James Cook was born on October 27th 1728 in a village called Marton, Yorkshire, son of a farm labourer. When Cook was 8 years old the family moved to Great Ayton where his father was promoted to manager at Airey home farm. The farm was owned by Thomas Skottowe, who paid for Cooks schooling. Cook left and moved to the seaside village of Staithes where he worked in a grocer shop, after 2 years he went to Whitby and became an apprentice to ship owner John Walker, Cook learnt to sail in the rough north sea, after 8 years he was offered the role of ships master, instead Cook went to London and joined the royal navy on the June 14th 1755. After 1 month Cook was made masters mate, and within 2 years he was promoted to ships master, the very same role he had early refused, his new responsibility was to navigate, his problem was the maps he was given were useless. In 1758 while serving in the Seven years’ war Cook met Samuel Holland who was using a plain table, Cook realised he could use the device to revolutionise the making of charts, the two men became friends and Cook learnt to accurately chart. When the British military campaign stopped for winter Cook was encouraged to develop his skills by charting the local area and in 1758 cook charted his first map. Cook charted most of the Lawrence River which proved vital for the British who used his charts to launch a victorious stealth attack on the French. The war was a huge influence on Cooks career, his maps impressed all and he was made king surveyor of Newfoundland.
The Admiralty commissioned an expedition to record the transit of Venus passing the Sun, this 105 year event would help measure the Earths distance from the Sun. There was also a secret mission in an envelope which was to be opened once the transit of Venus was complete. Lieutenant Cook led the voyage and departed Plymouth on board The Endeavour on the August 26th 1768, his destination was Tahiti. Joseph Banks was a botanist who paid £10,000 to join the expedition he joined 93 other crew members, this voyage was Cooks opportunity to prove himself to the Admiralty. After a difficult passing of Cape Horne the sea became calm and the weather became tropical, Endeavour stopped several times and Joseph Banks studied various samples of plant life and wildlife, the ships cabins were soon filled with many new plants. On the April 13th 1769 the Endeavour landed on Tahiti, although there were some difficulties with recording the exact time when Venus entered and left the view of the Sun, Cook observed the transit of Venus. Cook returned to the Endeavour and opened the sealed envelope, the secret mission was to sail south 40 degrees – this was further than any man had before him. During this period in the 18th century one third of the earth was a mystery, most of the southern hemisphere was unexplored and there were rumours of a great southern continent (Terra Australis Incognita). The Admiralty believed discovering Terra Australis Incognita would have the same effects of the discovery of America (click here to read my my post on Christopher Columbus), the Admiralty had orders to claim the land for Britain and they wanted Cook to navigate there and chart the unexplored. If no continent was found his orders were to sail west until he found it or he reached the land discovered by Abel Tasman. Tasman was a Dutch explorer who named the land Staten Land after he discovered it in 1642, at the time it was believed to be the west coast of the great southern continent, eventually the Dutch renamed it Nieuw Zeeland after the Dutch province Zeeland. Tasman also discovered Van Diemen’s Land which he named after the governor general of the Dutch East Indies, Anthony van Diemen, in 1856 it was changed to Tasmania after Tasman himself.
Cook was fascinated with astronomy he measured the movement of the Sun, the Moon and the stars with a sexton and was able to pinpoint his location with great accuracy, but even with the help of a Tahitian called Tupaya who was familiar with the sea Cook could not find a great Southern continent, he sailed west and on the October 6th 1769 land was sited, after exploring the island Cook saw another island and realised he wasn’t on a continent, in fact he was on New Zealand – he would use New Zealand as a base for all 3 of his voyages. The first contact with the indigenous people did not go as well as it should have, some Māori people were killed, The Endeavour left and for the next 6 months Cook charted the two islands and claimed them for Britain.
Cook wanted to survey the uncharted Eastern coast of New Holland (Australia) which was discovered by another Dutchman called Willem Janszoon in 1606. On April 29th 1770 the Endeavour entered a bay which Cook named Botany Bay after the abundance of plants Joseph Banks collected but there was no contact with the indigenous people. On May 6th 1770 Endeavour left Botany Bay and Cook navigated up the east coast of New Holland for three months charting every little detail. But there was soon trouble – on June 11th 1770 The Endeavour hit the Great Barrier Reef and was stuck while water poured inside. The crew threw everything overboard which was not needed to lighten the ship, finally the ship floated off the reef, Cook navigated the Endeavour to a nearby beach where they spent 2 months repairing the ship, today it is called Cooktown. Cook met some indigenous people and asked for food and supplies, some visited the Endeavour and saw the huge supplies for the epic journey home, and asked for their share, after all it was all from their land, but Cook refused. On August 4th 1770 the Endeavour departed Cooktown and Cook navigated out of the Great Barrier Reef. Cook claimed the entire east coast of new Holland and called it New South Wales. The Endeavour stopped off for repair in the Dutch port at Batavia todays Jakarta. Some of the crew member caught a deadly disease and many died including Tupaya, by the time the Endeavour made it to South Africa one third of the crew had died. After 3 years away from home the Endeavour returned to England on July 12th 1771, Cook became the first to circumnavigate the world in a lone ship, and the first to not lose any crew members to scurvy. It was unknown at the time that a lack of vitamin C caused scurvy, Cook enforced a strict diet on board the Endeavour including sauerkraut. The Admiralty recognised the importance of diet and lemons and limes became standard on British voyages – hence the nickname Limeys, Lieutenant Cook rewarded with promotion to Captain Cook.
The admiralty still believed there must be more landmass in the southern hemisphere and wanted Cook to lead a second voyage. On July 13th 1772 2 ships Revolution led by Cook and Adventure led by Tobias Furneaux set sail and headed into the unknown south, by January 1773 they could not sail anymore, there was too much ice and the temperature was freezing. The two ships separated, Tobias sailed to Van Diemen’s Land (todays Tasmania) to see if it was part of New Holland, but bad weather caused him to divert to New Zealand. Cook explored the southern ocean using both maps from Tasman and Tupaya filling in the blanks to create an accurate map of the southern hemisphere. On January 13th 1774 Cook reached 71 degrees south further south than anyone before but he found no continent.
Cook had retired he spent his time like most retired sailors in Greenwich hospital. The Admiralty believed a North West passage to Asia existed (history repeating itself), they commissioned an expedition to find it and choose Cook to Captain the voyage. In June 1776 Resolution and Discovery set sail, they made it to the Alaskan coast where the mission to find a passage begun, but the maps Cook were given were inaccurate, eventually they entered the Arctic ocean, winter was looming and they needed to restock somewhere warm, so Cook returned south to the sandwich islands (todays Hawaii). The two ships left the islands after 3 weeks but they had to return after Resolution broke a mask and needed to be repaired. The British were not greeted with open arms, they had outstayed their welcome the first time round. On February 14th 1779 Cook found one of his boats was stolen. Cook and a handful of his men took a Hawaiian chief prisoner and demanded the Hawaiians return his boat. Things soon got out of hand – hundreds of Hawaiians gathered around Cook, they were vastly outnumbered, soon the British fired upon the Hawaiians who in return killed Cook and his few men.
ABC – Captain Cook – Obsession & Discovery link
BBC – Voyages of Discovery – The Making of Captain Cook link
James Cook’s first published map – Victoria University of Wellington Library link
Abel Tasman map – National Library of Australia link
Portrait – National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection link
James Cook’s voyages – Encyclopædia Britannica
Te Ara The Encyclopedia of New Zealand – European discovery of New Zealand link
Australian Govement – European discovery and the colonisation of Australia link
Zoomable map of Captain Cooks three voyages link