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Video clip synopsis – Captain James Cook’s untimely return to Hawaii ended with his violent death, the details of which are portrayed in numerous conflicting illustrations.
Year of production - 2008
Duration - 5min 30sec
Tags - art, artistic manipulation, artists, Captain Cook, colonisation, conflict, discovery, exploration, icons, image and reality, national identity, see all tags


Captain Cook’s Tragic Death

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About the Video Clip


From the series Hidden Treasures – Inside the National Library of Australia.

The National Library of Australia is the country’s largest reference library with over nine million items in its collection, including a surprising number of art works. In a new series of Hidden Treasures, Betty Churcher presents an insider’s guide to some of the little known and rarely displayed art treasures held by the National Library. From her unique vantage point, Churcher makes intriguing historical connections between paintings and engravings, photography, manuscripts and artifacts, illustrated journals and diaries. These are fascinating tales about the creative process and the works themselves that offer a tantalising insight into Australia’s culture and heritage.
A Film Australia National Interest Program in association with Early Works. Produced in association with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. With special thanks to the National Library of Australia.

Curriculum Focus


Students are required to reflect critically on meanings and values associated with particular visual artworks. They use the language and terminology to analyse the style, technique, subject matter and design of artworks.

This is a guide only. Teachers and students should consult their state’s curriculum and learning programs

Background Information


Captain James Cook’s untimely return to Hawaii in 1779, 10 days after he had left, ended with his violent death, the details of which are portrayed in numerous illustrations in the National Library collection. Many artists, including the official artist for the voyage, John Webber, recreated the scene in the years following Cook’s death. Each artist portrayed a different view: Cook the white knight, Cook the peacemaker, Cook the leader of a military offensive. But we know that Webber didn’t witness the death so it seems likely that an engraving made from the drawings of DP Dodd and other witnesses are more likely to represent what really happened.

Students are encouraged to view Episode 5 of Hidden Treasures entitled Captain Cook in Hawaii. Taken together, they help us to explore the nature of and reasons for Cook’s death in 1779. Your task is to use the information in the programs to create a narrative or a storyboard that sets out the sequence of events, explains the reasons for, and comments on the degree to which we can be certain about the events of Cook’s death.

Classroom Activities

  1. Which action of Cook’s destroyed the illusion that Cook represented Orono?
  2. Look at the different representations of Cook’s death in the segment. What message does each give about his death?
  3. All were painted after the event and none was painted by an eyewitness. How does that influence the nature and purpose of the paintings?
    You might be assisted in this by first reading the account of his death.
    This account by ship’s surgeon, David Samwell, is regarded as the most complete and reliable one. List the elements that contributed to the cause of Cook’s death. For example, you might include the date and time—if Cook had landed earlier or later things might have been different. You might list Cook’s character—if he had not been so confident he might have behaved with greater caution. You might list the illness of Clerke—if he had led the party as Cook originally intended then Cook would not have been on the beach at the time of the attack. And so on. From the list that you make, create a statement about the nature of causation in history.

Further Resources


Go to Screen Australia Digital Learning’s Arts Portal

Find out more about the Endeavour Journal at the National Library of Australia’s website

Go to the Captain Cook – Obsession and Discovery website