27/10/1728 – 14/02/1779
The Cartographer Captain
James Cook was the second son of nine children, from a simple Scottish farm labourer (James) and his Yorkshire wife (Grace). He was born in a two-roomed thatched cottage in Marton Village, Cleveland County, England.
The young James chose early to be a master mariner and discoverer. His passion to master astronomy, advanced mathematics, the intricacies of seamanship and surveying, the arts of command, visualizing and planning ruthlessly ahead: was not left to chance. He applied himself tirelessly to these tasks.
After some elementary learning and a short interlude as a grocer’s and then a haberdasher’s boy, he began his seaman’s apprenticeship at the age of eighteen in the tough school of the East Coast and North Sea collier. For the next nearly ten years Cook learnt his trade. Aboard the Freelove he experienced the qualities of these colliers and he will remember them at the time of his choosing his first circumnavigation vessel, bought from Whitby.
In 1755 history starts to meet his needs with the opening of the Seven Year’s War. Cook, aged twenty-six took the opportunity and volunteered for the Royal Navy. He left his rank of second in command to be entered as an able seaman in HMS Eagle, a sixty-gun of the line under Sir Hugh Palliser’s command. He was soon promoted master’s mate and began his lifelong log-keeping. After two years, examinations passed, Cook became master, a very important position in navigation, in the twenty-four-gun frigate Solebay. Very soon he left this frigate to be the master of Pembroke, a new sixty-four-gun ship of the line under Captain John Simcoe. Destiny now awaited Cook in Canada.
In eastern Canada, he learned the finer techniques of surveying by land and water. He was one of the Royal Navy masters who surveyed and buoyed the St Lawrence channel below Quebec for the invasion fleet. Here he followed in the steps of a long French tradition of mastery of astronomical and nautical surveying at home and abroad. Cook was appointed master in a still bigger vessel: the seventy-gun Northumberland and entered on a life of routine surveys and chart making, honing and mastering his skills in this art. Between 1763 and 1767, he surveyed Newfoundland. His charts of the southern and western sides of the island were the finest anywhere in the world. He became famous for this specialized work, a man “of Genius and capacity… well qualified for the Work he has performed, and for greater Undertakings of the same kind” (from his Captain Alexander, Lord Colville).
His natural skills reinforced by his personal qualities (meticulous, scrupulous, honest and later on an obvious ability to command) finally lead the young humble man from obscurity to light.Therefore, when in 1768 the Royal Society decided to set up an expedition to observe the transit of Venus at the newly discovered island of Tahiti, James Cook was recommended by First Lord Sir Edward Hawke to be the master of the expedition.
And so it was. In April 1768 Cook, commanding HMS Endeavour and was given two sets of instructions: first chart Tahiti, then go find the mysterious southern continent. The Endeavour was a “remarkably strong” vessel with a “deep waist, and having no ornamental figure on the prow”. She had, a shallow draught and was in short, of exactly the same type as an east-coast collier. Cook was at home. Endeavour was a workhorse, a vessel chosen for strength and capacity.
The Endeavour carried ninety-four men plus eleven civilians. Among them, Sir Joseph Banks, a young and rich naturalist already well known from the Royal Society ; Doctor Solander ; Buchan, a landscape painter; Parkinson, a sketcher and Charles Green, mandated by the royal astronomer for the relevant observations. And so, with the benediction of several Lords and the money from Banks, this expedition left England very well equipped for that time.
Between 1768 and 1771 Cook charted the difficult New Zealand waters and the east coast of Australia nearly losing his ship on the Great Barrier Reef (June 1770). He also found and surveyed the Society Islands, sailed through Torres Strait (discovery kept secret by the Spanish), and advanced man’s ability to find longitude accurately by lunar observations. He also scrupulously applied Dr James Lind’s (from Lord Anson expedition) advices on nutrition (fresh salads and vegetables, fermented cabbage, sauerkraut). He added his personal touch with a rigorous regime of hygiene and in keeping the vessel clean and dry. These measures kept his crew healthy and the scurvy abated which was the usual calamity befalling these long sea voyages.
A second world voyage, this time planned more exclusively by Commander Cook himself, was inevitable. The two sloops Resolution and Adventure personally chosen by Cook had been built in his apprenticeship port of Whitby. Resolution was almost 100 tons larger than Endeavour, however Adventure, commanded by Captain Tobias Furneaux, will prove to be a less satisfactory ship.
Cook’s second voyage was his most challenging and in his most innovative. He mastered mechanical chronometry; defined the bulk of southern Polynesia and eastern Melanesia; added tropical, subtropical, and Antarctic islands to the map and closely circumnavigated ice-bound Antarctica, coming to respectable distance of solid land.
“I whose ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go”.
This voyage was also the most highly scientific.
Captain James Cook was the first European to come to Tanna Island. Upon seeing one night the glowing light emanating from Tanna’s Mt Yasur volcano. Captain Cook ordered the HMS Resolution to anchor in a small bay, which he named Port Resolution , the next day. Captain Cook asked the local chief permission to climb the volcano, but was refused as it was considered tabu (sacred). It is ironic that Tanna island’s main tourist attraction is still the same volcano that Captain Cook never climbed.
Cook could not resist the call of further exploration. On his third and fatal voyage Cook set out to resolve this problem and the vexed geography of western Canada, Alaska and the Bering Strait. On the way he discovered the Hawaiian group. For the second time Cook sailed in Resolution, although she now leaked more noticeably, but took a new consort, Discovery, the smallest of Cook’s ships.
As in the south so in the north was Cook thwarted by impassable ice. He gave the published outline and coast of Alaska. Here there was no detailed chart making, only reconnaissance: the objective was Alaska and the Bering Strait. His intention was to come back a year later and further his expedition. His health was not as good as on previous voyages, he now suffered from stomach problems. He went back for a shelter in Hawaii where he was so highly considered by the indigenous people. Leaving that place for the second time, he was forced to come back again because of a problem with a mast. Cook met with his tragic death during that period, an incident where his men were involved with a confrontation with the islanders.
These three voyages not only advanced botany, zoology, astronomy, and oceanography, but were fascinating in their extent of anthropological discovery and the arts, artifacts, and ways of life of Pacific peoples. They had an immense impact upon the future course of European art, drama, poetry, philosophy, and natural history. For the Pacific peoples touched by Cook’s visits (Australian aborigines, New Zealand Maoris, Polynesians, Melanesians, Northwest Coast Indians, NiVanuatu, and others) the voyages foretold drastic, inevitable, and not-too-distant upheavals in their way of life.
Cook’s personality was essential in the success of these expeditions. His open mind, his respect of everyone, his stubbornness combined with natural modesty made this uncommon man, one of the greatest that sailed the waters of this planet.
The two NASA shuttles Endeavour and Discovery take their names from Cook’s vessels.
James Cook, Relations de voyages autour du monde, 1768-1779; 455 pages ; choix, introduction et notes de Christopher Lloyd; traduction française par Gabrielle Rives, édition La Découverte, collection Poche Littérature et voyages, 1977, rééd., 1998.
Pacific Studies, Captain James Cook, vol. 1, Spring 1978, number 2; A Special Bicentennial Issue honouring Captain James Cook. Introduction: James Cook: Man, Myth and Reality by Dr Michael E. Hoare. Edited by John Nicholls.
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