James Cook
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James Cook and His Expeditions

James Cook was born on 27 October 1728 in Marton-in-Cleveland as the second son of a Scottish worker. His parents wished for him to live a better life than they did so they let him get apprenticed in a grocery/haberdashery business. However, settled life did not attract James.

Legend says that one day a customer paid him with a special coin having imprinted letters SSC – South Sea Company on it. James Cook, fascinated with the idea of unexplored remoteness, chose the career of a navigator. He first went to sea at the age of 15 as a ship boy. He served on a small ship, the Freelove, navigating the stormy North Sea. It was a hard job, and James was able to learn there everything he needed for his future life.

When he was over twenty, he decided to take a very unusual step – he voluntarily entered the Royal Navy. At that time, professional navy men were rare with the Royal Navy. Crews were completed using the simplest methods – violent drafts in harbors and, sometimes, attacking commercial ships.

In 1757 one of the military ships, the Eagle, was commanded by Sir Hugh Palliser. He noticed the apt young crewman and, after two years, promoted him to be an NCO. After that, James Cook was transferred to the Mercury that was taking part in the war against the French in Canada. He charted the River St. Lawrence, and his precise map enabled the English to interfere into the Quebec battle. Cook’s efforts did not remain unnoticed. He was promoted to a steersman and became an assistant to navy surveillance and to the charting schooner’s captain Grenville. He spent the following four years working near the shores of Labrador and Newfoundland.

James Cook’s First Voyage (1768 – 1771)


He led his first expedition in the Pacific in 1768-1771. He charted New Zealand and discovered a strait between its islands (today called Cook Strait), thus rebutting a then valid hypothesis on presence of land in that area. He approached Australia from the east and discovered several new islands.

The Endeavour, commanded by James Cook, left Plymouth in England in August 1768. In 1716 Edmond Halley calculated that the Venus will be passing in front of the Sun in 1791 and 1769. The Royal Society suggested that the planet’s passage be pinpointed from places with the best position. James Cook was chosen to lead the expedition. For this purpose, he was appointed a lieutenant. In addition to the above mentioned scientific goal, the expedition had a strictly confidential mission. Its task was to check whether the mysterious southern continent, terra australis incognita, could be located to the south of the latitude of forty degrees South.

James Cook prepared the expedition with a lot of care. He chose a freight ship, which had been used for coal transportation before. She had a large freight space, could come closer to the coast than military ships and did not need a large crew. Supplies consisted of biscuits, beer, water, sauerkraut and pickled carrots. James Cook knew that vegetables were the most powerful means to fight scurvy.

First Voyage

The ship was named H.M.S. Endeavour. At the beginning, the passage was quiet. However, near Cape Horn, the ship was stroke with bad weather. Nevertheless, it managed to get through without any harm. On 13 April 1769 they arrived in Tahiti. Cook’s team carried out the astronomical observations, but they did not see the Venus as sun rays made it impossible. Thanks to his diplomatic skills, James Cook was able to maintain friendly relationships with indigenous people.

The crew followed towards New Zealand, which was considered as part of the southern continent by Abel Tasman. New Zealand’s indigenous people had a bad reputation; however, Cook was admitted in a friendly way. He found out that the bay marked on his map was actually a strait and that New Zealand consisted of two islands. James Cook charted the whole coast of New Zealand.

Then, he managed to describe the Botany Bay (today: Everard), which was nothing else but a part of Australia’s east coast. Despite his excellent navigating skills, Cook was not able to avoid difficulties passing the Great Barrier Reef, which had made a number of ships interrupt their voyages prematurely. The Endeavour hit a shallow and the crew had to get rid of all movable load in order to save it. In the end, the ship was freed and the crew came back to England in 1771. James Cook navigated around the world. He did not see the Venus and he did not find the southern land. Nevertheless, he was welcomed with honors. During his voyage, he created maps of the remotest areas, the preciseness of which is astonishing even today. He thus enabled Britain to access New Zealand and Australia. James Cook’s second expedition followed soon after.

James Cook’s Second Voyage (1772 – 1775)


Between 1772 and 1775 James Cook led his second voyage, searching for an assumptive continent in the southern Pacific. In 1773 Captain James Cook landed on Cook Islands and named them Harvey Islands. He searched the area past the Antarctic Circle from Africa to New Zealand. Then, he explored New Caledonia. Returning home, he discovered Sandwich Archipelago.

The Resolution (commanded by Captain Cook) accompanied by the Adventure (commanded by Captain Furneaux) left Plymouth on 13 June 1772. Their goal was clear: find the southern continent, the existence of which had been anticipated by a number of scientists. For the first time in voyaging history, their devices included a novelty called chronometer, the model of which had been created by the famous clocksmith John Harrison.

Second Voyage

Both ships luckily approached the Cape of Good Hope and, after a short break, continued further to the south-east. On 16 January 1773 James Cook crossed the Antarctic Circle. Both ships navigated on the very edge of solid glacier. There was a constant threat of hitting an iceberg, and it was not possible to say whether the expedition was near a mainland or not. James Cook later wrote that if the mainland had existed, it would have not been inhabitable.

The journey continued towards the Easter Islands, Marquesas Islands and to Tahiti where the crew had a rest. The chronometer proved to be a reliable aid as Cook’s ships managed to pass 17 thousand kilometers without seeing land. James Cook discovered New Caledonia and a number of other archipelagos. Upon return, James Cook was awarded a lot of honors. He was appointed a fellow of the Royal Society, got appreciation by the king George III, and the Admiralty promoted him to the rank of a definite captain with a honorary retirement. Nevertheless, Captain James Cook did not desire any rest.

James Cook’s Third Voyage (1776 – 1779)


In 1776 – 1779 James Cook led his third expedition aimed at finding a north way around America. He circumnavigated Africa again, approached America, navigated through the Bering Strait and started charting. When the 1778 winter approached, he left for Hawaii where he was killed at an encounter with indigenous people.

Cook’s two small ships, the Resolution (Captain Cook) and the Discovery (Lieutenant King), pulled up their anchors on 11 July 1776. The expedition was led by James Cook. The southern continent question had been solved. Nevertheless, there was a problem concerning navy men of all ranks: the so called Northwest Passage, which was to be the shortest connection between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. James Cook visited New Zealand and Tahiti again. In January 1778 his ships approached Hawaiian Islands, which he named Sandwich Islands to honor his superior. He did not stay long and headed further north.

Third Voyage

He met the Eskimos in Vancouver Bay for the first time, and in October 1778 he came across Russian fur hunters on the Unalaska Island. Facing harsh Nordic weather, his ships continued to navigate through the Bering Strait and stopped only before a strong ice field at the latitude of seventy degrees North. They did not find any traces of the Northwest passage. Icebergs and advanced winter season made them turn back towards the south. Despite not achieving his goal, James Cook charted Alaska coast, observed volcanoes on Aleutian Islands and described polar bears, wolfs and other Nordic species.

In November they approached the Hawaiian Islands again. Indigenous people behaved in a very unfriendly way. Cook’s ships restocked supplies and left on 4 February. However, a heavy storm drove them back to the Hawaiian Islands after a few days. James Cook arranged with the local king that he would take hostages onboard in order to prevent possible unrest. His intention enraged the indigenous people, and thousands of them started attacking the English. Captain Cook ordered his crew to back off and wanted to personally lead negotiations. However, his crewmen could only watch how the tribal chief Koa knocked Captain Cook down with a club and how the others carried his paralyzed body into a wood. No one will ever know whether his body was cremated or eaten up.

Only thanks to Captain Clerk, the idea of an immediate punitive expedition to revenge the dead was abandoned. In the bursts of ten cannons, the words of James Cook’s Bible, which he used to read out from at crewmen’s funerals, were read out. Lined up crewmen paid the last honors to their commander.

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