Monday, February 23, 2009

Captain Cook, R.I.P.

My Fun Fact last Thursday related to how I spent the previous week, in the footsteps of David Douglas, as part of a documentary film crew headed by my friend, Lois Leonard. I'll write more about our interview with Nanette Napoleon, Hawaiian cemetery historian, at the Kawaiahao Church in Honolulu, and our pilgrimage to Kaluakauka, "the Doctor's Pit," on the slopes of Mauna Kea, with Douglas enthusiast Jeff de Ponte.

After several days of filming sites relevant to the life of David Douglas, we had the luxury of a bit of down time before we had to pack up and leave Hawaii. Lois was determined to visit another historic site near and dear to her heart, Kealakekua Bay. On the Kona Coast, about 1000 feet down a sheer cliff from the tiny town of Captain Cook, it's where Captain James Cook, a Yorkshireman blessed with a keen sense of adventure and discovery, met his ignominious end.

Lois bravely wrestled with carsickness as our SUV danced down the winding road from the top of the cliff to the bay. Once there, and in the sight of the white marble obelisk that marks the site of Cook's death, Lois had robust color return to her cheeks. She is pictured here conferring with cinematographer Steve Patapoff. In the far distance the white obelisk is barely visible. It can be reached only by water, since the sheer cliff allows no room for hiking trails.

We saw many people launching kayaks into the bay, where spinner dolphins sometimes treat kayakers to a close-up show. Alas, we had no time to join the kayakers, though the prospect of negotiating the blue bay was tempting. We had to get our sound man to the Hilo Airport, and then Steve needed to film the hot lava dropping into the sea at Kalapana. So we had miles to go before we rested. No kayaking to Cook's death site for us.

After seeing where David Douglas died and then seeing where James Cook died, I concluded that those Brits did a darn good job of choosing beautiful places to be killed.

But in terms of Hawaiian history, Captain Cook's murder is more signficant. In fact, Captain Cook and the term "contact" are practically synonymous. Pre-contact Hawaii is considered any time before Captain Cook sailed in. He came to Hawaii twice, actually. The first visit was in January 1778, in Kaua'i. A year later, after searching in vain for the Northwest Passage in Alaskan waters, Cook sailed back to what he dubbed the Sandwich Islands, for the Earl of Sandwich, who sponsored Cook's voyages of discovery.

It was a complete accident of fate that Cook sailed into Kealakekua Bay during the Makahiki festival in honor of the god Lono. A temple dedicated to Lono was also situated at the bay. And suddenly, there he was: Lono. Or so the Hawaiians thought. They prostrated themselves before him, bestowed gifts upon him, and were generally amazed that Lono would manifest himself before them. Never mind the British naval uniform. They bought it, brass buttons and all.

Cook would have lived to tell about his short stint as a god if it hadn't been for a rotten mast, which forced him back into the bay for repairs a couple of days after leaving his adoring fans. Second time around, the natives weren't so adoring, especially when Cook took a local chief ransom for the nails that the Hawaiians kept pulling out of the ship.

Nails . . . Chief. Okay, so maybe he over-reacted. And it cost him his life during the ensuing brouhaha.

I didn't realize until I started preparing my Fun Fact for hula class that we visited the site exactly 230 years after Cook's death. We stood on the beach enjoying the sunny beauty of the bay on February 14, 2009. Captain Cook departed this world on February 14, 1779. Wow.
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