Captain Cook Lays Waste to Moorea

This extract from Frank McLynn’s, Captain Cook: Master of the Seas, describes what happened in October 1777 when, following the theft of two of his goats, Captain James Cook ordered his men to lay waste to the island of Moorea.

For nearly a week relations between Cook and the Mooreans were excellent. The trouble began on 6 October and featured, as such incidents so often did, the remaining livestock which Cook had disembarked for grazing. Mahine had asked Cook for two goats as a gift and had been mortified when Cook turned him down. What he could not have by the front door he determined to have by the back. Using the trumped up excuse that one of the sailors had bilked him, a local trader (in reality Mahine’s agent) stole a goat and spirited it away to the chief ’s residence at Paopao.

Cook opened negotiations with Mahine, knowing him to be the real culprit, and offered him a vast quantity of red feathers for the return of the goat, but in vain. Just as the short-tempered Cook began to lose patience with Mahine, he was brought to boiling point by the barefaced theft of a second goat, even as he negotiated for the return of the first one. Cook issued the most dire threats of terrible consequences if the goats were not returned. As a result one of the animals was returned. But Cook’s blood was now up and he clapped the original thief in irons, put him on bread and water and forbade his kinsfolk to try to bring food to him aboard the ship.

Next morning he found Papetoai Bay deserted and learned that Mahine and his people had fled to the far side of the island. His officers urged him to let the matter rest, but Cook was determined that, as he saw it, Mahine should not be allowed to best him; the officers regarded this as further proof that the Cook of the third voyage was deranged and no longer the man they had served under so admiringly in previous years. When Mahine continued to stall, Cook decided on a punitive expedition.

On the morning of 9 October he set out with thirty-five heavily armed men. Coming under fire from stones and darts, they marched across the hills to where Mahine was skulking. Finally Cook gave the order to open fire; at least one Moorean was killed. When Cook reached the village of the sub-chief Hamoa and found that the missing goat had still not been surrendered, he informed the villagers that he would not rest and would remain in the mountains for months if need be until Mahine was taken, dead or alive. All Mahine had to do to avert this fate was to return the goat.

When even this provoked no response, Cook ordered his men to lay waste the island. They gutted houses and burned large quantities of war canoes. The prime mover in all these atrocities was Omai who joined in the holocaust with gusto, delighting in putting houses, canoes and crops to the torch. When the men’s fury was spent and they returned to the ships for the night, there was the goat sitting forlornly on the beach. Mahine had eventually realised that he was dealing with a fanatic, that if he did not return the animal, the entire island would be a scorched wilderness of devastation.

James King wrote disapprovingly of the episode: ‘In future they may fear, but never love us.’ The irony was that, having refused to join Tu in his campaign against Mahine, Cook had ended up by visiting more damage on him and his island than Tu and To’ofa and their entire armada had been able to manage. Despite his official stance of neutrality in island wars Cook had in effect, albeit for his own reasons, intervened decisively on Tu’s side.

Once he had got his two goats back, Cook seemed to come to his senses and appeared almost remorseful: ‘Thus this troublesome and rather unfortunate affair ended, which could not be more regretted on the part of the natives than it was on mine.’ Yet he had made a bad mistake. Not only had he besmirched his reputation in the islands, but he had alienated and disgusted his officers, not a single one of whom supported Cook in the privacy of their journals.

I cannot help thinking the man totally destitute of humanity

From King, Ellis and Samwell the criticism was fair enough, but it went farther than that. Lieutenant Williamson revealed himself as a humbug as well as a despot when he wrote sanctimoniously ‘I cannot help thinking the man totally destitute of humanity, that he would not have felt considerably for these poor and, before our arrival, probably happy people, and I must confess this once I obeyed my orders with reluctance. I doubt not but Captain Cook had good reasons for carrying his punishment of these people to so great a length, but what his reasons were are yet a secret.’

Captain Cook
Master of the Seas

Frank McLynn

McLynn has set out to provide a modern re-appraisal of Captain Cook, and he succeeds.” -Tim Severin

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Feature image: “A new map of the world, with Captain Cook’s tracks, his discoveries and those of the other circumnavigators” by Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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