James Cook (7 November 1728 – 14 February 1779) was a British explorer, navigator and captain in the British Royal Navy. He is known for his three voyages between 1768 and 1779 in the Pacific Ocean. He was also the first one to achieve the first recorded European contact with the eastern coastline of Australia and the Hawaiian Islands and the first recorded circumnavigation of New Zealand.
Before his Voyages
James Cook was born in a humble family in Marton, North Yorkshire, near present-day Middlesbrough. In 1745, Cook left home to work as a grocer’s apprentice in the fishing village of Staithes. After realizing that he was unsuitable for the job, he was taken as an apprentice on a ship that carried coal along the English coast. Once he had completed his apprenticeship, he began working on merchant ships in the Baltic Sea, where he rose rapidly through the ranks of the navy.
In 1755, Cook decided to volunteer for service in the British Royal Navy, as he thought his career would advance more rapidly. By that time, Great Britain was rearming for the Seven Years' War and was in need of soldiers. During this time, Cook took part in the siege of Quebec before the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, where he demonstrated his skills in surveying and mapping.
Between 1763 and 1767, Cook charted the coast of Newfoundland, which resulted in the first large-scale and highly accurate map of the place. This gave him a mastery of surveying practice in adverse conditions that brought him to the attention of the Royal Navy and the Royal Society at a crucial moment in Britain's approach to overseas discovery.
In 1766, the Royal Society tasked him with travelling to the Pacific Ocean to observe and document the transit of Venus over the Sun. Two years later, Cook set sail in command of the HMB Endeavour, sailed the South Atlantic, rounded Cape Horn and continued westward through the Pacific, arriving at Tahiti on 13 April 1769, where the observations were to be made.
Once this mission was complete, Cook set off on the second purpose of his voyage: to search the South Pacific for signs of the southernmost continent, Terra Australis. Soon afterwards, Cook reached New Zealand, becoming the second European to do so, and mapped its entire coast. He also discovered the Cook Strait, which separates the North Island from the South Island. He then proceeded to cross the Tasman Sea westward and came upon the southeast coast of Australia. Lastly, he successfully navigated Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef.
Back in England, Cook was promoted to commander and presented to King George III. A few months later, in 1772, Cook was sent out to make the first circumnavigation and exploration into the Antarctic. During this voyage, he completed the first west-east circumnavigation in high latitudes, charted Tonga and Eastern Island, and discovered New Caledonia in the Pacific and the South Sandwich Islands and South Georgia island in the Atlantic. As a result of these achievements, he was promoted to captain and elected a fellow of the Royal Society. Finally, in 1776, Cook set sail to undertake his final voyage. His aim was to find out whether there existed a northwest passage around Canada and Alaska or a northeast one around Siberia. However, this mission was unsuccessful, as no passage usable by sailing ships existed.
Death and Legacy
When Cook returned to Hawaii in 1779, the reception was hostile. On 14 February, some Hawaiians stole a small boat belonging to the captain, and as revenge, he decided to take the king of Hawaii as a hostage until it was returned. However, this caused an altercation between Cook’s men and the Hawaiians, which led to Cook being stabbed and beaten to death.
James Cook remains one of the most important explorers of all time, as his voyages did much to increase European knowledge of the Pacific Ocean. In this regard, many islands, such as the Easter Island and the Hawaiian Archipelago, were located with certainty for the first time by Europeans, and highly accurate naval cartography of large areas of the Pacific was created. Moreover, Cook was the first European to have extensive contact with the inhabitants of the Pacific. Still, his figure remains a controversial one, as many argue that Cook was an enabler of British colonialism in the Pacific.
- james cook
- british empire
- new zealand
- newfound land
- george iii
- british royal navy