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The Death of Captain Cook

John Webber1784

National Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery

This work is a depiction of the affray which took place in Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, on 14 February 1779, in which Cook, four marines, and seventeen Hawaiians lost their lives. Two and half years into his third voyage and having circumnavigated the largest island of Hawaii, Cook anchored his ships, Resolution and Discovery, in Kealekekua Bay in January 1779. The voyagers were welcomed, and relations between the Hawaiians and Europeans remained largely peaceful during the expedition’s stay. Shortly after departing Kealekekua, however, Cook returned to make repairs and relations then deteriorated. Things came to a head when Cook decided to force the return of a stolen ship’s cutter by taking the Hawaiian king hostage. He went ashore with ten men to bring the plan into effect; shots were fired in the confusion and a Hawaiian chief was killed. Cook and his men were attacked as they retreated to their boats; Cook shot and killed another warrior and in return was stabbed.
News of Cook’s demise reached England ahead of the return of the expedition and quickly became the subject of souvenir images. Engravers Francesco Bartolozzi and William Byrne issued this work in 1784, basing it closely on John Webber’s oil painting of the awful events in Hawaii. Webber was not an eye-witness to Cook’s death, but as the official artist of the expedition, on his return he painted what were to become the most famous of all depictions of it – in at least two versions, the first in watercolours and the second in oils. Francesco Bartolozzi was responsible for the figures in the engraving and William Byrne provided the landscape. The view appeared at about the same time as the official third voyage account was published; although lavishly illustrated by Webber, the official account did not include any depiction of this scene. As a result, the image is often bound into extra-illustrated editions of the third voyage account. This is an example of the rare first issue of the engraving.

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  • Title: The Death of Captain Cook
  • Creator: John Webber, Francesco Bartolozzi (engraver) and William Byrne (engraver)
  • Date Created: 1784
  • Physical Dimensions: sheet: 50.3 x 60.4 cm, image: 42.3 x 57.7
  • Provenance: Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra Purchased with funds provided by Robert Oatley AO 2007
  • Rights: https://www.portrait.gov.au/form-image-request.php
  • External Link: https://www.portrait.gov.au/portraits/2007.28
  • Medium: Engraving

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