Captain James Cook, FRS , British Explorer, Navigator, Cartographer, Captain , Royal Navy, James Cook was born on 27 October 1728

James Cook (Captain James Cook) was an 18th century explorer and navigator whose achievements in mapping the Pacific, New Zealand and Australia radically changed western perceptions of world geography. As one of the very few men in the 18th century navy to rise through the ranks, Cook was particularly sympathetic to the needs of ordinary sailors.

James Cook was born on 27 October 1728 in a small village near Middlesbrough in Yorkshire. His father was a farm worker. At the age of 17, Cook moved to the coast, settling in Whitby and finding work with a coal merchant. In 1755, Cook enlisted in the Royal Navy, serving in North America where he learnt to survey and chart coastal waters.

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In 1769, the planet Venus was due to pass in front of the Sun, a rare event visible only in the southern hemisphere. The British government decided to send an expedition to observe the phenomenon. A more secret motive was to search for the fabled southern continent. Cook was chosen as commander of the Whitby-built HMS Endeavour. Those on board included astronomer Charles Green and botanist Joseph Banks.

In 1769, the planet Venus was due to pass in front of the Sun, a rare event visible only in the southern hemisphere. The British government decided to send an expedition to observe the phenomenon. A more secret motive was to search for the fabled southern continent. Cook was chosen as commander of the Whitby-built HMS Endeavour. Those on board included astronomer Charles Green and botanist Joseph Banks.

Captain James Cook Full Biography and Profile

The early life and career of James Cook
No one before (and few since) rose so far and so fast from a simple rural background to national fame. Cook was marked for greatness from the outset.

What were James Cook’s beginnings?
Cook was born in the small Yorkshire village of Marton on the 27 October 1728 to a humble rural family. Marked out early on from his siblings and peers, the young Cook received a good education thanks to the patronage of the local Lord of the Manor.

At 17, he worked for a shopkeeper in Staithes near Whitby. Here he decided that a life at sea was what he wanted and he became apprenticed to a firm of Whitby coal shippers. At the age of 18, he first went to sea. His ship, the Freelove, lugged Tyne coal down to London before the return trip to Whitby.

A promising merchant seaman
He worked hard at mathematics and at astronomy, which was very important for navigators. He was soon offered command of a merchant ship the Friendship. A solid and, for someone of his background, somewhat remarkable career in the merchant navy seemed assured. For reasons debated to this day he turned instead to the Royal Navy, took a demotion from his rank as master and more or less started again.

Paying his dues in His Majesty’s Navy
He now knew his way around a ship and his knowledge of the oftentimes-tricky coasts of Britain was excellent. He could claim experience of the North Sea, the Baltic routes, the Irish Sea and the Channel but this was clearly not enough for the ambitious Cook.

Upon joining the Navy he was not sent far afield at first, instead he found himself patrolling the English Channel as Britain found itself at war with France. His first commander Captain Joseph Hamar was quickly relieved of his command under a cloud. When fellow Yorkshire man Captain Palliser took command. The young Cook found a mentor and a teacher of skills such as charting and navigation. Over the next couple of years, he would see action a number of times and secure promotion to the rank of full master.

Go west
His first ship as master was the HMS Pembroke and his first voyage would be as part of a fleet determined to rout the French from modern-day Canada. The French were dependent on the St Lawrence River to supply their troops and settlements. To this end, two impressive forts were built. It was clear that if Britain could take and hold the river, the French would be forced to abandon Canada if not the whole of North America.

On the voyage to Canada, 26 men would be lost, most to scurvy. As the person in charge of ensuring the Pembroke functioned properly, the human and naval cost of the disease would have impressed Cook and his later attention to diet would have a profound effect on the lives of mariners.

On this militarily successful trip, Cook was to befriend an army lieutenant Samuel Holland and learn the art and science of surveying. He quickly set about surveying the St Lawrence and his efforts were noted back at the Admiralty. His abilities in this regard would be a hallmark of the rest of his career.

Happy times
Having distinguished himself in a great military victory and having spent additional years in North America, at the age of 33, Cook returned to London and promptly married a young woman of his acquaintance Elizabeth Batts.

Within three months though he would be appointed to survey Newfoundland and on returning from that first survey he would be attending the baptism of his first child, a son. Over the next few years he would continue to chart Britain’s newly acquired lands and head home to transcribe and copy them out each winter.

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“Mr. Cook’s Genius and Capacity”
In the summer of 1766, on his own initiative, he carefully observed an eclipse of the Sun and his renown spread to the Royal Society. Here was a naval officer who could handle a telescope as well as a ship. The great age of science and the naval supremacy of the British had met in one man.

James Cook’s First Voyage
Science and secret missions in the South Seas; innovations, discoveries and derring do. Cook’s first great voyage quickly became the stuff of legend.

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Our paths cross
After showing off his skills in charting and even astronomy, the Navy’s rising star and the Observatory were bound to cross paths at some point. His observations and use of instruments like the Harrison-designed watch he took on his second voyage would tie their stories closely to each other from this point on.

Venus
The second Astronomer Royal Edmund Halley believed that he could accurately determine the distance between the planets if he could just get reliable observations around the planet of the highly anticipated transit of Venus. His successor Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne would sit on the board charged with organising the observations.

There was no telling what secrets would be unlocked with this essential piece of information and the effect it might have on astronomy and navigation. The brilliant Cook was the obvious choice to lead an expedition down to the South Seas to take an observation from there.

There be monsters
In the 18th century, the Pacific Ocean was still virtually uncharted. Ever since Magellan made the first European crossing in 1520 there had been rumours of a large southern continent called Terra Australis Nondum Cognita (the southern land not yet known). French, Dutch and English sailors, including Francis Drake, had hunted in vain for this mythical land.

The expedition would be given a secret mission to find the southern continent before Britain’s rivals could lay claim to it.

Where did the first voyage go?
The Endeavour set off from Plymouth, and sailed around Cape Horn and into the Pacific, anchoring by the island of Tahiti. There were some difficulties between the crew and the islanders due to the differing views on property, for the islanders considered all property as communal. However, Cook took a lenient view of small ‘thefts’ and tried to encourage his crew to do likewise, with varied success. The islanders’ custom of decorating themselves by pricking their skin and dyeing it led to the fashion among sailors of tattooing.

After an idyllic stay in Tahiti, the Endeavour continued on to the North Island of New Zealand where they met Maori with war canoes, before sailing on to the South Island. They found that neither island was joined to a large southern continent.

The Endeavour continued towards Tasmania and the east coast of Australia discovered by the Dutchman, Tasman in 1759. Cook determined to survey the whole coast. They anchored in Botany Bay where noted naturalist Joseph Banks found many new species of plants.

Tragedy
The Endeavour was nearly wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef but repairs were made and the ship travelled northwards towards Batavia (modern Jakarta) where unfortunately many of the crew died of malaria and dysentery, having successfully avoided scurvy.

A national hero (but was it the right one?)
The Endeavour would return to London having made remarkable discoveries and its adventures caught the imagination of the public. Cook’s voyage would be the talk of the town although much of the glory and glamour of this first great voyage seemed to attach itself to the sociable and well-connected naturalist Joseph Banks.

Captain James Cook’s Second Voyage
Polite society was thrilling to the idea of an undiscovered continent in the south. Was it even there and what would count as proof if it didn’t exist?

After nearly a year at home, Cook embarked on a second voyage to continue to look for the southern continent. While his first voyage, having circumnavigated both of New Zealand’s islands suggested there was likely to be little to the south, the public imagination was still fired with the prospect of an undiscovered continent.

A modification too far
He took two Whitby colliers this time – the Resolution and the Adventure. Joseph Banks wanted to join the expedition but withdrew with bad grace after Cook would not allow him an extra deck to be added to the ship – which he felt was needed to accommodate his team and equipment.

“Our trusty friend the watch”

On this expedition, Cook tested a copy of a timekeeper, a sea watch, designed by John Harrison. Its successful performance meant that Cook and all future navigators were able to fix longitude much more accurately than before. His enthusiastic endorsement of the watch did much to prove its practicability and utility.

“So far to the south as to be wholly inaccessible for ice”

Between January 1773 and January 1774 Cook’s ships entered the Antarctic circle several times, but because of the intense cold were forced to turn back only 121 km from Antarctica’s coast. Cook’s methodical and tireless coverage of the seas, left little doubt that whatever may lie to the very south was going to be permanently frozen if it existed at all.

Having gone as far south as he could, Cook noted before turning about, “I who had ambitions not only to go farther than anyone had done before, but as far as it was possible for man to go, was not sorry at meeting with this interruption…”

In 1775 he determined to make a third and final sweep of the oceans. After he rounded the Cape, he swiftly despatched some rumoured front-runners as possible southern continents. These turned out to be less than impressive islands in the South Atlantic.

A hero’s return
Following a pleasant stay in Cape Town and a little opportunist exploring along the coast of Brazil, Cook returned to England having thoroughly debunked the rumours of an undiscovered continent of opportunity and riches.

He wrote in the final entry of his journal in July 1775, “We made the land near Plymouth and the next morning anchored at Spithead. Having been absent from England three years and eighteen days, in which time I lost but four men and one only of them to sickness.”

His insistence on fresh food, cleanliness on board and warm and clean clothing was far-sighted and not only saved the lives of his men, his inspiration would save the lives of countless others.

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His service was so distinguished and his contribution so significant that Cook could easily have accepted a pension and lived out his days as a man of renown. Something inside him would prove restless though. Would there be a third voyage?

Captain James Cook’s Fatal Third Voyage
While Cook fails to find the North-West Passage, it is his discovery of Hawaii that will prove to be his undoing.

Back on solid land and promoted to post-captain personally by George III, it was widely expected that Cook would spend his remaining days in semi-retirement. As it turned out, within half a year he would be discussing an expedition to find the fabled North-West passage over dinner and six months after that he would be on his way.

Why did Cook make a third voyage?
Cook’s third and last voyage was to find the North-West Passage believed to link the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. If Britain could find a way to enter the Pacific without having to round the treacherous Cape, it could open up all manner of trade advantages and the western coast of the Americas.

Cook again took the Resolution and another Whitby collier, the Discovery. They made their way to the Pacific through the by now familiar stopping off points of Tahiti and Tasmania to approach the Americas from the eastern side. On his way to interrogating the coastline of Alaska, he chances upon Hawaii and when his best efforts to find a way through the frozen coastlines of North America fail – and the weather deteriorates – he returns to sit winter out on these lands.

Treated like a god
Addressed reverentially as ‘Orono’ and greeted with elaborate welcomes, it seems highly likely that the people of Hawaii considered Cook to be a god on his arrival. Cook seemed to play along with the pretence while his crew were intent on having a good time and trading with the locals. After receiving elaborate tributes, Cook and his crew seemed to wear out their welcome and when they finally left Kealakekua Bay, it would appear the previously welcoming locals were happy to see them go.

A fatal encounter
Cook’s ships were forced to return just four days later because the Resolution needed repairs to her mast. This time the mood had changed. When Cook tried to take the king hostage after the theft of a ship’s boat, the islanders became alarmed and during a struggle Cook was stabbed and killed on 14 February 1779. Captain Clerke took command of the ships, but he too died on the voyage and Lieutenant Gore finally brought the ships home.

Legacy
James Cook’s achievements in mapping the Pacific, New Zealand and Australia utterly changed our understanding of geography and proved him in the words of a contemporary, “the most able and enlightened navigator that England ever produced.” His use of surveying techniques, astronomy and timekeepers was radical and exemplary.

His progressive treatment of his men (particularly on his first two voyages) and insistence on good diet would save many lives.

He was without doubt the right man, in the right place, at the right time for all but the very final part of his illustrious career.

Navigating from Captain Cook to GPS
Despite trailblazers like Captain Cook, the new techniques for navigation were slow to catch on.

Getting the new longitude techniques on board at least a few ships was an important initiative that required time and investment. It took decades before they were established as part of the sailor’s routine.

You can lead an old war horse to water
The first attempts to force Masters of Navy ships to learn the new astronomical techniques were a failure. They did not take kindly to the idea of compulsory land-based training and only fourteen Masters seem to have undertaken it in the two years following the Board of Longitude’s suggestion.

Chronometers or lunar readings or both
The Commissioners of Longitude spent as much energy on promoting astronomical methods as horological, although it was understood that the former were more readily available and an essential complement to timekeepers. They spent large amounts of time and money on making, simplifying and trialling timekeepers. There was only so much they could do, however, because timekeepers were still rare and expensive items.

Proof in the Pacific: the Cook voyages
James Cook led three ambitious circumnavigations that would have a lasting impact on European visions of the Pacific. On the first (1768–71), he commanded the Endeavour, which was sent to make observations of a transit of Venus from Tahiti.

The Royal Society planned the expedition, with the King’s support, and Maskelyne defined its astronomical purposes and equipment. Among their equipment, they took sextants and copies of the Nautical Almanac. After learning from the on-board astronomer, Cook himself was using lunars by the time they reached Brazil.

Cook’s friend, K1
Shortly after Cook’s return in 1771, plans were afoot for a second voyage. This time the Board of Longitude was directing the astronomical aspects and appointed observers armed with sextants, Nautical Almanacs and new longitude timekeepers. The ‘Longitude Watches’ were Larcum Kendall’s first marine timekeeper, K1, and three by John Arnold.

As well as keeping the watches running, the astronomers had to monitor their performance, checked against dead reckoning, lunar-distance observations and other astronomical observations on land; in other words, they had to compare the results of all available methods for fixing positions.

Kendall’s watch performed superbly, Cook coming to see it as his ‘trusty friend’ and ‘never-failing guide’. By the time they reached the Cape of Good Hope on the passage home in 1775, he was a convert.

Putting longitude to work
Cook’s voyages did not just test the new longitude methods but also began to apply them to navigation and surveying. After all what use was position-fixing without good charts?

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Lunar-distance and timekeeper methods were used both to check and supplement each other as well. Yet there was a hierarchy: astronomical determinations were considered more certain than those from mechanical timekeepers alone.

Although they formed just a fraction of maritime activity in the period, the voyages of exploration of the late eighteenth century showed that timekeeper and astronomical methods of longitude determination could be applied at sea.

A slow burn
As the decades progressed, more people were trained and more instruments became available. Yet it was a slow process and widespread adoption was not inevitable.

By the nineteenth century, the tools existed to allow naval officers and other travellers to chart their courses accurately and to carry out detailed surveys. The world slowly became better mapped and defined.

While improved navigation and charts helped reduce the risk of sea voyages, they also supported military and imperial endeavour, and the exploitation of many people and resources for the profit of a few.

Modern navigation
It was not until the twentieth-century advent of, first, wireless radio signals and, later, positioning systems including satellite navigation (GPS), that these nineteenth-century methods started to become obsolete. On 1 November 1968, it was decreed that ships of the Royal Navy should cease to carry marine chronometers, although sextants, almanacs and, of course, dead reckoning remained as a back-up to electronic devices.

Given the potential vulnerability of a military-backed system like GPS, it is worth remembering that, should a ship in open water lose communication and its longitude, it is only by astronomy that the latter can be re-established.

James Cook North-West Passage expedition 1776–78
Captain James Cook came out of retirement to look for the North-West Passage in 1776. It was to be his last expedition and he never returned home.

Captain James Cook is one of the most celebrated navigators and explorers in British history. By 1775 he had retired but was lured back to sea by the possibility of discovering the North-West Passage – the seaway across the Arctic, linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Cook’s journey was, in many ways, one of the greatest journeys of exploration ever made. During it he discovered the Hawaiian Islands and charted swathes of the North American Pacific coastline, but the North-West Passage was not to be found and Cook himself would never see England again.

Exploration from the west coast
Before 1776, all the explorers searching for the North-West Passage had been attempting to find it from the Atlantic (east) coast. Cook’s plan was to find it from the Pacific (west) coast. Explorer Samuel Hearne’s overland journey from Hudson Bay to the Arctic and back in 1770–72 had established that a passage could not lie through the North American continent, but it might lie around it. Added to that, the publication of a Russian map by Jacob von Stählin showed Alaska as an island, with a wide strait between it and America, through which ships could sail north.

No strait to be found
Hoping to find the strait shown on the Russian map, Cook, along with Captain Charles Clerke, took the ships Discovery and Resolution up the Pacific coast of North America. But the strait could not be found. In his journal Cook wondered what could have made von Stählin publish such an inaccurate map. He wrote: ‘Indeed, it is a map to which the most illiterate of his illiterate seafaring countrymen would have been ashamed to set his name.’

Cook’s death
The expedition carried the ships round the Alaskan peninsula and through the Bering Strait where they turned east, the crew optimistic they would sail from here to the Atlantic. It was not to be. In mid-August they were halted by impenetrable ice and were forced to turn back. By October, they had reached Hawaii where Cook was killed on 14 February 1779.

Captain Clerke took command of the Discovery and Resolution and returned to the Arctic to continue the search for the passage. He too would never see England again: he died of consumption (tuberculosis) and was buried at Vladivostock, Siberia. Lieutenant John Gore finally brought the ships home.

George Vancouver’s voyage, 1791–95
One of the men on Cook’s final voyage, George Vancouver, would lead later attempts to find the North-West Passage, approaching from the Pacific. On a voyage lasting from 1791 to 1795, Vancouver surveyed many channels and inlets on the west coast of today’s Canada. Finding no navigable waterways he was forced to conclude that if any passage did exist it must be much further north. If it were, he considered it would be impossible to pass through owing to the polar ice.

  • Captain James Cook Full Biography and Profile (BBC / RMG)
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