Issue 5.3: June/July 2002

Captain Cook's American


by John W. Perry
art courtesy of John W. Perry Archival Images


Virtually everyone in the Islands, whether resident or visitor, knows the story of Hawaii?s renowned English "discoverer," Captain James Cook. Few, however, remember the name of John Ledyard (1751-1789), an adventurous, red-coated marine who sailed with Cook to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). He was Captain Cook?s American, the first Yankee to see Hawaii and write about it.

Always restless and hungry for adventure, the Connecticut-born Ledyard briefly attended New Hampshire?s Dartmouth College?where a marathon canoeing and whitewater kayaking club is named after him?left Dartmouth to live with an American Indian tribe, then sailed to England where he joined the Royal Marines, a British fighting force dating back to 1664. Ranked a corporal, he was assigned to Cook?s ship, the Resolution, which, with its sister ship the Discovery, departed in July 1776 on a voyage of Pacific exploration. In 1783, five years after he had visited Hawaii, Ledyard published A Journal of Captain Cook?s Last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean. Today, his work is annotated in rare-book bibliographies as the first travelogue describing Hawaii ever to be published in America.
When the Resolution and Discovery anchored in Kauai?s Waimea Bay in January 1778, the isolated Hawaiian Islands suddenly came face to face with the outside world, and vice versa. While Cook declared the Islands a new and valuable discovery, enhancing his navigational fame, Ledyard moved impatiently about the Resolution?s deck, musket in hand, observing the native population with mutual fascination.

He wrote that the Hawaiians who approached Cook?s ships in canoes "appeared inexpressibly surprised, though not intimidated. They shook their spears at us, rolled their eyes about and made wild uncouth gesticulations." Their bravery in confronting such strange ships manned by alien sailors impressed Ledyard, who, as a marine, admired physical courage.

"Can you eat food?" asked the Hawaiians, speaking a language similar to the one Cook?s crew had heard in Tahiti. In response, Ledyard quickly munched a worm-infested ship?s biscuit: Yes, I?m human, too. I eat food! You got fresh food?

During the two weeks that Cook?s ships remained at Kauai, Ledyard, along with his fellow marines, stood guard on deck and ashore while the sailors took on fresh water and traded iron nails and utensils for pigs, uhi (yam) and uala (sweet potato). Ledyard?s pointed military hat puzzled the Hawaiians: Did he have a pointed head? When a crewman foolishly shot a Hawaiian for stealing iron, other Hawaiians called Ledyard?s long-barreled musket a "water squirter" because the gun-smoke reminded them of fresh water squirting through a bamboo tube.

After departing Kauai, Cook?s ships stopped briefly at nearby Niihau, then sailed for North America. After nine months of exploration in the Pacific Northwest, they returned to Hawaii?this time appearing off the coast of the Big Island, whose existence confirmed Cook?s 1778 theory that more islands lay east of Kauai. As the ships anchored in Kealakekua Bay in January 1779, Ledyard witnessed their fabulous Hawaiian reception: Hundreds of Hawaiian canoes surrounded the ships, wrote Ledyard, and ashore "the beach, the surrounding rocks, the tops of houses and branches of trees were covered with people." He described the awed onlookers as a multitude of shouting voices, dancing feet and clapping hands, accented by squealing hogs: "A tumultuous and curious prospect!"


By sheer luck, Cook had arrived during the makahiki festival, a peaceful season of competitive sports, hula performances and feasting, when warfare, which Hawaiians excelled in, was prohibited. The celebration honored Lono, god of peace, agriculture and fertility, represented by a banner of white kapa (bark cloth) affixed to a wooden crosspiece, which, by coincidence, resembled the ships? sails, enhancing Cook?s prestige and mana, or spiritual power, among the Hawaiians.

Aboard the Resolution, Ledyard watched from the deck as Cook, unarmed and without marines, went ashore, where he received a royal welcome. Hawaiian commoners prostrated themselves before the English captain, astonishing even Cook himself, a veteran of Polynesian travel. Taken to Hikiau Heiau, a shoreside temple used as a place of human sacrifice, he was honored with a ceremonial feast, which included baked pig, the tranquilizing beverage awa and chants reserved for Hawaiian royalty.

While the Hawaiians entertained Cook, Ledyard and several other marines went ashore to erect and guard an encampment beside the heiau, a task Ledyard enjoyed, as it allowed him and his shipmates to slip out at night and dally with native women, who were free of the sexual restraints of European society. (Such assignations would later prove disastrous for the Hawaiian people, however, when foreign diseases ran rampant through their population.)

A few days later, with Cook?s blessing, Ledyard left the encampment to attempt the first non-Hawaiian ascent of Mauna Loa. But his ambitious overland trek soon failed, when?equipped with little more than a wool blanket and a bottle of brandy?he encountered impassable terrain miles from the volcano?s 13,677-foot summit. It would be another five years before the first foreigner ever set foot on Mauna Loa?s majestic crown.

A week after Cook departed from Kealakekua Bay en route back to North America, a storm damaged one of the Resolution?s masts, and the captain, reluctantly, ordered a return to the bay for repairs. He knew he had overstayed his welcome, that the Hawaiians had tired of the heavy burden of supplying the ships with food, and that the alii (chiefs) and kahuna (priests) resented violations of their cultural traditions. But what he didn?t understand was that the peaceful makahiki season had ended, and the new season permitted warfare. The day the ships re-entered the bay, even the iron-nerved Ledyard grew apprehensive, observing that only a few canoes greeted his alien moku pea ("island with sail") and no Hawaiians cheered from shore.

On the fateful morning of February 14, Ledyard stood guard beside the Resolution?s damaged mast, under repair on the opposite side of the bay, when Cook, irritated that a ship?s rowboat had been stolen for its iron nails, landed with armed marines to forcibly demand its return. He had concocted a foolhardy plan to kidnap the island?s paramount chief, Kalaniopuu, and exchange him for the boat, but the scheme failed and Cook quickly retreated to the shoreline. There, enraged Hawaiian warriors surrounded and killed him, along with several marines.

What did Ledyard think of Cook? He believed the captain had won his fame by the sweat, blood and muscle of his sailors and marines, had a bad habit of kidnapping island chiefs and holding them hostage until stolen ships? goods were returned, and placed the acquisition of hogs for the ships? kitchens above the welfare of local islanders.
And Cook of Ledyard? In his journals, Cook left a brief, complimentary description of his American-born marine: "an intelligent man."

After the ships? final departure from Hawaii, Ledyard served aboard the Resolution until its return to England in late 1779. Refusing to fight against his countrymen during the American Revolutionary War, he deserted from the Royal Marines, returned to New England to write his book, then departed on other adventures, including a solo trek across Russia?in winter. Surrounded by Russia?s ice and snow, he no doubt sorely missed Hawaii?s tropical sunshine.

Today at Kealakekua Bay, an underwater plaque marks the site of Cook?s famous demise, while in New England, near Dartmouth College on the Connecticut River, a bronze plaque embedded in granite honors Ledyard with these words: "He sailed with Captain Cook, traversing all oceans and penetrating remote lands. He, too, heard a voice crying in the wilderness."