Captain James Cook (1728-1779), British explorer and navigator, famous for his three voyages of exploration in the South Pacific Ocean and the coastal waters of North America. Although Cook is best known as the discoverer of the Hawaiian Islands (see Hawaii), his greatest achievements were the broad scope of his exploration and his detailed, careful documentation of his discoveries.
|II||EARLY LIFE AND SEAFARING EXPERIENCE|
The son of a farm worker, Cook was born in the rural village of Marton, in what was then the county of Yorkshire, England. At age 17 he moved to the coast, settling in the port town of Whitby, where he apprenticed himself to a merchant and shipowner. In 1755, with England on the verge of war with France (see Seven Years’ War), Cook enlisted in the British Royal Navy. Within two years he was master of a warship en route to Canada. There he began assisting an army surveyor assigned to map newly acquired territory. Cook’s aptitude for this work was evident to his superiors, and as a result he spent the rest of the war mapping Québec and the St. Lawrence River. After the war ended in 1763, the British government assigned Cook to map the coast of Newfoundland.
|III||FIRST PACIFIC VOYAGE|
Cook’s talent for mapmaking made him a logical choice when the British government decided to launch a voyage to the Pacific. Officially, the expedition was designed to observe the transit of Venus, a rare astronomical phenomenon that would be visible only in the southern hemisphere. A second motive, however, was to search for Terra Australis, a large continent widely believed to exist in the far southern latitudes. The scientific importance attached to the voyage was evident in its crew, which included an astronomer, two artists, and three naturalists (among them Joseph Banks, later president of the Royal Society).
The expedition set sail from Plymouth, England, in 1768 aboard a single ship, the Endeavour. After crossing the Atlantic Ocean and rounding Cape Horn at the tip of South America, the crew headed for Tahiti, which British explorer Samuel Wallis had encountered in 1767. Tahiti was ideally situated for observing the transit of Venus. Centrally located in the South Pacific, with good harbors, friendly inhabitants, a balmy climate, and abundant food and water, Tahiti would prove an important site for rest and reprovisioning on Cook’s voyages.
Once the transit observations were concluded, Cook launched his search for the fabled southern continent. In the 17th century, explorers had sighted bits of what are known today as Australia and New Zealand, but their maps were sketchy, encouraging speculation that these lands might constitute the northern fringe of a huge continent. Cook headed southwest in search of these previously reported lands and had striking success. He circumnavigated the North and South islands of New Zealand. He also sailed the entire length of Australia’s eastern coast (never before seen by a European), which he claimed for Britain and named New South Wales. He then navigated the treacherous waters between Australia and New Guinea. Stops at Java and the Cape of Good Hope concluded the voyage, and Cook and his crew returned in July 1771.
Cook’s first voyage added immensely to the world’s knowledge of the southern hemisphere. The vast number of specimens collected and the detailed observations recorded by Cook, Banks, and other members of the crew set a new standard for scientific exploration. Cook also set a new standard in another area: keeping his men healthy. He realized that lack of fresh food likely caused high mortality on long voyages. Therefore, he stocked his ship with sauerkraut (to prevent scurvy, a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency) and insisted that his men eat fresh provisions during stops at port. As a result, Cook lost only seven men until the ship reached Java, where many succumbed to malaria and dysentery. On Cook’s subsequent voyages, mortality was close to zero.
|IV||SECOND PACIFIC VOYAGE|
Cook’s second and most ambitious voyage began in 1772 and lasted until 1775. Its aim was to settle once and for all the question of the existence of a southern continent by sailing around the globe at the farthest south latitudes possible. To avoid harsh weather conditions in the extreme southern latitudes, Cook charted a zigzag course, sailing far south in the summers and retreating north to more temperate waters during the winters. He made good use of the experience he had gained on his first voyage, using Tahiti and New Zealand as winter ports.
Cook set out with two ships, the Resolution (commanded by Cook) and the Adventure, and another strong scientific team, including father and son naturalists Johann and George Forster. The expedition sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and then southward toward the Antarctic Ocean, making the first recorded crossing of the Antarctic Circle in January 1773. The two ships then sailed across the southern Indian Ocean to New Zealand and on to Tahiti. Not content to just relax in port, Cook spent the remaining winter months searching for islands that other explorers had encountered more than a century earlier but then “lost” due to primitive navigation techniques. Heading west from Tahiti, he became the first European to sight the island group that was subsequently known as the Cook Islands. He also reached the islands of present-day Tonga, which he called the Friendly Islands because of the welcome he received. The expedition returned to New Zealand to stock up on fresh food before embarking on the long, cold voyage across the southern latitudes. Cook’s determination kept the crew pushing farther south at every opportunity, eventually reaching the southernmost point attained at that time.
In early 1774 Cook and his crew returned to the tropics, where they searched for other islands that earlier explorers had vaguely described. First, they located Easter Island, where Cook was shocked to find people speaking a language similar to that of the Tahitians, Tongans, and New Zealanders. Discovering linguistic similarities among inhabitants of widely scattered islands led Cook to speculate about the history of these Pacific peoples, who are known today as Polynesians (see Polynesia). Speculation continued as the crew sailed west to find a group of islands far west of Tahiti and Tonga. Cook named the islands the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), after an island group off the coast of Scotland. The inhabitants of the New Hebrides differed physically from the Polynesians and spoke very different languages. These islands are part of what is known today as Melanesia. Among the other islands that Cook relocated and charted were the Marquesas and New Caledonia.
Cook spent the next summer crossing both the Pacific and the South Atlantic to Cape Town. This crossing completed Cook’s circumnavigation of the globe at extreme southern latitudes, proving conclusively that no large, habitable continent existed in this area. After returning to England in 1775, he was made a fellow of the Royal Society. Just months after his return, Cook proposed a third voyage, to tackle another great, unresolved geographical mystery: the supposed Northwest Passage across North America.
|V||THIRD PACIFIC JOURNEY|
Cook’s third voyage (1776-1779) was fraught with problems almost from the outset. In New Zealand, Cook’s expedition suffered the first serious incident of violence on any of his voyages when local people killed and ate a small group of his men. Cook found the consequences of European encounters becoming evident in both Tonga and Tahiti. European visitors to the islands depleted food supplies, creating resentment among native inhabitants and intensifying rivalries between local rulers. Increasing petty theft by native residents annoyed Cook and his crew, and Cook resorted to uncharacteristically harsh methods to control it.
After leaving Tahiti, the expedition headed north into uncharted territory. After becoming the first Europeans to sight the Hawaiian Islands (which Cook named the Sandwich Islands) in 1778, they sailed along the west coast of Canada and Alaska. Twice Cook explored inlets that offered some promise of a Northwest Passage, but to no avail. After sailing through the Bering Strait into the Arctic Sea and briefly scouting the Asian side of the strait, Cook decided to winter in the Hawaiian Islands. He intended to return to the Arctic the following summer.
The crew spent several pleasant weeks at Kealakekua Bay in Hawaii. Soon after they left, they ran into a storm that seriously damaged one of their ships, the Resolution. Upon returning to Hawaii for repairs, Cook’s crew encountered a much less friendly reception, probably because they had depleted local food supplies. When locals stole one of the ship’s boats, Cook responded by taking their chief hostage. The incident ended in violence when one of the islanders struck Cook and killed him. Cook’s companions managed to get back to their ships, and the violence did not escalate. The crew returned to the Arctic and then home. Although the expedition had failed to discover a Northwest Passage, it added detailed charts of the North Pacific to the achievements of Cook’s first two voyages.
Cook’s greatest accomplishments stemmed from his careful, thorough approach to exploration. Although he made few original discoveries, he consolidated the work of several earlier explorers, mapping much of the Pacific from the Arctic to the far south and laying to rest the myth of a habitable continent surrounding the South Pole. In the process, he and his crews collected specimens of plant and animal life and made serious efforts to understand the cultures of native peoples. They tested new methods of navigating at sea and demonstrated that proper diet could reduce the high mortality rates of sailors on long voyages. In the spirit of scientific exploration, Cook and his men documented their work, producing accurate maps and detailed descriptions of their discoveries.
Cook’s journals have been published as The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery, edited by J. C. Beaglehole (1955-1967). Other publications resulting from his voyages include The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, 1768-1771, edited by J. C. Beaglehole (1962), and The Resolution Journal of Johann Reinhold Forster, 1772-1775, edited by Michael Hoare (1982).