James Cook

From Academic Kids

British explorer James Cook, portrait by Nathaniel Dance, c. 1775, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
British explorer James Cook, portrait by Nathaniel Dance, c. 1775, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

James Cook (October 27, 1728February 14, 1779) was a British explorer and navigator. He made three voyages to the Pacific Ocean, in which its main shorelines were mapped. Cook was also a map maker.



Cook was born in Marton in North Yorkshire, near the town of Middlesbrough. Cook was one of five children born to Grace and James, Sr., who worked as a day laborer on a farm. As a child, Cook moved with his family to Great Ayton. When Cook was sixteen, he was apprenticed to a shopkeeper in the fishing village of Staithes. According to tradition, it is during his time there that Cook first felt the lure of the sea while gazing out the shop window. After about a year and half in Staithes, the shop owner brought Cook to the nearby port town of Whitby and introduced him to the shipbuilder, John Walker who employed him as an apprentice on a collier that distributed coal along the English coast. While working for Walker, Cook began to study algebra, trigonometry, navigation, and astronomy, skills he would need one day to command his own ship. Cook rose in the ranks of the merchant fleet but declined the command of his own collier in 1755 on the eve of the Seven Years War to start again at the lowest level in the British Royal Navy.

Missing image
James Cook's 1775 Chart of Newfoundland

During the Seven Years' War, he participated in the siege of Quebec City before 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 allowing General Wolfe to make his famous stealth attack on the Plains of Abraham. Cook's surveying skills were put to good use in the 1760s mapping the jagged coast of Newfoundland, which brought him to the attention of the Royal Society.

Cook's huge achievements can be attributed to a combination of excellent seamanship, his superior surveying and cartographic skills, courage in exploring dangerous locations to confirm the facts (e.g. dipping into the Antarctic circle repeatedly and exploring around the Great Barrier Reef), ability to lead men in adverse conditions, and boldness both with the regard to the extent of his explorations and going beyond the instructions given by the Admiralty.

First voyage (1768-1771)

In 1766, the Royal Society hired him to travel to the Pacific Ocean to observe and record a transit of Venus across the Sun. Leaving in 1768, he arrived on April 13, 1769 in Tahiti, where he built a small fort and observatory to observe the transit; however, due to the lack of precise scientific instruments, there was no way to accurately measure it.

He then explored the South Pacific for the mythical continent of Terra Australis, which the Royal Society, and especially Alexander Dalrymple, insisted must exist, despite Cook's personal doubts. With the help of a Tahitian named Tupaia who had extensive knowledge of Pacific geography, Cook did reach New Zealand, becoming only the second European in history to do so (behind Abel Tasman over a century earlier, in 1642). Cook mapped the complete New Zealand coastline, making only minor mistakes (such as calling Banks Peninsula an island, and thinking Stewart Island was part of the South Island). He also discovered Cook Strait, which separates the North Island from the South Island, and which Tasman had not guessed at.

Next, he went on to Australia, where he discovered its east coast. The site of Cook's first landing, at Kurnell on Botany Bay, was intended to be the site of the first British colony in Australia. However, when Captain Arthur Phillip arrived with the First Fleet in 1788, he felt that Botany Bay was unsuitable, and sailed a short distance northwards to Port Jackson, for the establishment of Sydney.

Botany Bay was indeed the site of one of the earliest European contacts with Australian Aborigines, and the first European sightings of Australian flora and fauna; at first the bay was called Stingaree (Stingray) Bay due to the large numbers found there. The later name Botany Bay was chosen to reflect the diverse range of flora found there.

Cook also discovered the Great Barrier Reef, when his ship ran aground June 11, 1770; Endeavour was seriously damaged (and his voyage delayed almost 7 weeks) while repairs were carried out on the beach near the dock in modern Cooktown, at the mouth of the Endeavour River. While there, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander made their first major collections of Australian flora and there were mainly peaceful meetings with the local Aboriginal people from whom the name "kangaroo" was recorded and came into the English language from the local Guugu-Yimidhirr name for a Grey Kangaroo, which was gangaroo.

He then sailed through Torres Strait between Australia and New Guinea, again becoming only the second European to do so (the first being Luis Vaez de Torres, in 1604). His ship on this voyage, HM Bark Endeavour, would later lend its name to the Space Shuttle Endeavour, as well the Endeavour River.

By this point in the voyage, Cook had lost no men to scurvy, a remarkable and unheard-of achievement in 18th century sea-faring. He forced his men to eat such foods as citrus fruits and sauerkraut—under punishment of flogging if they did not comply—although no one yet understood why these foods prevented scurvy. Unfortunately, he sailed for Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies, to put in for repairs. Batavia was known for its outbreaks of malaria, and much of Cook's crew would succumb to the disease before they returned home in 1771, including the Tahitian Tupaia, Banks's secretary Herman Spöring and the illustrator Sydney Parkinson.

Cook's journals were published upon his return, and he became something of a hero among the scientific community. Among 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.

Missing image
The routes of Captain James Cook's voyages. The first voyage is shown in red, second voyage in green, third voyage in blue.

Second voyage (1772-1775)

Cook was once again commissioned by the Royal Society to search for the mythical Terra Australis. Despite Cook's evidence to the contrary from the first voyage, Dalrymple refused to believe a massive southern continent did not exist. Cook commanded HMS Resolution on this voyage, while Tobias Furneaux commanded HMS Adventure. Cook circumnavigated the globe at a very high southern latitude, becoming the first European to cross the Antarctic Circle on January 17, 1773, reaching 71°10' south. He also discovered South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. In the Antarctic fog, Cook and Furneaux were separated. Furneaux made his way to New Zealand, where he lost some of his men following a fight with the Maori, and eventually sailed back to Britain, while Cook continued to explore the Antarctic.

Cook almost discovered the mainland of Antarctica, but turned back north towards Tahiti to resupply his ship. He then travelled south again, in a second fruitless attempt to find the supposed continent, bringing with him a young Tahitian named Omai, who proved to be somewhat less knowledgeable about the Pacific than Tupaia had been on the first voyage. On his return voyage, he landed at the Friendly Islands, Easter Island, and Vanuatu, in 1774. His return home put to rest the popular myth of Terra Australis.

Another accomplishment of the second voyage was the successful testing of John Harrison's timekeeping instruments, which at last facilitated accurate measurement of longitude.

Upon his return, Cook was given an honorary retirement from the Royal Navy, but he could not be kept away from the sea. A third voyage was planned to find the Northwest Passage. Cook would travel to the Pacific and hopefully travel east to the Atlantic, while a simultaneous voyage would travel the opposite way.

Third voyage (1776-1779)

On his last voyage, Cook once again commanded HMS Resolution, while Captain Charles Clerke commanded HMS Discovery. Ostensibly the voyage was planned to return Omai to Tahiti; this is what the general public believed, as he had become a favourite curiosity in London. After returning Omai, Cook travelled north and in 1778 became the first European to visit the Hawaiian Islands, which he named the "Sandwich Islands" after the 4th Earl of Sandwich, the acting First Lord of the Admiralty. From there, he travelled east to explore the west coast of North America, eventually landing near the First Nations village at Yuquot in Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island, although he unknowingly sailed past the Strait of Juan de Fuca. He explored and mapped the coast from California all the way to the Bering Strait, on the way discovering what came to be known as Cook Inlet in Alaska.

The Bering Strait proved to be impassable, although he made several attempts to sail through it. Cook became increasingly frustrated on this voyage, and probably began to suffer from a stomach ailment; it is speculated that this led to irrational behaviour towards his crew, such as forcing them to eat walrus meat, which they found inedible.

Cook returned to Hawaii in 1779. On February 14 at Kealakekua Bay, some Hawaiians stole one of Cook's small boats. Normally, as thefts were quite common in Tahiti and the other islands, he would have taken hostages until the stolen articles were returned. However, his stomach ailment and increasingly irrational behaviour lead to an altercation with a large crowd of Hawaiians gathered on the beach. In the ensuing skirmish, shots were fired at the Hawaiians and Cook was speared to death.

Clerke took over the expedition and made a final attempt to pass through the Bering Strait. The Resolution and Discovery finally returned home in 1780.

Cook's protégés

A number of the junior officers who served under Cook went on to distinctive accomplishments of their own.

See also


James Cook during his 11 years sailing around the Pacific Ocean mapped large areas of it. He discovered some islands such as the Easter Island and the Sandwich Islands but his major achievement was the accurate mapping of vast areas of the Pacific for the first time. This removed the confusion as to the location, size and shape of lands in the Pacific.

In order to create an accurate map the latitude and longitude of the land needs to be known. Navigators had been able to work out latitude accurately for many years by measuring the distance of the sun or star above the horizon with a quadrant. But longitude was more difficult to measure accurately as it is a measurement of time. The Earth turns through 360 degrees every 24 hours, which is 15 degrees every hour and 1 degree every 4 minutes. So by calculating the time difference from your starting point at noon, when the sun is exactly overhead, the longitude can be calculated.

Cook obtained accurate longitude measurements during his first voyage due to his navigational skills, the help of an astronomer Charles Green and by using the newly published Nautical Almanac tables, which contained distances between the moon and 7 selected stars. However on his second voyage Cook used John Harrison’s Chronometer, which was the first clock to keep accurate time at sea.

Cook took with him on his voyages many scientists, whose observations and discoveries added to the importance of the voyages. Joseph Banks, a botanist came on the first voyage along with Daniel Solander. Between them they collected over 3,000 plant species of which around 1,000 were new species. Also they made notes on animals such as kangaroos. There were several artists on the first voyage . Sydney Parkinson was involved in many of the drawings completing 264 drawings before his death near the end of the voyage. Banks employed several other artists to finish nearly 600 drawings which Parkinson had started. These drawings were of immense scientific value to botanists in Britain.

In the field of Anthropology. Cook was the first European to have such an extensive contact with the various people of the Pacific. He correctly observed that these people seemed closely related although separated by thousands of kilometres of ocean.

In the medical world is was Cooks prevention of any death from scurvy that was seen to be so remarkable. In fact a medical journal said that Cook’s success in keeping his crews alive “added more to his fame, and is supposed to have given a more useful lesson to maritime nations, than all the discoveries he ever made”.


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