakekua Bay on 16 January 1779, they were warmly received by the Hawaiians. For a week or so, they were lauded and well treated. But with increasing tensions, Cook announced they would shortly set sail.
Cook planned to complete his survey of the islands. After that, he would sail to the Kamchatka peninsula, on the Siberian coast, to wait for summer. Then he could make one final search for the Northwest Passage.
During a storm, Resolution’s foremast was badly damaged and Cook decided to return to Hawaii for repairs. It proved to be a fatal decision.

The fatal end

Arriving back at Kealakekua Bay on 11 February 1779, the Hawaiians were less friendly. After someone stole the Discovery’s cutter (boat), Cook organised a shore party, planning to hold the chief Kalaniʻōpuʻu hostage to secure the cutter’s return. 
Many locals gathered on the beach to prevent Kalaniʻōpuʻu being taken. A scuffle broke out, shots were fired and in ‘a scene of utmost horror and confusion’, Cook was stabbed and clubbed to death.
Cook’s party managed to escape, but four marines and numerous locals were killed. 
Six days later, a priest handed over Cook’s remains, which were committed to the sea. Resolution and Discovery continued with their voyage, eventually returning to England in October 1780.

Death of Cook

Cook’s death at Kealakekua Bay on 14 February 1779 was a moment of high drama and confrontation. It has been imagined by many artists and writers, inspired by the accounts of those who were there. George Carter’s painting shows Cook on the attack, using his inverted gun as a club as he confronts a determined Hawaiian chief.

Cook’s demise attracted huge attention and an outpouring of grief in Britain. His fellow countrymen couldn’t believe that their greatest navigator and explorer could be cut off in his prime in a place which he had only just ‘discovered’. His life and death were memorialised in different ways, including in print, images, objects and in performances. 

Men in white clothes with navy coats to the left of the painting, aiming guns at Indigenous people in cultural attire to the right. The painting is depicting a battle taken place outside near water, with palm tress in the background.
George Carter’s painting Death of Captain Cook, 1781, Rex Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia. Click here to view this item digitally in Trove.