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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 - Australian History, Bligh, Captain Cook, discovery, DIY Doco, documentary, exploration, Interpretation, 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

  • Historical Knowledge and Understanding
  • Historical Reasoning and Interpretation

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


Operation Brainstorm

In this clip the historians and commentators describe Cook as:

  • “founding father of modern navigation.”
  • “an inspirational leader.”
  • “an emissary of British Imperialism.”
  • “a man of his times but a man of all times.”
  • “created a legacy very few could match.”
  • “one of the great heroes of the British Empire.”

Use these points as a basis for class discussion. Was Cook a hero?

  1. Divide up in to groups, each group to take one of these descriptions of Cook.
  2. Draw up a table and try to find evidence for and against the description of Cook.
  3. Groups rotate after a five minute brainstorm. After each five minutes the group is presented with another description where they can add to or refute evidence presented.
  4. After all descriptions have been discussed by the group, reconvene as a class to discuss ‘Was Cook a hero?”

Representation of Cook

  1. In this series of clips, what characteristics of Cook seem to be reiterated?
  2. If you can, look at the opening scenes of the documentary. What does the presenter note about her own experiences of learning about Captain Cook?
  3. Describe how this clip depicts the following individuals, noting down images or words and phrases that are used:
  • Cook
  • Bligh
  • The Hawaiians

Teachers could ask open ended questions such as:

  • “What sort of feelings do the words used to describe each of these people evoke?”
  • “Why do you think that these words have been used?”

From the information that you collected in the previous question, how do you think the documentary makers want us to see Cook?
What sort of effect does the final scene of the clip have on the audience? How effective is this technique in representing history?
What conclusions do you draw regarding the way the documentary has represented Cook? Do you think that the representation is an ‘accurate’ one? Why? Why not?

Extended Response: Using Documentary films to understand history

Write an extended response to the question:
“To what extent does the documentary Captain Cook: Obsession and Discovery help us understand the life and achievements of Captain Cook?”
In your answer, consider the strengths and limitations of the historical documentary as a medium for representing history.

Further Resources


Resources for essay writing

Captain Cook Country

Captain Cook Society