Captain James Cook
English Explorer

1728 - 1779

Few people have ever seen the places the past explorer, James Cook, has ventured. Cook sailed around to far reaches of the world reaching all seven continents during his lifetime. He traveled on three very lengthy journeys with two different sailing ships, encountering hardship and triumph along the way. Not many people ever get off their own continent today, little less back in the 1700's, but as the world would discover, Cook was ahead of his time.

Captain Cook James Cook was born in the village of Marton, Yorkshire on October 27, 1728; he was one of seven children born to a day laborer. Cook received basic schooling at the village school and was then sent to work for William Sanders in the nearby fishing village of Staithes. Here Cook developed a love and fascination for the sea, but he was not especially happy with his job amongst the hard working people of the land. In July 1746, at the age of 17, Cook gave into his temptations for the sea and became an apprentice to the Walker Family, ship owners, at the port of Whitby. Whitby was a bustling place, always full with many varieties of ships. Cook's job as an apprentice required him to become very familiar with the coal ships of the area and he soon learned the ins and outs of the colliers type ships. He worked hard and soon had his first voyage aboard the Whitby collier 'Freelove.' The coal ships or colliers were of sturdy construction, strong sailing abilities, and could handle a great deal of cargo and weight. Cook's expertise in this type of ship would bring him to use this type of ship for all three of his major voyages of world exploration.

While Cook was at Whitby, he educated himself a great deal in navigation and mathematics. By 1755, after nine years, and much service as ship's master, Cook left his ship and enlisted in the Royal Navy as an ordinary sailor. He boarded the Eagle, a 60-gun ship, and was sent to the North American Coast.

James Cook worked his way up through the ranks quickly in the navy, eventually rising high enough to command his own survey vessel. This was unusual for an enlisted man, but his experience at Whitby helped him have an upper hand over the other seamen. Cook's first mission was to map the estuary of the St. Lawrence River before Wolfe's naval assault on Quebec. Later he surveyed the coast of Newfoundland. Many sailors noted Cook's stellar work with mapping and surveying and how extremely accurate his drawings were. It was those surveys that gave Cook a name, along with information he carefully obtained from the observing and recording of the eclipse of the sun in 1766. Cook was rewarded for his work in Quebec in 1761; he received a bonus of 50 pounds, for "indefatigable industry in making himself the 'master of the pilotage.'" The surveys were so accurate and complete that they were in use until the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

Cook returned to England in 1762 and soon married Elizabeth Batts of Shadwell, the only daughter of a provincial family. In Elizabeth's seventeen years of marriage to Cook she saw him only every few years and even then only for a few months at a time. All of her six children and Cook seemed to have predeceased her. Comments on Cook's family and Elizabeths' death we hear from Cook himself not a word.

Cook's surveys and scientific observations, along with his own scientific ability and the patronage from his former commander, Sir Hugh Palliser, led to his new position as Captain of the "The Endeavour Bark" in 1768.

Cook's First Voyage and the Endeavour

Edmund Halley, an astronomer, predicted that on June 3, 1769, the planet Venus would cross in front of the sun. When this happened the distance from the Sun to the Earth could be calculated by timing the transit of Venus across the face of the Sun. The Royal Geographic Society had proposed that observers should be sent to three places around the world for further study and better calculation of this distance. Observers would be sent to the north of Norway, to Hudson Bay and to an island in the Pacific. Cook was chosen to lead the official British expedition to this last destination. This was a little surprising to some, but Cook and those in hierarchy of the navy knew of his capabilities, even if some thought him inexperienced and without a long distance journey.

Cook led the expedition with his new ship, the Endeavour. The Endeavour was a Whitby collier with a crew of about 80 and a team of 11 scientists, including: Charles Green, Assistant to the Astronomer Royal, and Sir Joseph Banks, a young man of the Royal Geographic Society who supplied numerous scientific instruments of his own. The Endeavour weighed 368 tons, was 106 feet long, 29 feet 3 inches in the beam and was specially fitted for the voyage. She could make seven or eight knots at the most, but could keep a good pace for a long voyage. One of the important things was that she was sturdy. She had a relatively low draught, fourteen feet, and carried twelve swivel guns, which were important for safety from natives. Cook and his crew left Plymouth on September 13, 1768. The Endeavour sailed first to Madeira and then, in November, reached Rio de Janeiro, where a delay occurred because the ship was mistaken for a pirate vessel. By January 1769 the misunderstanding was dealt with and the Endeavour was on the way to Cape Horn. She rounded the Cape with good weather and no troubles with wind.

Cook and the crew often grew quite weary and we can only imagine what a voyage of this type on a sailing ship would be like. Cook took excellent care of his ship and crew when on the voyage. They did their work along with catching of sharks and dolphins shooting of birds and dealing with the storms that came along their way. The crew ate extremely well even having a little fresh milk from a very famous goat on board. The goat had already sailed with Wallis, a British sailor, who discovered Tahiti not long before Cook would visit. When celebrations came around they had wine and maybe slaughtered a pig or cow that they brought with them. The basic diet however was salted pork and a biscuit. This did not seem to be a favorite since it was served continuously and often had weevils crawling and scavenging around inside. Since Cook was very strict about keeping his men free of scurvy he forced the men to eat vegetables, usually found in sauerkraut and made them keep their quarters clean and aired out.

There were some complaints on board, but only the usual for such a voyage. There was often punishment for work not done, and to keep the presence of order and command on the ship. Most problems were very minor as the men were still quite young, most men under thirty, and their main goal was still for a bit of adventure.

Cook journeyed to the recently discovered George III Island, by way of the Straits of Magellan. George III Island was discovered by Wallis and later re-named Tahiti. Tahiti was seen from the topmast on the 11th of April. The men spent the next two days arduously trying to get their beaten ship to the beautiful shores of Tahiti. The men landed in Matavai Bay on the morning of April 13 of the same year. The crew was greeted by the native's and soon felt dry immobile ground after eight months with only the touch of cold seawater in the morning and a swaying base to sleep on at night. The crew found that the Tahitian natives were a little weary upon their coming. However, soon after landing the native chief recognized Lieutenant Gore, as he had recently sailed to this land with Wallis, and the Europeans were then welcomed onto the island. In the next few months Cook and his crew experienced many things and learned much more than any other previous voyage to Tahiti. They were one of the first to see, (and feel) such things as tattoos. This is probably where sailors first received their trademark sign, the tattoo on their upper arm. The crew would find that the Tahitians were also very clever people and they outnumbered the small crew of the Endeavour and there were many incidents of pickpocketing and robbery during the visit. On one occasion a very important piece of equipment was stolen, the main piece of the observatory. This was the whole reason that the men had come to Tahiti and now it had been stolen leaving everyone in a bit of chaos. Cook sent out a warning and with help and a chase to the other side of the island the natives returned the disassembled pieces of the instrument. With the help of Banks' repairing skills the eclipse of Venus, Earth, and the Sun was successfully observed on June 3. Cook stayed for three months and not only observed the eclipse, but also mapped the Tahitian coast before leaving on the second half of his voyage. This half of the voyage's instructions were sealed, and even though hinted at by the public, Cook did not know exactly what his second orders were. Cook's instructions from the Royal Society were to prove the long contemplated question: Does the continent of Terra Australis Incognita exist, or is there only ocean in the unexplored part of the Southern Hemisphere? He was to proceed southward as far as the 40th latitude. If this course resulted in nothing found, he was to turn west and search between latitudes 40 and 35 until he discovered the unknown land or came to the eastern side of the land discovered by the Tasman.' (Blumberg, 1991) Cook did not sail south at once as the crew that he had kept so clean from scurvy had become ill with a form of venereal disease instead, and he gave them time to partially recover. Cook says in his diary that the crew was not to blame for bringing the disease to Tahiti.

Cook sailed south in the middle of August, but severe weather forced him to turn northwest at the beginning of September. No sight of the supposed Terra Australis was found so he moved as ordered to New Zealand.

Cook came to Poverty Bay in New Zealand around October and here the native Maoris people became hostile. Cook fired in self-defense and killed two or three people. From there he turned north again and Cook circumnavigated the two islands. He discovered the South Island and all the way, accurately charted the coast.

No European had yet visited the new land called New Holland (Australia). Lieutenant Hicks made the first sighting of this land. Cook was notorious of duly naming places and this situation was no different. He named the bay that Hicks had found, Cape Hicks (later renamed Cape Everard). From here they sailed north, and anchored on April 29, 1770 in what Cook originally called Stingray Bay. After the group of scientists found huge numbers of unknown plant specimens, Cook renamed it to Botany Bay. Two Aborigines resisted their landing and fired darts, which Joseph Banks feared might be poisoned. Cook eventually scared them off with musket fire and they went without harm from Aborigines during the week they explored the area around the bay.

On May 7, Cook sailed again traveling north and seeing an approach to the later named, Sydney harbor. They had no luck investigating it and instead landed at Bustard Bay. A few days later they suffered a near shipwreck on a piece of the Great Barrier Reef. Despite a leaky hull the Endeavour was still afloat and the crew brought her into Cook Harbor, staying near today's Cooktown. Cook decided on a two-month stay here, giving time to repair the hull with what few resources they had and observing and shooting kangaroos. Cook was now to sail one of the longest and most dangerous stretches of water in the world and with a still leaky ship. By the middle of August they had come in sight of the tip of Australia's northeastern tip, which Cook named Cape York. Turning westward, the crew discovered and named the Endeavour Strait between the mainland and today's Prince of Wales Island. The next day he claimed all of Eastern Australia for Britain after quite a lengthy expedition and named the new territory, New South Wales. Cook then continued westward and proved a new sea route between Australia and New Guinea.

Another shipwreck forced the broken Endeavour to dock at Jakarta. The ship underwent repairs, but still could not leave until the end of December. Cook's efforts to keep a "clean" crew failed here and some of the crew became sick. Cook blamed the climate for this sickness and despite his efforts, many died before the Endeavour ever reached England. Cook and his Endeavour crew made their way to England slowly and landed on July 13, 1771.

Cook's Second Voyage and the HMS Resolution

One question still remained from Cook's first mission, whether the unexplored part of the Southern Hemisphere is only an immense mass of water or could it possibly contain another continent. The British Admiralty decided it was time to finally send someone out and find an answer to the long pondered question. Cook was promoted to Commander and then notified that he had been chosen to lead the mission. He was instructed to travel south to find Bouvet's Cape Circumcision and determine if it was part of the imagined continent. If so, he was to "take possession of convenient situations in the country in the name of the King of Britain"(Blumberg, 1991). If not part of a continent, then he was to sail as far south as possible, circumnavigate the area and sail north when the ice and weather proved too harsh to sail in. James Cook was not a believer in the existence of a 7th continent, but because the Admiralty still believed there was, and because of pressure from other countries the assignment stayed.

The Admiralty outfitted the newly purchased Resolution and Adventure, two colliers; the Resolution positioned as Cook's flagship.

The Resolution was a smaller ship than the Endeavour, only 110 feet long and 35 feet wide across the beam however the Adventure was even smaller and would be used as a type of scouting sheep to maneuver in tighter spots. With little ceremony the two ships set sail from Plymouth Sound at 6:00 a.m. on July 13, 1772, faced with an extensive three-year voyage only a year after Cook's last voyage.

Along with the mission to find the supposed 7th continent, Cook planned to circumnavigate the world. This second trip would also be a scientific expedition and Joseph Banks was originally planning to ride on the Adventure. Because of a dispute over the number of people Banks wanted to take, Banks withdrew from the mission. Despite the small quarrel, two astronomers did sail with Cook and they had with a new instrument called the Chronometer. This instrument was supposed to measure longitude with the aid of time and the stars. These four chronometers, the scientists used, proved to be useful and more reliable than any other instrument at that time for their calculations. The two ships arrived at Cape Town, South Africa, 109 days later and then continued south, crossing the Antarctic Circle and eventually forced north because of ice. They reached Dusky Bay, New Zealand in March. Cook then pushed south across the Pacific until the crew could endure no more. Cook returned to Tahiti unhappy with the results as of yet and investigated the Tongan Islands. Heading south, the two ships met a fierce storm and were separated from each other. Nevertheless, Cook kept sailing south on November 27. He again reached the ice pack in mid-December, and continued his search for a way through to the south. Cook now thought for sure that this ice-mass went south all the way to the Pole, or maybe it joined some piece of land unfound by Europeans. Without an answer he sailed north again landing at Easter Island in March 1774 and the Marquesas. Again from Tahiti, he sailed west to confirm the discoveries of the explorer Quiros. He discovered many of the Tuamoutu Islands, Society Islands, Tonga, and Fiji Islands until reaching what he named the New Hebrides(Vanuatu). From here he sailed south and found New Caledonia. Before rounding Cape Horn Cook claimed the Kerguelen Island as for Britain, and returned to Plymouth in July 1775. His second voyage had lasted three years and eighteen days finding out bits and pieces of land and clues along the way. In this he lost four men, one to sickness, none to scurvy.

Cook returned to England and was "retired" to the Royal Hospital in Greenwich. Apparently Cook could not stay at home very long and eventually a third voyage was planned, Cook taking told of the details. He volunteered himself for the head job of finding the crew and men to take on the task of this more northerly mission. The purpose of the third voyage was to seek out an existing Northwest passage (the passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean) and map what he found.

Cook's Third Voyage and Death

In the summer of 1776 Cook sailed again in the well-traveled Resolution. A new sister ship, the Discovery, and its captain, Clerke, were to look for the approach from the East. Cook made his usual stop at New Zealand and confirmed the location of his Kerguelen Island while there. From Tahiti he sailed North, discovering the Cook Islands. He discovered Christmas Island and some of the smaller Hawaiian Islands, but only stopped quickly continuing onto the northwest American coast and started charting and exploring. He eventually rounded the tip of the Alaskan Peninsula, through the Bering Strait and into the Arctic Ocean where he was met at every turn by ice. After spending as much time as possible with the ice, Cook turned southward at 70 degrees 44 minutes North to replenish and repair for the next spring. Cook named the islands they would be staying at in honor of one of his friends, John Montague, the Earl of Sandwich.

After eight weeks of seeking a suitable harbor, the Discovery and the Resolution anchored in Kealakekua Bay, on the Kona coast of the island of Hawaii. Cook seems to have been regarded as some sort of god (Lono, by the people of Kaua'i) and was accepted with a great welcome and hospitality. After a month, Cook realized the mission must continue to move onward. The ships left on February 4, 1779, in search of another anchorage before exploring the northeast coast of Asia. After sailing the stormy seas for only a week, the damaged ship was forced back into Kealakekua Bay, dragging the mast ashore on February 13.

It was here that he again was thought to be the God Lonoikamakahiki the God of Harvest, by coincidence landing during this time of celebration. When he first arrived several months before, it was Kaua'i that welcomed him as Lono, taking him to a temple or heiau and consecrating his arrival in ceremony. He was given the daughter of High Cheif Kaeo, who became pregnant and subsequently gave birth to a child.

When in Kealakekua, one of the ships long boats was stolen by lesser cheifs for the iron, it was burnt and iron taken. In addition one of two of the watchmen were killed. In order for the return of the long boat to take place, Cook devised a plan for its return. They'd land and take hostage of the Cheif and hold him until the return of the boat. Unknown to him that boat was already in ashes. Upon arrival, he did meet with the High Cheif who intially agreed to go with him to his ship, however, when near the landing the Cheif's wife came to him begging him not to go. Here is where the scuffle begins. Panic sets in, and a musket is fired and the fight is on. In this turmoil, Cook is hit and begins to bleed. (This account has been documented in Ruling Cheifs of Hawai'i by Samuel M. Kamakau, Historian via Charles K Ka'upu). There are many accounts of what happened next. Some say that Cook was bludgeoned to death once the natives realized he was not a man, others say it merely because they were tired of his domineering and inhuman rule, some say it was Cook who struck a man across the face, or maybe it was simply a misunderstanding. This still was another people's land and the language barrier did exist between the two very different cultures. What truly happened is a discussion that still goes on today betweeen those who knew Cook and his mission and the natives of Hawaii. Regardless of this debatable issue, Cook was dead and morale was now at an all time low and instead of moving onward with the mission the crew returned home in August of 1780.

Even though Cook was not usually regarded as a family figure, he was definitely one to be looked up to when it came to the skills needed in map making and exploration. Cook always knew his ship and cared for his crew's well being, something that most captains cared little of in Cook's time. Cook discovered the lands he had always dreamt of and died amongst his journeys of exploration; the way, some argue, he should have gone. He did all this because of one central goal for his life, the goal: "To "Not only go farther than any man had ever been before, but as far as it was possible to go."(Porter. 1991. Pg.57)

An original work: copyright© ver. 1: 1998; ver. 2: 2000 Nate Kerl
Captain James Cook: "The World's Explorer": "a life full of adventure, triumph, and struggle"
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