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James Cook

James CookBorn: 27-Oct-1728 [1]
Birthplace: Marton-in-Cleveland, Yorkshire, England
Died: 14-Feb-1779
Location of death: Kealakekua Bay, HI
Cause of death: Murder
Remains: Buried, Kealakekua Bay, HI

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Explorer, Cartographer

Nationality: England
Executive summary: Explorer of the South Pacific

Military service: Royal Navy (Seven Years War)

English naval captain and explorer, born on the 27th of October 1728 at Marton village, Cleveland, Yorkshire, where his father was first an agricultural laborer and then a farm bailiff. At twelve years of age he was apprenticed to a haberdasher at Staithes, near Whitby, and afterwards to Messrs. Walker, shipowners, of Whitby, whom he served for years in the Norway, Baltic and Newcastle trades.

In 1755, having risen to be a mate, Cook joined the Royal Navy, and after four years' service was, on the recommendation of Sir Hugh Palliser, his commander, appointed master successively of the sloop "Grampus", of the "Garland" and of the "Solebay", in the last of which he served in the St. Lawrence. He was employed also in sounding and surveying the river, and he published a chart of the channel from Quebec to the sea. In 1762 he was present at the recapture of Newfoundland, and was employed in surveying portions of this coast (especially Placentia Harbor); in 1763, on Palliser becoming governor of Newfoundland, Cook was appointed "marine surveyor of the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador"; this office he held until 1767; and the volumes of sailing directions he now brought out (1766-68) showed remarkable abilities. At the same time he began to make his reputation as a mathematician and astronomer by his observation of the solar eclipse of the 5th of August 1766, at one of the Burgeo Islands, near Cape Ray, and by his account of the same in the Philosophical Transactions (volume LVII, pp. 215-216).

In 1768 Cook was appointed to conduct an expedition, suggested by the revival of geographical interest now noticeable, and resolved on by the English admiralty at the instance of the Royal Society, for observing the impending transit of Venus, and prosecuting geographical researches in the South Pacific Ocean. For these purposes he received a commission as lieutenant (May 25th), and set sail in the "Endeavour", of 370 tons, accompanied by several men of science, including Sir Joseph Banks (August 25th). On the 13th of April 1769, he reached Tahiti, where he observed the transit on the 3rd of June. From Tahiti he sailed in quest of the great continent then supposed to exist in the South Pacific, explored the Society Islands, and then struck to New Zealand, whose coasts he circumnavigated and examined with great care for six months, charting them for the first time with fair accuracy, and especially observing the channel ("Cook Strait") which divided the North and South Islands. His attempts to penetrate to the interior, however, were thwarted by native hostility. From New Zealand he proceeded to "New Holland" or Australia, and surveyed with the same minuteness and accuracy the whole east coast. New South Wales he named after a supposed resemblance to Glamorganshire; Botany Bay, sighted on the 28th of April 1770, was so called by the naturalists of the expedition. On account of the hostility of the natives his discoveries here also were confined to the coast, of which he took possession for Great Britain. From Australia Cook sailed to Batavia, satisfying himself upon the way that (as Torres had first shown in 1607) New Guinea was in no way an outlying part of the greater land mass to the south.

Arriving in England, by way of the Cape of Good Hope, on the 12th of June, Cook was made a commander, and soon after was appointed to command another expedition for examining and determining once for all the question of the supposed great southern continent. With the "Resolution" of 462 tons, the "Adventure" (Captain Furneaux) of 330 tons, and 193 men, he sailed from Plymouth on the 13th of July 1772; he touched at the Cape of Good Hope, and striking then southeast (November 22nd) passed the Antarctic Circle (January 16th, 1773), repassed the same, and made his way to New Zealand (March 26th) without discovering land. From New Zealand he resumed his "search for a continent", working up and down across the South Pacific, and penetrating to 6731' and again to 7110' S., with imminent risk of destruction from floating ice, but with the satisfaction of disproving the possibility of the disputed continent in the seas southeastward of New Zealand. He then made for Easter Island, whose exact position he determined for the first time with accuracy; noticing and describing the gigantic statues which Roggewein, the first discoverer of the island, had made known. In the same manner he accomplished a better determination and examination of the Marquesas, as well as of the Tonga or Friendly Islands, than had yet been made; and after a stay at Tahiti to rest and refit, crossed the central Pacific to the "New Hebrides", as he renamed Quiros's "Southern Land of the Holy Spirit" (a name preserved in the modern island of Espiritu Santo), called by Bougainville the "Great Cyclades" (Grandes Cyclades), whose position, extent, divisions and character were now verified as never before. Next followed the wholly new discoveries of New Caledonia, Norfolk Island, and the Isle of Pines. Another visit to New Zealand, and yet another examination of the far southern Pacific, which was crossed from west to east through the whole of its extent, from south Australia to Tierra del Fuego, were now undertaken by Cook before he finally closed his work in refutation of the Antarctic continent, as previously understood, on this side of the world. The voyage closed with a rapid survey of the "Land of Fire", the rounding of Cape Horn, the rediscovery of the island now named South Georgia Island, the discovery of Sandwich Land, the crossing of the South Atlantic (here also exploding the great Terra Australis delusion), and visits to the Cape of Good Hope, St. Helena, Ascension, Fernando Noronha and the Azores. The voyage (reckoning only from the Cape of Good Hope and back to the same) had covered considerably more than 20,000 leagues, nearly three times the equatorial circumference of the earth; it left the main outlines of the southern portions of the globe substantially as they are known today; and it showed a possibility of keeping a number of men for years at sea without a heavy toll of lives. Cook only lost one man out of 118 in more than 1000 days; he had conquered scurvy.

The discoverer reached Plymouth on the 25th of July 1775, and his achievements were promptly, if meanly, rewarded. He was immediately raised to the rank of post-captain, appointed a captain in Greenwich hospital, and soon afterwards unanimously elected a member of the Royal Society, from which he received the Copley gold medal for the best experimental paper which had appeared during the year.

Cook's third and last voyage was primarily to settle the question of the northwest passage, practically abandoned since before the middle of the 17th century, but now taken up again, as a matter of scientific interest, by the British government. The explorer, who had volunteered for this service, was instructed to sail first into the Pacific through the chain of the newly discovered islands which he had recently visited, and on reaching New Albion to proceed northward as far as latitude 65 and endeavor to find a passage to the Atlantic. Several ships were at the same time fitted out to attempt a passage on the other side from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Sailing from the Nore on the 25th of June 1776 (Plymouth, July 12), with the "Resolution" and "Discovery", and touching at the Cape of Good Hope, which he left on the 30th of November, Cook next made Tasmania and then passed on to New Zealand and the Tonga and Society Islands, discovering on his way several of the larger members of the Hervey or Cook Archipelago, especially Mangaia and Aitutaki (March 30th to April 4th, 1777); some smaller isles of this group he had already sighted on his second voyage, September 23rd, 1773. From Tahiti, as he moved north towards the main object of his expedition, he made a far more important discovery, or rather rediscovery, that of the Hawaiian or Sandwich Islands, the greatest and most remarkable of the Polynesian archipelagos (early February 1778). These had perhaps first been seen by the Spanish navigator Gaetano in 1555; but their existence had been kept a close secret by Spain at the time, and had long been forgotten. Striking the west American coast in 4455' N. on the 7th of March following, he made an almost continuous survey of the same up to Bering Straits and beyond, as far as 7041', where he found the passage barred by a wall, or rather continent, of ice, rising 12 feet above water, and stretching as far as the eye could reach. The farthest point visible on the American shore (in the extreme northwest of Alaska) he called Icy Cape. On his way towards Bering Straits he discovered and named King George's ("Nootka") and Prince William's Sound, as well as Cape Prince of Wales, the westernmost extremity of North America, never yet seen by English navigators, but well known to Russian explorers, who probably first sighted it in 1648; he also penetrated into the bay afterwards known as Cook's Inlet or River, which at first seemed to promise a passage to the Arctic Seas, to the southeast of the Alaska peninsula. Cook next visited the Asiatic shores of Bering Straits (the extreme northeast of Siberia); returning to America, he explored Norton Sound, north of the Yukon; touched at (Aleutian) Unalaska, where he met with some Russian-American settlers; and then made his way back to the Hawaiian group, which he had christened after his friend and patron Lord Sandwich, then head of the British admiralty (January 17th, 1779). Here he visited Maui and Hawaii itself, whose size and importance he now first realized, and in one of whose bays (Kealakekua) he met his death early in the morning of the 14th of February 1779. During the night of the 13th, one of the "Discovery's" boats was stolen by the natives; and Cook, in order to recover it, made trial of his favorite expedient of seizing the king's person until reparation should be made. Having landed on the following day with some marines, a scuffle ensued which compelled the party to retreat to their boats. Cook was the last to retire; and as he was nearing the shore he received a blow from behind which felled him to the ground. He rose immediately, and vigorously resisted the crowds that pressed upon him, but was soon overpowered.

Had Cook returned from his third voyage, there is ground for believing King George would have made him a baronet. Distinguished honors were paid to his memory, both at home and by foreign courts, and a pension was settled upon his widow. But in his life a very inadequate share of official reward was dealt out to the man who not only may be placed first among British maritime discoverers, but also gave his country her title, and so her colonies, in Australasia. As a commander, an observer and a practical physician, his merits were equally great. Reference has been made to his survey work and to his victory over scurvy; it must not be forgotten that along with a commanding personal presence, and with sagacity, decision and perseverance quite extraordinary, went other qualities not less useful to his work. He won the affection of those who served under him by sympathy, kindness and unselfish care of others as noteworthy as his gifts of intellect.


[1] Old Style, 27 October 1728. New Style, 7 November 1728.

Wife: Elizabeth Batts (m. 1762, six children)

    Royal Society
    Copley Medal 1776

Is the subject of books:
The Life of Captain James Cook, 1974, BY: J. C. Beaglehole


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