Captain James Cook, FRS,
RN was an explorer, navigator and cartographer who rose to the rank
of captain in the Royal Navy and as one of the very few men in the 18th
century navy to rise through the ranks, he was particularly sympathetic
to the needs of ordinary sailors.
Cook was born in the village of Marton,
a suburb of Middlesbrough; he was baptised in the local church of St.
Cuthbert, where his name can still be seen in the church register; he
was the second of eight children of James Cook, a Scottish farm labourer
from Ednam near Kelso and his wife Grace Pace.
In 1736, his family
moved to Airey Holme farm at Great Ayton, where his father's employer,
Thomas Skottowe, paid for him to attend the local school; in 1741, after
five years schooling, he began work for his father, who had by now been
promoted to farm manager.
In 1745, when he was 16, Cook moved to
the fishing village of Staithes, to be apprenticed as a shop boy to
the grocer and haberdasher William Sanderson; this may be where Cook
first felt the lure of the sea while gazing out of the shop window;
after 18 months and not proving suitable for shop work, Cook travelled
to the nearby port town of Whitby to be introduced to friends of Sanderson's,
John and Henry Walker; the Walkers were prominent local ship owners
and were in the coal trade; their house is now the Captain Cook Memorial
Cook was taken on as a merchant navy apprentice
in their small fleet of vessels, plying coal along the English coast;
his first assignment was aboard the collier Freelove and he spent several
years on this and various other coasters, sailing between the Tyne and
London; as part of his apprenticeship, Cook applied himself to the study
of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, navigation and astronomy, all skills
he would later need to command his own ship.
When his three year apprenticeship was
completed, Cook began working on trading ships in the Baltic Sea; after
passing his examinations in 1752, he soon progressed through the merchant
navy ranks, starting with his promotion in that year to mate aboard
the collier brig Friendship.
However in 1755, within a month of being
offered command of this vessel, he volunteered for service in the Royal
Navy, at a time when Britain was re-arming for what was to become the
Years' War; despite the need for him to start back at the bottom
of the naval hierarchy, Cook realised his career would advance more
quickly in the military service and he joined the Royal Navy at Wapping
on the 7th June 1755.
Cook's first posting was with HMS Eagle,
sailing with the rank of master's mate; in October and November 1755
he took part in Eagle's capture of one French warship and the sinking
of another, following which he was promoted to boatswain in addition
to his other duties; his first temporary command was in March 1756 when
he was briefly the master of the Cruizer, a small cutter attached to
the Eagle while on patrol; in June 1757 Cook passed his master's examinations
at Trinity House, Deptford, which qualified him to navigate and handle
a ship of the King's fleet; he then joined the frigate HMS Solebay as
master under Captain Robert Craig.
During the Seven Years' War, he served
in North America as master of Pembroke; in 1758, he took part in the
major amphibious assault that captured the Fortress of Louisbourg from
the French, after which he participated in the siege of Quebec City
and then the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759; he showed a talent
for surveying and cartography and was responsible for mapping much of
the entrance to the Saint Lawrence River during the siege of Quebec,
thus allowing General Wolfe to make his famous stealth attack on the
Plains of Abraham.
Cook's aptitude for surveying was put to
good use mapping the jagged coast of Newfoundland in the 1760s; he surveyed
the northwest stretch in 1763 and 1764, the south coast between the
Burin Peninsula and Cape Ray in 1765 and 1766, and the west coast in
1767; his five seasons in Newfoundland produced the first large scale
and accurate maps of the island's coasts; they also gave Cook his mastery
of practical surveying, achieved under often adverse conditions.
This achievement brought him to the attention
of the Admiralty and the Royal Society at a crucial moment both in his
career and in the direction of British overseas discovery; it led to
his commission as lieutenant in 1766, at age 39, as commander of HM
Bark Endeavour for the first of three Pacific voyages; it was at this
time that Cook wrote that he intended to go not only "... farther
than any man has been before me, but as far as I think it is possible
for a man to go."
On his three voyagers of exploration Cook
mapped lands from New Zealand to Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean in greater
detail and on a scale not previously achieved; as he progressed on his
voyages of discovery he surveyed and named features and recorded islands
and coastlines on European maps for the first time; he displayed a combination
of seamanship, superior surveying and cartographic skills, physical
courage and an ability to lead men in adverse conditions.
In 1769, the planet Venus was due to pass
in front of the Sun, a rare event visible only in the southern hemisphere;
the British government and Royal Society decided to send an expedition
to observe the phenomenon; a more secret motive was to search for the
fabled southern continent; Cook was chosen as commander of the Whitby
built HMS Endeavour; those on board included astronomer Charles Green
and botanist Joseph Banks.
The expedition sailed from Plymouth on
the 26th August 1768 in the HMS
Endeavour, rounded Cape Horn and continued westward across
the Pacific to arrive at Tahiti on the 13th April 1769, where the observations
of the Venus Transit were made; however, the result of the observations
was not as conclusive or accurate as had been hoped; once the observations
were completed, Cook opened the sealed orders which were additional
instructions from the Admiralty for the second part of his voyage to
search the south Pacific for signs of the postulated rich southern continent
of Terra Australis.
The Endeavour continued west reaching the
south eastern coast of the Australian continent on the 19th April 1770
and in doing so his expedition became the first recorded expedition
to have encountered and sailed along the length of Australia's eastern
coastline; Cook claimed it for Britain and named it New South Wales.
On the 23rd April he made his first recorded direct observation of indigenous
Australians at Brush Island near Bawley Point, noting in his journal:
"...and were so near the Shore as to distinguish several people
upon the Sea beach they appear'd to be of a very dark or black Colour
but whether this was the real colour of their skins or the Clothes they
might have on I know not.".
On the 29th April Cook and his crew made their first landfall on the
mainland of the continent at a place now known as the Kurnell Peninsula,
which he named Botany Bay after the unique specimens retrieved by the
botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander; it is here that James Cook
made first contact with an Aboriginal tribe known as the Gweagal.
After his departure from Botany Bay he continued northwards and a mishap
occurred, on the 11th June, when Endeavour ran aground on a shoal of
the Great Barrier Reef and then "nursed into a river mouth on the
18th June 1770."; the ship was badly damaged and his voyage was
delayed almost seven weeks while repairs were carried out on the beach,
near the docks of modern Cooktown, at the mouth of the Endeavour River.
Once repairs were complete Cook continued the voyage, sailing through
the Torres Strait and on the 22nd August he landed on Possession Island,
where he claimed the entire coastline he had just explored as British
territory; he mapped the complete New Zealand coastline.
Cook returned to England via Batavia, modern Jakarta, Indonesia, where
many in his crew succumbed to malaria, the Cape of Good Hope and the
island of Saint Helena, arriving on the 12th July 1771; Cook's journals
were published upon his return, and he became something of a hero among
the scientific community, amongst the general public however, the aristocratic
botanist Joseph Banks was a bigger hero; Banks even attempted to take
command of Cook's second voyage, but removed himself from the voyage
before it began and Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg Forster
were taken on as scientists for the voyage.
Shortly after his return from the first voyage, in August 1771, Cook
was promoted to the rank of commander; then, in 1772, he was commissioned
by the Royal Society to search for the hypothetical Terra Australis;
on his first voyage, Cook had demonstrated by circumnavigating New Zealand
that it was not attached to a larger landmass to the south; although
he charted almost the entire eastern coastline of Australia, showing
it to be continental in size, the Terra Australis was believed to lie
even further south; despite the evidence to the contrary, Alexander
Dalrymple and others of the Royal Society still believed that this massive
southern continent should exist.
So in 1772, Cook set out on a second voyage, on the HMS Resolution,
while Tobias Furneaux commanded its companion ship, HMS Adventure, to
look for the southern continent; the expedition circumnavigated the
globe at a very high southern latitude; on the 11th December 1772, Cook
and his crew sighted an iceberg and came to the edge of an endless pack
of ice; for 2 months they sailed along the pack ice looking for a route
further south and on the 17th January 1773, his ships became the first
to cross Antarctic Circle.
However, later on in an Antarctic fog, the two ships Resolution and
Adventure became separated and Furneaux made his way to New Zealand,
where he lost some of his men during an encounter with the Maori and
eventually sailed back to Britain, whilst Cook continued to explore
the Antarctic, reaching 71°10' S on the 31st January 1774; Cook almost
encountered the mainland of Antarctica, but turned back north towards
Tahiti to resupply his ship.
Cook then resumed his southward course in a second fruitless attempt
to find the supposed continent; on this leg of the voyage he took with
him a young Tahitian named Omai, who proved to be somewhat less knowledgeable
about the Pacific than the last Tahitian named Tupaia, who he had included
on his first voyage; he landed at the Friendly Islands, Easter Island,
Norfolk Island, New Caledonia and Vanuatu.
Another accomplishment of the second voyage was the successful employment
of the Larcum Kendall K1 chronometer, which enabled Cook to calculate
his longitudinal position with much greater accuracy; Cook's log was
full of praise for the watch which he used to make charts of the southern
Pacific Ocean that were so remarkably accurate that copies of them were
still in use in the mid-20th century.
Cook's reports upon his return home in 1775 put to rest the popular
myth of Terra Australis; Cook was subsequently promoted to the rank
of captain and given an honorary retirement from the Royal Navy, as
an officer in the Greenwich Hospital; his acceptance was reluctant,
insisting that he be allowed to quit the post if the opportunity for
active duty presented itself; his fame now extended beyond the Admiralty
and he was also made a Fellow of the Royal Society and awarded the Copley
Gold Medal, painted by Nathaniel Dance-Holland, dined with James Boswell
and described in the House of Lords as "the first navigator in Europe".
On his third exploratory voyage in the Pacific, in July 1776, he once
again commanded the HMS Resolution, while Captain Charles Clerke commanded
the HMS Discovery; ostensibly, the voyage was planned in order to return
Omai to Tahiti; this is what the general public were led to believe,
as he had become a favourite curiosity in London.
Principally however, the purpose of the voyage was an attempt to discover
the famed Northwest Passage that was believed to link the Atlantic and
Pacific oceans, but before looking for the fabled route he first returned
Omai to his homeland; then from the South Pacific, he went northeast
to explore the west coast of North America north of the Spanish settlements
in Alta, California; he made landfall at approximately 44°30' north
latitude, near Cape Foulweather on the Oregon coast, which he named
after the foul weather.
The weather forced his ships south to about 43° north before they could
begin their exploration of the coast northward; he unknowingly sailed
past the Strait of Juan de Fuca; being unable to find the fabled route,
Cook travelled north and in 1778 became the first European to visit
the Hawaiian Islands; in passing and after initial landfall in January
1778 at Waimea harbour, Kauai, Cook named the archipelago the "Sandwich
Islands" after the fourth Earl of Sandwich, the acting First Lord of
the Admiralty; a statue of James Cook now stands in Waimea, Kauai commemorating
his first contact with the Hawaiian Islands at the town's harbour on
Soon afterwards he entered Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island; he anchored
near the First Nations village of Yuquot and in what Cook called Ship
Cove, now known as Resolution Cove; they stayed there from the 29th
March to the 26th April 1778; at first, relations between Cook's crew
and the people of Yuquot were cordial if sometimes strained; in trading,
the people of Yuquot demanded much more valuable items than the usual
trinkets that had worked for Cook's crew in Hawaii; metal objects were
much desired, but the lead, pewter and tin traded at first soon lost
The most valuable items the British received back in trade were sea
otter pelts; over the month long stay the Yuquot "hosts" essentially
controlled the trade with the British vessels, instead of vice versa;
generally the natives visited the British vessels at Resolution Cove
instead of the British visiting the village of Yuquot at Friendly Cove.
After leaving Nootka Sound, Cook explored and mapped the coast all the
way to the Bering Strait, on the way identifying what came to be known
as Cook Inlet in Alaska; it has been said that, in a single visit, Cook
charted the majority of the North American northwest coastline on world
maps for the first time, determined the extent of Alaska and closed
the gaps in Russian, from the West, and Spanish, from the South, exploratory
probes of the Northern limits of the Pacific; the Bering Strait proved
to be impassable, although he made several attempts to sail through
it; he became increasingly frustrated on this voyage and may have started
to suffer from a stomach ailment; it has been speculated that this led
to an irrational behaviour towards his crew, such as forcing them to
eat walrus meat, which they found inedible.
Cook returned to Hawaii in 1779; after sailing around the archipelago
for some eight weeks, he made landfall at Kealakekua Bay, on 'Hawaii
Island', the largest island in the Hawaiian Archipelago; Cook's arrival
coincided with the Makahiki, an Hawaiian harvest festival of worship
for the Polynesian god Lono; coincidentally the form of Cook's ship,
HMS Resolution, or more particularly the mast formation, sails and rigging,
resembled certain significant artifacts that formed part of the season
of worship; similarly, Cook's clockwise route around the island of Hawaii,
before making landfall, which had been noted by the natives, resembled
the processions that took place in a clockwise direction around the
island during the Lono festivals; it may have been these coincidences
that led to Cook's alleged initial deification by some of the Hawaiians
who treated Cook as an incarnation of Lono.
After a month's stay, Cook got under sail again to resume his exploration
of the Northern Pacific; however, shortly after leaving Hawaii Island,
the foremast of the Resolution broke and the ships returned to Kealakekua
Bay for repairs; it is possible that the return to the islands by Cook's
expedition was not just unexpected by the Hawaiians, but also unwelcome
because the season of Lono had recently ended; whatever the reasons,
tensions arose and a number of quarrels broke out between the Europeans
and the Hawaiians.
On the 14th February at Kealakekua Bay, some Hawaiians took one of Cook's
small boats; thefts were quite common in Tahiti and the other islands
and Cook usually took and held native hostages until the stolen articles
were returned; on this occasion he attempted to take the local king
as hostage, but the Hawaiians prevented this and Cook's men had to retreat,
whilst fighting, to the beach and as Cook turned his back on them to
help launch the boats, he was struck on the head by a native and then
stabbed to death as he fell on his face in the surf; Hawaiian tradition
says that he was killed by a chief named Kalanimanokahoowaha; after
killing him the Hawaiians dragged his body away; during the confrontation
four of Cook's Marines were also killed and two wounded.
The esteem in which he was held by the Hawaiians resulted in his body
being retained by their chiefs and elders and following the practice
of the time, Cook's body underwent funerary rituals similar to those
reserved for the chiefs and highest elders of the society; the body
was disembowelled, baked to facilitate removal of the flesh and the
bones were carefully cleaned for preservation as religious icons in
a fashion somewhat reminiscent of the treatment of European saints in
the Middle Ages; some of Cook's remains were eventually returned to
the British for a formal burial at sea following an appeal by the crew.
Clerke took over the expedition and made a final attempt to pass through
the Bering Strait; following the death of Clerke, Resolution and Discovery
returned home in October 1780 commanded by John Gore, a veteran of Cook's
first voyage and Captain James King.
Cook's account of his third and final voyage was completed upon their
return by King; David Samwell, who sailed with Cook on the Resolution,
wrote of him "He was a modest man, and rather bashful; of an
agreeable lively conversation, sensible and intelligent. In temper he
was somewhat hasty, but of a disposition the most friendly, benevolent
and humane. His person was above six feet high: and, though a good looking
man, he was plain both in dress and appearance. His face was full of
expression: his nose extremely well shaped: his eyes which were small
and of a brown cast, were quick and piercing; his eyebrows prominent,
which gave his countenance altogether an air of austerity.".
Cook left a legacy of scientific and geographical knowledge which was
to influence his successors well into the 20th century and numerous
memorials worldwide have been dedicated to him; Cook's maps were used
right into the 20th century, copies of them being referenced by those
sailing Newfoundland's waters for 200 years.
Cook's 12 years sailing around the Pacific Ocean contributed much to
European knowledge of the area; several islands such as Sandwich Islands
were encountered for the first time by Europeans and his more accurate
navigational charting of large areas of the Pacific was a major achievement.
To create accurate maps, latitude and longitude need
to be known; navigators had been able to work out latitude accurately
for centuries by measuring the angle of the sun or a star above the
horizon with an instrument such as a backstaff or quadrant; longitude
was more difficult to measure accurately because it requires precise
knowledge of the time difference between points on the surface of the
The Earth turns a full 360 degrees relative to the sun each day, thus
longitude corresponds to time, at 15 degrees every hour, or 1 degree
every 4 minutes; Cook gathered accurate longitude measurements during
his first voyage due to his navigational skills, the help of astronomer
Charles Green and by using the newly published Nautical Almanac tables,
via the lunar distance method, measuring the angular distance from the
moon to either the sun during daytime, or one of eight bright stars
during night time, to determine the time at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich,
and comparing that to his local time determined via the altitude of
the sun, moon, or stars.
On his second voyage Cook used the K1 chronometer made by Larcum Kendall,
which was the shape of a large pocket watch, 5 inches (13 centimetres)
in diameter; it was a copy of the H4 clock made by John Harrison, which
proved to be the first to keep accurate time at sea when used on the
ship Deptford's journey to Jamaica, 1761–62.
Cook succeeded in circumnavigating the world on his first voyage without
losing a single man to scurvy, an unusual accomplishment at the time;
he tested several preventive measures but the most important was frequent
replenishment of fresh food; it was for presenting a paper on this aspect
of the voyage to the Royal Society that he was presented with the Copley
Medal in 1776; ever the observer, Cook was the first European to have
extensive contact with various people of the Pacific; he correctly concluded
there was a relationship amongst all of the people in the Pacific, despite
their being separated by thousands of miles of ocean; Cook came up with
the theory that Polynesians originated from Asia, which was later proved
to be correct by scientist Bryan Sykes.
In New Zealand the coming of Cook is often used to signify the onset
of colonisation; Cook was accompanied on his voyages by many scientists,
whose observations and discoveries added to the importance of the voyages;
Joseph Banks, a botanist, went on the first voyage along with fellow
botanist Daniel Solander from Sweden; between them they collected over
3,000 plant species; Banks became one of the strongest promoters of
the settlement of Australia by the British, based on his own personal
observations; there were also several artists on the first voyage; Sydney
Parkinson in particular completed 264 drawings before his death near
the end of the voyage; they were of immense scientific value to British
Cook's second expedition included the artist William Hodges, who produced
notable landscape paintings of Tahiti, Easter Island and other locations;
a number of the junior officers who served under Cook went on to distinctive
accomplishments of their own.