James Cook was described by his 1)patron, Sir Hugh Palliser as “the ablest and most 2)renowned navigator that this or any country has ever produced.”
Born in Marton, England, in 1728, the son of a 3)humble farm labourer, Cook rose to become an internationally known naval captain and explorer—a considerable achievement in the 18th century.
James Cook in Whitby
Captain Cook's training as a seaman began in Whitby. He was born on October 27th, 1728, in Marton, Yorkshire. His father was a Scottish 4)migrant farm worker who allowed James to 5)apprentice on coal carrying boats at the age of 18.
By 1755, Cook was an experienced and trusted seaman and was offered the 6)command of a ship. But he had other plans.
The Royal Navy and Canada
In June 1755, Cook left Whitby and volunteered as an ordinary seaman in the Royal Navy. The only explanation he gave was that: “I had a mind to try my fortune that way.” Cook signed on serving on the HMS注1 Eagle for two years.
Within a month he was 7)promoted to master's mate.
It was the beginning of the Seven Years' War注2 with France. He saw action in two sea fights. Significantly, he caught the eye of his captain, Hugh Palliser who gave him instruction in 8)charting and navigation. After two years, he was promoted to the HMS Pembroke as master. He witnessed the effects of 9)scurvy when crossing the Atlantic, and put his charting and navigational skills to good use in the St. Lawrence River, which helped in the capture of Quebec from the French.
In 1762, he married Elizabeth Batts. Cook was 13 years older than his wife. They spent only four months together before Cook went back to sea. This was to be the 10)pattern for much of their married life.
The First Voyage (1768-1771)
Following the war, Cook's skill at navigation and interest in 11)astronomy made him the perfect 12)candidate to lead an 13)expedition planned by the Royal Society注3 and Royal Navy to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus注4 across the sun. Precise measurements of this event were needed worldwide in order to determine the distance between the earth and sun.
Cook set sail from England in August, 1768 on the Endeavor. His first stop was Rio de Janeiro, then the Endeavor 14)proceeded west to Tahiti where camp was established and the transit of Venus was measured. After the stop in Tahiti, Cook had orders to explore and claim 15)possessions for Britain. He charted New Zealand and the east coast of Australia.
From there he proceeded to the East Indies (Indonesia) and across the Indian Ocean to the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. It was an easy voyage between Africa and home, arriving in July 1771.
The Second Voyage (1772-1775)
The Royal Navy promoted James Cook to captain following his return and had a new mission for him: to find “Terra Australis,” the unknown southern land. In the 18th century, it was believed that there was much more land south of the 16)equator than had already been discovered. Cook's first voyage did not disprove claims of a huge 17)landmass near the South Pole between New Zealand and South America.
Two ships, the Resolution and the Adventure left in July 1772 and headed to Cape Town just in time for the southern summer. Captain Cook proceeded south from Africa and turned around after 18)encountering large amounts of floating pack ice (he came within 75 miles of Antarctica). He then sailed to New Zealand for the winter and in summer proceeded south again past the Antarctic Circle. By 19)circumnavigating the southern waters around Antarctica, he determined that there was no 20)habitable southern continent. During this voyage he also discovered several island chains in the Pacific Ocean.
After Cook arrived back in Britain in July 1775, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and received their highest honor for his geographic exploration. Soon Cook's skills would again be put to use.
The Third Voyage (1776-1779)
The Royal Navy wanted Cook to determine if there was a Northwest Passage注5, a mythical waterway which would allow sailing between Europe and Asia across the top of North America. Cook set out in July of 1776, rounded the southern tip of Africa, and headed east across the Indian Ocean. He passed between the north and south islands of New Zealand (through Cook Strait) and towards the coast of North America. He sailed along the coast of what would become Oregon, British Columbia, and Alaska and proceeded through the Bering Straight. His navigation of the Bering Sea was 21)halted by the 22)impassible Arctic ice.
Upon yet again discovering that something did not exist, he continued his voyage. His last stop was in February 1779 at the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) where he was killed in a fight with islanders over the theft of a boat.
Cook's explorations dramatically increased European knowledge of the world. As a ship captain and skilled 23)cartographer, he filled in many gaps on world maps. His contributions to 18th century science helped 24)propel further exploration and discovery for many generations.