1902 Encyclopedia > Captain James Cook

Captain James Cook
English navigator

CAPTAIN JAMES COOK (1728-1779), the celebrated navigator, was born on October 28, 1728, at the village of Marton, Yorkshire, where his father was first an agricultural labourer and then a farm bailiff. At thirteen years of age he was apprenticed to a haberdasher at Straiths, near Whitby, but having quarrelled with his master, he went as an apprentice on board a collier belonging to the port, and was soon afterward appointed mate.

Captain James Cook picture

Capt. James Cook
English navigator

Early in the year 1755 Cook joined the royal navy. Having distinguished himself, he was, on the recommendation of Sir Hugh Palliser, his commander, appointed master successively of the sloop "Grampus," of the "Garland," and the "Mercury," in the last of which he served in the St Lawrence, and was present at the capture of Quebec. 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; early in the following year he was employed in surveying the coasts of Newfoundland; and in 1764 he was appointed marine surveyor of Newfoundland and Labrador. While in this capacity, Cook published in the Philosophical Transactions an observation of a solar eclipse made at one of the Burgeo Islands, near Cape Ray, which added considerably to his reputation.

About this time the spirit for geographical discovery, which had gradually declined since the beginning of the 17th century, began to revive; and Cook was appointed to conduct an expedition which was then projected for the purpose of making observations on the impending transit of Venus, and prosecuting geographical researches in the South Pacific Ocean. For this purpose he received a commission as lieutenant, and set sail in the "Endeavour," a vessel of 370 tons, accompanied by several men of science, including Sir Joseph Banks.

On the 13th April 1759 he reached Otaheite or Tahiti, where he erected an observatory , and succeeded in making the necessary astronomical observations. From Otaheite Cook sailed in quest of the great continent then supposed to exist in the South Pacific, and reached the islands of New Zealand, which had remained a terra incognita since the time of their first discovery. His attempts to penetrate to the interior, however, were thwarted by the continued hostility of the natives; and he had to content himself with a voyage of six months’ duration round the coast, in which he traced the existence of a narrow channel dividing New Zealand into two large islands.

From New Zealand he proceeded to Australia (then called New Holland), and on April 28 came in sight of Botany Bay. On account of the hostility of the natives his discoveries here also were confined to the coast, of which he took possession in the name of Great Britain. The prosecution of this voyage was attended with dangers which, on several occasions, threatened the entire loss of the ship and crew.

From Australia Cook sailed to New Guinea, and thence to Batavia, where his ship, greatly shattered and disabled, had to put in for repairs.

Arriving in England, on June 11, 1771, Cook was immediately raised by the king to the rank of captain. Shortly after his return, the existence of a great southern continent began to be matter of renewed speculation, and Cook was again appointed to lead an exploratory expedition. For this purpose he was placed in command of the "Resolution," a ship of 462 tons burden, and a smaller ship called the "Adventurer," with a complement in all of 193 men.

Setting sail from Plymouth, July 13, 1772, he reached Madeira on the 29th of the same month, and after touching at the Cape of Good Hope, he explored the specified latitudes, but without discovering land. Satisfied that no land existed within the limits of his researches, he abandoned the investigation on the 17th January 1773, and sailed for New Zealand.

After wintering among the Society Islands, he set out to make further explorations to the eastward; and afterwards, steering northward, he navigated the southern tropic from Easter Island to the New Hebrides, and discovered the island named by him New Caledonia.

After a third attempt he gave up all hope of finding land, and returned to England (July 30 , 1775). He was immediately raised to the rank of post-captain, appointed captain of Greenwich Hospital, and soon afterwards unanimously elected a member of the Royal Society, from which he received the Copley gold medal fro the best experimental paper which had appeared during the year.

The attention of Government having been turned to the discovery of a north-west passage in the Arctic regions, Cook volunteered to conduct the expedition, and his offer was gladly accepted. Two ships, "Resolution" and the Discovery," were speedily equipped and placed under his care. Cook’s instructions were 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 65º and then to endeavour 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 Ocean.

Setting sail from the Nore, June 25, 1776, he cruised for a considerable time in the South Pacific, discovering, judging it too far advanced in the season for attempting the navigation of the northern seas, he bore away to the Friendly Islands. Here he continued for several months, and only set sail for the north in January 1778.

On his passage from the Friendly Islands, he discovered a group which he named the Sandwich Islands, after the earl of Sandwich, who had taken great interest in the expedition. After circumnavigating these, and laying down their position on a chart, Cook reached the coasts of America in March 1778; and following the coast-line northward, penetrated into the bay afterwards known as Cook’s Inlet. Disappointed of a passage in this direction, he sailed for Behring's Straits, where again he found the passage intercepted by an impenetrable wall of ice.

Returning to winter at the Sandwich Islands, he discovered Mowee (Maui) and Owhyhee or Hawaii, where he met his tragical death. During the night of the 13th February 1779, one of the "Discovery’s boats was stolen by the natives; and Cook, in order to recover it, proceeded to put in force his usual expedient of seizing the person of the king until reparation should be made. Having landed on the following day, a scuffle ensued with the natives, which compelled the party of marines who attended him 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 as the boats’ crews were able to render him no assistance, he was soon over-powered (14th February 1779).

As a navigator, the merits of Captain Cook were of the very highest order. His commanding personal presence, his sagacity, decision, and perseverance enabled him to overcome all difficulties; while his humanity and sympathetic kindness rendered him a favourite with his crews. His valuable researches into the nature and use of anti-scorbutic medicines proved of the greatest utility. The account of his first voyage was published under the care of Dr Hawkesworth, but his second was chronicled directly by himself. A narrative of his third voyage was published from his notes, by Lieutenant King. Distinguished honours were paid to his memory both at home and by foreign courts; and a suitable pension was settled upon his widow.

See also: Further details on Captain James Cook and his explorations.

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