James Cook

1728-79. Born on 27 October 1728 at Marton in Cleveland, he was the second of eight children, four of whom died young, to a Yorkshire-based Scottish-born farm labourer, James Cook, and his wife, Grace Pace.

After receiving a basic education in his village school, Cook saw employment as a farm hand and shop boy, then served as an apprentice in the east coast coal trade before becoming a seaman in the Baltic trade. He was engaged as a mate of a ship in the Thames when war was declared with France in 1755.

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Captain James Cook

Preferring to volunteer for the navy rather than risk being pressed, he joined the Eagle 60, Captain Joseph Hamar, in June 1755 as an able seaman, being promoted master’s mate in the same year. It was to his good fortune that Captain Hugh Palliser would succeed Hamar later in 1755, as Cook would come to enjoy the benefit of this influential officer’s patronage. Having already served as a boatswain he passed his master’s examination and joined the Solebay 24, Captain Robert Craig, in July 1757, removing a few months later to the Pembroke 60, Captain John Simcoe, with Captain John Wheelock assuming the command in 1759 after Simcoe’s death.

Cook was responsible for surveying the St. Lawrence River prior to General James Wolfe’s assault on Quebec in 1759, at which action he was present. Catching the eye of Rear-Admiral Lord Alexander Colville, Cook was seconded to become master of his flagship, the Northumberland 74, Captain Nathaniel Bateman, aboard which vessel he served from 1759-62.

From 1763 until 1767 Cook surveyed the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador, initially being employed aboard the Tweed 32, Captain Charles Douglas, and then in the schooner Grenville, with Captain Palliser engaging him on this service in his role as governor of the colony.

On 25 May 1768 Cook was commissioned lieutenant, largely at the behest of the secretary of the admiralty, Philip Stevens, yet also on the recommendation of Palliser, and he was appointed to command the bark Endeavour which was to undertake an expedition to Tahiti. His instructions were nominally to observe the transit of Venus on behalf of the Royal Society, although after leaving Tahiti he would open secret Admiralty orders that would require him to search the southern oceans for a continent that was believed to lie there.

Departing Plymouth on 25 August with the famed botanist Joseph Banks aboard, he reached Tahiti via the notorious Cape Horn on 13 April 1769. After recording the transit of Venus he left Tahiti with a native chief in company and discovered and named the Society Islands. From October 1769 to March 1770 he explored the coasts of New Zealand, and although he was unable to venture inland due to the hostile nature of the natives he took possession of the islands in the name of King George. He then sailed along the eastern coast of Australia for approximately three thousand miles, naming New South Wales, Botany Bay and the Endeavour Straits.

On 11 June 1770 the Endeavour ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef, and although she was hauled off the next day with a fothered sail placed over the leak Cook was forced to retire to the coast near the present day Cook-town where he spent almost two months thoroughly refitting her. After surveying the coasts of New Guinea he returned to England via Batavia and the Cape of Good Hope, arriving in the Downs on 12 June 1771. Sadly the voyage had seen the death of thirty of his crew of eighty-five men, mainly due to illnesses incurred in the poor climate at Batavia, and this was a mortality rate that Cook resolved to tackle in his future expeditions. In the meantime he was promoted to the rank of commander on 29 August 1771.

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The Endeavour pictured leaving Whitby

On 13 July 1772, after a brief period in command of the newly commissioned Scorpion 14, he once more sailed for the southern ocean in search of the major continent that was believed to lie south of Australia, this time in command of the Resolution to which many of the crew of the Scorpion also removed. His command was in company with the Adventure, Captain Tobias Furneaux. As in the case of the Endeavour, Cook had been responsible for selecting the ships for his enterprise and had returned to his homeport of Whitby to purchase them. After reaching the Cape the two ships progressed eastwards to reach the Antarctic Circle on 16 January 1773, but they lost contact with each other in thick weather on 8 February. Both sailed on to New Zealand where they reunited in Queen Charlotte Sound on 18 May, but after voyaging north to Tahiti in August, and from thence to the Friendly Islands, they separated irrevocably in rough weather on their return to New Zealand on 30 October.

Cook then set off for the Antarctic once more, reaching the lowest ever-recorded latitude, 71 degrees 10 south, before heading for Easter Island and returning to Tahiti in April 1774. A visit to the Society Islands followed in May and he then sailed south again, discovering the New Hebrides in July and New Caledonia shortly afterwards. Following a refit in Queen Charlotte’s Sound during October he set off across the southern Pacific for Cape Horn, and proceeding into the Atlantic he discovered South Georgia before reaching Table Bay on 21 March, and eventually England on 29 July 1775. His return was a full year after that of the Adventure, and in accordance with his previous commitment to ensure the good health of his crew he had lost but one man from sickness out of a crew of one hundred and eighteen during the voyage.

Cook was received at court and posted captain of the Kent 74 for purposes of rank on 9 August 1775. He was also appointed, somewhat against his inclination, to the position of fourth captain at Greenwich on the condition that he could resign should another voyage of discovery be planned Fortunately the opportunity soon arose with the decision to return home a Society islander, Omai, who had been brought to England the year previously by Captain Furneaux. However, the real reason for the new expedition was to explore the Bering Strait and seek a north-west passage.

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The Resolution and Adventure at Tahiti

Commanding the Resolution once more, Cook departed Plymouth on 12 July 1776 to be followed shortly afterwards by the Discovery, Captain Charles Clerke, which vessel joined him at the Cape on 10 November, and proceeded in company to New Zealand via the Kerguelen Islands and Van Dieman’s Land. Having refitted in his usual ‘port’ of Queen Charlotte’s Sound, Cook voyaged north to the Friendly Islands and then to Tahiti which he reached on 12 August. In January 1778 he rediscovered the long forgotten Hawaiian Islands and renamed them the Sandwich Islands in honour of the first lord of the Admiralty. He then sailed north in search of a passage between the Pacific and Atlantic, discovering Nookta Sound, over which Spain and Britain nearly fought a war in 1790. Travelling along the coast of Alaska he was eventually turned back by a wall of ice at 70 degrees 41 north on 29 August.

Although the French with whom Britain were now at war, had resolved not to interfere with his voyage of discovery, a nemesis now appeared from a different quarter. When the Resolution returned to the Sandwich Islands Cook was murdered on 14 February 1779 by the natives whose petty thievery he had been attempting to prevent. Most of his remains were recovered and committed to the deep of Kealakekua Bay in the islands.

Cook married Elizabeth Batts at Barking on 21 December 1762 and had issue six children, three of whom died in infancy, whilst the remaining three all predeceased their mother. Nathaniel aged 16, drowned in the loss of Commodore Hon. Robert Boyle Walsingham’s pennant ship Thunderer 74, Captain Robert Boyle Nicholas, in the West Indies during the great hurricane of 4 to 12 October, Hugh, aged 17 died at Cambridge, and James the eldest, drowned in a gale on 25 January 1794 when disembarking from his command, the sloop Spitfire. Rear-Admiral Isaac Smith was his wife’s first cousin and a protégé of Cook’s.

Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser held Cook in such esteem that he erected a monument to him on his estate at Vache Park, Buckinghamshire with the inscription ‘The ablest and most renowned Navigator this or any country hath produced’.

A dedicated, patient, thoughtful and determined officer, these attributes combined with his scientific gifts uniquely qualified Cook ahead of all his contemporaries for the work of exploration. He was equally admired by the men he commanded and by the natives of the Pacific Ocean with whom he made contact. He considered his paramount duty to be the welfare and health of his men, and he insisted on obtaining green vegetables at every opportunity, whilst also stressing the importance of cleanliness and sanitation.

His voyages gave great experience to a number of future explorers and officers, such as Vice-Admiral William Bligh, Rear-Admiral Isaac Smith, Captain George Vancouver, Captain James Burney, Captain Charles Clerke, and Captain Edward Riou. Napoleon himself was a keen student of Cook’s work. He was a fellow of the Royal Society.