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Captain James Cook 1728-1779

Captain James Cook (Royal Naval Museum)
Captain James Cook (Royal Naval Museum)

During the Eighteenth Century, the Admiralty engaged in a major programme of scientific surveying that greatly increased knowledge of the geography of the globe. Most renowned of the officers involved was Captain James Cook, born in lowly circumstances in Yorkshire in 1728. Cook first went to sea aged 18 as deckhand aboard a Whitby collier. He became an excellent mathematician and refused the command of a merchant ship to join the Royal Navy in 1755.

By 1758 Cook was master of HMS Pembroke, a 64 gun ship involved in siege of the Louisberg at the mouth of the St Lawrence river in Canada. His first survey was of Gaspé Bay in Nova Scotia during the same year and after establishing his reputation as a navigator and surveyor in the coastal waters off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia in the 1760s, Cook was given command of his first major voyage in 1768.

With the ships Endeavour and Resolution, Cook mapped out the whole coast of New Zealand proving it to be two separate islands and also charted the east coast of Australia. Another purpose of the expedition, to observe the movement of the planet Venus across the sun, an event which occurs twice every hundred years, was successfully accomplished at Tahiti on 3 June 1769. King George III received Cook on his return and was shown the charts from the voyage.

On his second voyage to the Pacific between 1772-1775, Cook conducted more detailed surveying around the coast of New Zealand and travelled into Antarctic seas south of Australia in a search for the supposed Great Southern Continent which was believed to stretch out of the ice. Cook's voyage proved decisively that it did not exist. In January 1773 he made the first recorded crossing of the Antarctic circle. An amazing aspect of this expedition was that only one man died during the three years; this was largely due to Cook's concern for a balanced diet.

Promoted to the rank of Captain in 1775, Cook departed on what turned out to be his last voyage in June 1776. Its main aim was to investigate the existence of the Northwest Passage, a route around the north of the American continent. Cook's first discovery was the islands of Hawaii, which he named the Sandwich Islands. In March 1778 Cook sailed aboard the Resolution up the coast of Canada, through the Bering Straits and eastward along the coast of Alaska. He was stopped by the thick ice confirming there was no northern route across America and returned to the Sandwich Islands. It was there on 14 February 1779 that Cook was killed by a riot among the natives after an argument over a stolen boat.

One of England's finest ever navigators and surveyors, Cook's discoveries greatly improved the knowledge about the southern hemisphere.

Further reading:

  • R. Morris "Endeavour, Discovery and Idealism'' in J.R. Hill (Ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy (Oxford, 1995).