A Very Brief Life of James Cook

Detail of a portrait of James Cook by Nathaniel Dance

James Cook was born on October 27, 1728 in Marton-in-Cleveland in the North Riding of Yorkshire. His birthplace was a thatched cottage. In 1736 the Cooks moved from Marton to Airy Holme Farm in Ayton.

Unlike the majority of Naval officers of the time he was not the son of rich or noble parents. In fact he was the son of a Scottish farm labourer and a Yorkshire girl. He was intelligent enough to impress his father's employer who paid for the young James Cook's schooling.

In 1744 Cook started working for William Sanderson in a shop in the village of Staithes where he was not especially happy. It was there, however, that he got a taste for life on the sea. In those days the nearby port of Whitby was a bustling place, always busy with all kinds of ships. It was on a collier that Cook served first. At the age of 17, Cook started work as apprentice to John Walker of Whitby a ship owner specialising in the collier trade. He had his first voyage as an apprentice aboard the Whitby collier Freelove. In 1755, after nine years, and service as ship's master, Cook left his ship and enlisted in the Royal Navy as an able seaman aboard the 60-gun ship Eagle and was sent to the North American coast.

In the Navy James Cook worked his way up through the ranks, eventually rising to command his own survey vessel, unusual for an enlisted man. His first mission was to map the estuary of the St. Lawrence River prior to a naval assault on Quebec. Later he surveyed the coast of Newfoundland. It was those surveys that made Cook's name, along with the information he obtained from observing and recording an eclipse of the sun in 1766. The surveys were so accurate that they remained in use until the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

His surveys and scientific observations, coupled with his own scientific ability and the patronage of his former commander Sir Hugh Palliser led to his being chosen to captain the Endeavour in 1768.

The Endeavour and the vessels used in the subsequent voyages, were Whitby colliers, chosen by Cook for their good sailing abilities and their ability to carry large volumes of supplies.

Cook's first voyage was intended primarily as a voyage of astronomical inquiry. Edmund Halley, in 1716, suggested that the distance from the Sun to the Earth could be calculated by timing the transit of Venus across the face of the Sun. The next transit was to occur in 1769 (the following one would not happen until 1874). Surprisingly enough the obscure but capable James Cook was put forward by the Royal Geographic Society and accepted by the Admiralty to command the mission.

Commanding the Endeavour, and accompanied by a young Sir Joseph Banks and other scientists, Cook journeyed to recently discovered Tahiti by way of the Straits of Magellan. After a long visit to Tahiti Cook undertook his second task - to prove or disprove the existence of a, by Dalrymple postulated, "Southern Continent".

Cook reached New Zealand and circumnavigated the two islands. He discovered the South Island and accurately charted the coast. Pushing westward he discovered the eastern coast of Australia. His ship struck the Great Barrier Reef and was rescued by his extraordinary talents.

The first voyage of Captain Cook met with great success. A second voyage was planned, to continue the search for the existence of the Southern Continent, Terra australis incognita, and make whatever other discoveries were to be had in the South Pacific.

Cook set out for his second voyage in the Resolution accompanied by Tobias Furneaux, commander of the Adventure.

This time the voyage went by way of the Cape of Good Hope and far South, in a search for uncharted lands, until reaching New Zealand. Eastward again searching for land in the South and then North to Tahiti. Again Cook journeyed South criscrossing the lower latitudes, even below the Polar Circle, in search of land until reaching New Zealand again. Again he pushed South across the Pacific, until he reached the endurance of his crew and went North to the Marquesas Islands and Easter Island. Again from Tahiti he sailed West to confirm the discoveries of Quiros. He discovered many of the Tuamoutu Islands, Society Islands, Tonga and Fiji Islands until reaching what he named the New Hebrides. Sailing South he discovered New Caledonia.

On these extended cruises Cook did more than any other man of his time to promote the health of his crew and through his example, seamen in every vessel afloat. An absence of accidental and preventable death mark all of Cook's commands. His second voyage lasted three years and eighteen days. There were 112 officers and men aboard a 462 ton, 111 foot long, 35 foot wide wooden ship sailing into the stormiest seas on earth; through uncharted, pack-ice filled southern latitudes as high as 71. Cook lost four men, one to sickness.

Cook returned to England and was "retired" to the Royal Hospital in Greenwich. Eventually a third voyage was planned. Cook was naturally consulted on the details of ships and men to do the job and just as naturally volunteered to do the job that he was most capable of doing. The purpose of the third voyage was to seek out the elusive North-West passage (between the Atlantic and Pacific) from the Pacific side.

Cook set out again from England with the Resolution (with the company of Clerke in Discovery), made for his usual landfall at New Zealand - confirming the location of Kerguelen Island on the way. From Tahiti he then sailed North, discovering what are now called the Cook Islands, to find the passage. He discovered Christmas Island and some of the smaller Hawaiian islands, then proceeded to the north-west American coast and started charting and exploring. He eventually rounded the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, through the Bering Straits and into the Arctic Ocean where he is impeded at every turn by ice. After spending as much time as he could, Cook turned South, to replenish and repair for the next year.

Cook had named Hawaii the Sandwich Islands, in honour of one of his patrons, John Montague, the Earl of Sandwich. On this return voyage, he spotted Maui on November 26, 1778. After eight weeks of seeking a suitable harbour the Discovery and Resolution finally found a safe anchorage at Kealakekua Bay on the Kona coast of the island of Hawaii.

After an uproarious welcome and generous hospitality for over a month, it became obvious that the newcomers were beginning to over stay their welcome. Finally, the ships sailed away on February 4, 1779. After plying terrible seas for only a week, the fore mast on the Resolution was badly damaged, and Cook sailed back into Kealakekua Bay, dragging the mast ashore on February 13th. The natives, now totally hostile, hurled rocks at the marines.

After a series of misunderstandings and skirmishes Cook went ashore. The crowd around Cook and his men reached an estimated 20,000. One bold warrior advanced on Cook and struck him. The Hawaiians went wild. Hopelessly surrounded, he was knocked on the head, then countless warriors passed a knife around and hacked and mutilated his lifeless body. A sad Lt. King lamented in his diary, "Thus fell our great and excellent commander."

After negotiations with the Hawaiians, Clerke, now in command, was able to have parts of Cook's body returned. All the long bones, thighs, legs, arms and the skull - though the jawbone was missing. All had been scraped clean for flesh and burned in a fire except some flesh from Cook's thigh, the scalp, and the hands. The hands were preserved with salt, and there were enough identifying marks (a scar between the thumb and forefinger of the right hand), that they were able to determine that it was Cook's body.

The remains were put into a coffin, and with great ceremony buried at sea in KEALAKEKUA BAY.

The above brief description of the life of Captain James Cook was compiled and rewritten from a variety of sources on the WWW. I felt that a page with this content was a necessary part of a website dedicated to Capt. Cook.

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