Sail Away
Cover  <<  Sail Away  <<  Discoverers and Navigators  <<  .
Partly quoted from "Captain James Cook; a life full of adventure, triumph, and struggle" by Nathan Kerl and from "James Cook Web Pages" by Michael Dickinson (1996) with excerpt from "The Pacific Navigators" by Oliver E. Allen in TIME-LIFE books (1980).

James Cook (1728-1779)

Early Years

James Cook was born in the little Yorkshire village of Marton on October 27, 1728. He received basic schooling at the village school and was then sent to work for William Sanders in the nearby fishing village of Staithes. Here Cook developed a love and fascination for the sea, but he was not especially happy with his job amongst the hard working people of the land.
In July 1746, at the age of 17, Cook gave into his temptations for the sea and became an apprentice to the Walker Family, ship owners, at the port of Whitby.

Whitby was a bustling place, always full with many varieties of ships. Cook's job as an apprentice required him to become very familiar with the coal ships of the area and he soon learned the ins and outs of the colliers type ships. He worked hard and soon had his first voyage aboard the Whitby collier 'Freelove.'

The coal ships or colliers were of sturdy construction, strong sailing abilities, and could handle a great deal of cargo and weight. Cook's expertise in this type of ship would bring him to use this type of ship for all three of his major voyages of world exploration.

While Cook was at Whitby, he educated himself a great deal in navigation and mathematics. By 1755, after nine years, and much service as ship's master, Cook left his job and enlisted in the Royal Navy as an ordinary sailor. He boarded the Eagle, a 60-gun ship, and was sent to the North American Coast.

James Cook worked his way up through the ranks quickly in the navy, eventually rising high enough to command his own survey vessel. This was unusual for an enlisted man, but his experience at Whitby helped him have an upper hand over the other seamen. Cook's first mission was to map the estuary of the St. Lawrence River before Wolfe's naval assault on Quebec. Later he surveyed the coast of Newfoundland. Many sailors noted Cook's stellar work with mapping and surveying and how extremely accurate his drawings were. It was those surveys that gave Cook a name, along with information he carefully obtained from the observing and recording of the eclipse of the sun in 1766.

Cook was rewarded for his work in Quebec in 1761. He received a bonus of 50 pounds, for "indefatigable industry in making himself the 'master of the pilotage'". The surveys were so accurate and complete that they were in use until the beginning of the 20th century.

Cook returned to England in 1762 and soon married Elizabeth Batts of Shadwell, the only daughter of a provincial family. In Elizabeth's seventeen years of marriage to Cook she saw him only every few years and even then only for a few months at a time. All of her six children and Cook seemed to have predeceased her. Comments on Cook's family and Elizabeth's death we hear from Cook himself not a word.

Cook's surveys and scientific observations, along with his own scientific ability and the patronage from his former commander, Sir Hugh Palliser, led to his new position as Captain of the "The Endeavour Bark" in 1768.

Cook's First Voyage on the "Endeavour" (1768-1771)

Edmund Halley, a contemporary astronomer, predicted that on June 3, 1769, the planet Venus would cross in front of the sun. When this happened the distance from the Sun to the Earth could be calculated by timing the transit of Venus across the face of the Sun. The Royal Geographic Society had proposed that observers should be sent to three places around the world for further study and better calculation of this distance. Observers would be sent to the north of Norway, to Hudson Bay and to an island in the Pacific. Cook was chosen to lead the official British expedition to this last destination. This was a little surprising to some, but Cook and those in hierarchy of the navy knew of his capabilities, even if some thought him inexperienced and without a long distance journey.

sail015k_A.jpg Cook, at the age of 39, was promoted to lieutenant and named as commander of the expedition led with his new ship, "the Endeavour" a Whitby collier with a crew of about 80 and a team of 11 scientists. The Endeavour weighed 368 tons, was 106 feet long, 29 feet long, 29 feet 3 inches in the beam and was specially fitted for the voyage. She could make seven or eight knots at the most, but could keep a good pace for a long voyage. One of the important things was that she was sturdy. She had a relatively low draught, fourteen feet, and carried twelve swivel guns, which were considered important for safety from natives.

Cook and his crew left Plymouth on August 25, 1768 (Beaglehole). The Endeavour sailed first to Madeira and then, in November, reached Rio de Janeiro, where a delay occurred because the ship was mistaken for a pirate vessel. By January 1769 the misunderstanding was dealt with and the Endeavour was on the way to Cape Horn. She rounded the Cape with good weather and no troubles with wind.
Cook and the crew often grew quite weary and we can only imagine what a voyage of this type on a sailing ship would be like. Cook took excellent care of his ship and crew when on the voyage. They did their work along with catching of sharks and dolphins shooting of birds and dealing with the storms that came along their way. The crew ate extremely well even having a little fresh milk from a very famous goat on board. The goat had already sailed with Wallis, a British sailor, who discovered Tahiti not long before Cook would visit. When celebrations came around they had wine and maybe slaughtered a pig or cow that they brought with them. The basic diet however was salted pork and a biscuit. This did not seem to be a favourite since it was served continuously and often had weevils crawling and scavenging around inside. Since Cook was very strict about keeping his crew free of scurvy he forced the men to eat vegetables, usually found in sauerkraut and made them keep their quarters clean and aired out.
There were some complaints on board, but only the usual for such a voyage. There was often punishment for work not done, and to keep the presence of order and command on the ship. Most problems were very minor as the men were still quite young, most men under thirty, and their main goal was still for a bit of adventure.
After rounding Cape Horn, Cook journeyed to the recently discovered George III Island and later re-named "Tahiti". Tahiti was seen from the topmast on the 11th of April 1769. The men spent the next two days arduously trying to get their beaten ship to the beautiful shores of Tahiti.

The men landed in Matavai Bay on the morning of April 13 1769. The crew was greeted by the natives and soon felt dry immobile ground after eight months with only the touch of cold seawater in the morning and a swaying base to sleep on at night. The crew found that the Tahitian natives were a little weary upon their coming. However, soon after landing the native chief recognized Lieutenant Gore, as he had recently sailed to this land with Wallis, and the Europeans were then welcomed onto the island.

In the next few months Cook and his crew experienced many things and learned much more than any other previous voyage to Tahiti. They were one of the first to see, (and feel) such things as tattoos. This is probably where sailors first received their trademark sign, the tattoo on their upper arm. The crew would find that the Tahitians were also very clever people and they outnumbered the small crew of the Endeavour and there were many incidents of pickpocketing and robbery during the visit.
On one occasion a very important piece of equipment was stolen, the main piece of the observatory. This was the whole reason that the men had come to Tahiti and now it had been stolen leaving everyone in a bit of chaos. Cook sent out a warning and with help and a chase to the other side of the island the natives returned the disassembled pieces of the instrument. With the help of Banks' repairing skills the instrument could be reassembled and the Venus transit was successfully observed on June 3.
Cook stayed in Tahiti for three months and not only observed the Venus transit, but also mapped the Tahitian coast before leaving on the second half of his voyage. This half of the voyage's instructions were sealed, and even though hinted at by the public, Cook did not know exactly what his second orders were. Cook's instructions from the Royal Society were to prove the long contemplated question: Does the continent of Terra Australis Incognita exist, or is there only ocean in the unexplored part of the Southern Hemisphere? Cook was to proceed southward as far as the 40th latitude. If this course resulted in nothing found, he was to turn west and search between latitudes 40 and 35 until he discovered the unknown land or came to the eastern side of the land discovered by the Tasman.
Cook did not sail south at once as the crew that he had kept so clean from scurvy had become ill with a form of venereal disease instead, and he gave them time to partially recover. Cook says in his diary that the crew was not to blame for bringing the disease to Tahiti.

Cook sailed south in the middle of August, but severe weather forced him to turn northwest at the beginning of September. No sight of the supposed Terra Australis was found so he moved as ordered to New Zealand.
Cook came to Poverty Bay in New Zealand around October and here the native Maoris people became hostile. Cook fired in self-defence and killed two or three people. From there he turned north again and Cook circumnavigated the two islands. He discovered the South Island and all the way, accurately charted the coast.

No European had yet visited the eastern coast of the recently discovered New Holland (Australia). Lieutenant Hicks made the first sighting of this land. Cook was notorious of duly naming places and this situation was no different. He named the bay that Hicks had found, Cape Hicks (later renamed Cape Everard). From here they sailed north, and anchored on April 29, 1770 in what Cook originally called Stingray Bay. After the group of scientists found huge numbers of unknown plant specimens, Cook renamed it to Botany Bay. Two Aborigines resisted their landing and fired darts, which Joseph Banks feared might be poisoned. Cook eventually scared them off with musket fire and they went without harm from Aborigines during the week they explored the area around the bay.

On May 7, Cook sailed again travelling north and seeing an approach to the later named, Sydney harbour. They had no luck investigating it and instead landed at Bustard Bay. A few days later they suffered a near shipwreck on a piece of the Great Barrier Reef. Despite a leaky hull the Endeavour was still afloat and the crew brought her into Cook Harbour, staying near today's Cooktown.
Cook decided on a two-month stay here, giving time to repair the hull with what few resources they had and observing and shooting kangaroos. Cook was now to sail one of the longest and most dangerous stretches of water in the world and with a still leaky ship. By the middle of August they had come in sight of the tip of Australia's northeastern tip, which Cook named Cape York. Turning westward, the crew discovered and named the Endeavour Strait between the mainland and today's Prince of Wales Island. The next day he claimed all of Eastern Australia for Britain after quite a lengthy expedition and named the new territory, New South Wales. Cook then continued westward and proved a new sea route between Australia and New Guinea.

Another shipwreck forced the broken Endeavour to dock at Jakarta. The ship underwent repairs, but still could not leave until the end of December. Cook's efforts to keep a "clean" crew failed here and many of the crew became succumbed to malaria. Cook blamed the climate for this sickness and despite his efforts, many died before the Endeavour finally departed for England. Cook and his crew made their way to England rounding Cape of Good Hope in March 1771 and after a journey of almost three years, landed in Plymouth on July 13, 1771.

Cook's Second Voyage and the HMS "Resolution" (1772-1775)

The second voyage of James Cook 1772-1775, commissioned by the British government with advice from the Royal Society, was designed to circumnavigate the globe as far south as possible to finally determine whether there was any great southern landmass, or Terra Australis. sail015k_B.jpg On his first voyage, Cook had demonstrated by circumnavigating New Zealand that it was not attached to a larger landmass to the south, and he charted almost the entire eastern coastline of Australia, yet Terra Australis was believed to lie further south.
Cook was promoted to Commander and then notified that he had been chosen to lead the mission. He was instructed to travel south to find Bouvet's Cape Circumcision and determine if it was part of the imagined continent. If so, he was to "take possession of convenient situations in the country in the name of the King of Britain". If not part of a continent, then he was to sail as far south as possible, circumnavigate the area and sail north when the ice and weather proved too harsh to sail in. James Cook was not a believer in the existence of a 7th continent, but because the Admiralty still believed there was, and because of pressure from other countries the assignment stayed.

The Admiralty outfitted the newly purchased Resolution and Adventure, two colliers; the Resolution positioned as Cook's flagship. The Resolution was a smaller ship than the Endeavour, only 110 feet long and 35 feet wide across the beam however, the Adventure was even smaller and would be used as a type of scouting sheep to maneuver in tighter spots.
With little ceremony the two ships set sail from Plymouth Sound at 6:00 a.m. on July 13, 1772, faced with an extensive three-year voyage only a year after Cook's last voyage.

Along with the mission to find the supposed 7th continent, Cook planned to circumnavigate the world. This second trip would also be a scientific expedition and Joseph Banks was originally planning to ride on the Adventure. Because of a dispute over the number of people Banks wanted to take, Banks withdrew from the mission. Despite the small quarrel, two astronomers did sail with Cook and they had with a new instrument called the Chronometer. This instrument was supposed to measure Longitude with the aid of time and the stars. These four chronometers, the scientists used, proved to be useful and more reliable than any other instrument at that time for their position calculations. The two ships arrived at Cape Town, South Africa, 109 days after the departure from Plymouth and then continued south, crossing the Antarctic Circle and were eventually forced back north because of ice.
They sailed east and reached Dusky Bay, New Zealand in March 1773. Cook then pushed south again across the Pacific until the crew could endure no more. Cook returned to Tahiti unhappy with the results as of yet and investigated the Tongan Islands.
Heading south, the two ships met a fierce storm and were separated from each other. After missing the rendezvous at Queen Charlotte Sound, Furneaux decided to return home with the Adventure and left a message for Cook to that effect. Furneaux lost some of his men during an encounter with Maori, and eventually sailed back to Britain, setting out for home on 22 December 1773 via Cape Horn, arriving in England on 14 July 1774.
Cook continued to explore the Antarctic, heading south into the summer sea ice, icebergs and fog until he reached 67°31' South before hauling north again for 2200km. The third crossing of the Antarctic Circle, on 26 January 1774, was the start to the most southerly penetration, reaching Latitude 71°10' South at Longitude 106°54' West on 30 January when they could go no further because of the solid sea ice.
Cook now became convinced that the ice-mass that blocked their way, went south all the way to the Pole, or would maybe join some piece of land yet unfound by Europeans. Without a clear answer he sailed north again landing at Easter Island in March 1774 and the Marquesas.

Again from Tahiti, he sailed west to confirm the discoveries of the explorer Quiros. He discovered many of the Tuamoutu Islands, Society Islands, Tonga, and Fiji Islands until reaching what he named the New Hebrides (Vanuatu). From here he sailed south and found New Caledonia. On 10 November 1774 the expedition sailed east over the Pacific and sighted the western end of the Straight of Magellan on 17 December. After rounding Cape Horn in easterly direction, Cook claimed the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands Islands as for Britain, and after a refitting stop in Table Bay, South Africa, he returned to Portsmouth in July 1775 .

His second voyage had lasted three years and eighteen days finding out bits and pieces of land and clues along the way. In this journey he lost four men but none to scurvy. Another accomplishment of the second voyage was the successful employment of the "Larcum Kendall K1" chronometer, which enabled Cook to calculate his longitudinal position with much greater accuracy. Cook's log was full of praise for the watch which he used to make charts of the southern Pacific Ocean that were so remarkably accurate that copies of them were still in use in the mid-20th century.

After his return to England Cook was "retired" to the Royal Hospital in Greenwich. But apparently Cook could not stay at home very long and eventually a third voyage was planned, Cook taking hold of the details. He volunteered himself for the head job of finding the crew and men to take on the task of this more northerly mission in the Pacific Ocean. The purpose of the third voyage was to seek out an existing Northwest passage - the passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean - and map his explorations.

Cook's Third Voyage and Death (1776-1779)

Principally, the purpose of this voyage was an attempt to discover the famed Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific around the top of North America. Cook's orders from the Admiralty were driven by a 1745 Act which, when extended in 1775, promised a £20,000 prize for whoever discovered the passage. Initially the Admiralty had wanted Charles Clerke to lead the expedition, with Cook, who was in retirement following his exploits in the Pacific, acting as a consultant. However, Cook had researched Bering's expeditions, and the Admiralty ultimately placed their faith in the veteran explorer to lead with Clerke accompanying him. The arrangement was to make a two pronged attack, Cook moving from the Bering Strait in the north Pacific with Richard Pickersgill in the frigate Lyon taking the Atlantic approach. They planned to rendezvous in the summer of 1778.

In the summer of 1776 Cook sailed again in the well-travelled Resolution. A new sister ship, the Discovery, and its captain, Clerke, were to look for the passage approach from the East. Cook made his usual stops at New Zealand and Tahiti. From Tahiti he sailed North, discovering the Cook Islands, the Christmas Island and some of the smaller Hawaiian Islands. He only made short stops continuing onto the northwest American coast charting and exploring the North Pacific regions they were sailing.
He eventually rounded the tip of the Alaskan Peninsula, through the Bering Strait and into the Arctic Ocean where he was met at every turn by ice. After spending as much time as possible with the ice, Cook turned southward at 70° 44' North to replenish and repair for the next spring. Cook named the islands they would be staying at in honour of one of his friends, John Montague, the Earl of Sandwich.

After eight weeks of seeking a suitable harbour, the Discovery and the Resolution anchored in Kealakekua Bay, on the Kona coast of the island of Hawaii. Cook seems to have been regarded as some sort of God as he was named "Lono", by the people of Kaua'i. He was accepted with a great welcome and hospitality. After a month, Cook realized the mission must continue to move onward. The ships left on February 4, 1779, in search of another anchorage before exploring the northeast coast of Asia. After sailing the stormy seas for just a week, the damaged ship forced Cook back into Kealakekua Bay, dragging the mast ashore on February 13.

It was here that Cook again was thought to be the God Lonoikamakahiki the God of Harvest, by coincidence landing during this time of celebration. When he first arrived several months before, it was Kaua'i that welcomed him as Lono, taking him to a temple or heiau and consecrating his arrival in ceremony. He was given the daughter of High Cheif Kaeo, who became pregnant and subsequently gave birth to a child.

When in Kealakekua, one of the ships long boats was stolen by lesser chiefs for the iron, it was burnt and iron taken. In addition one of two of the watchmen were killed. In order for the return of the long boat to take place, Cook devised a plan for its return. They'd land and take hostage of the Cheif and hold him until the return of the boat. Unknown to him that boat was already in ashes. Upon arrival, he did meet with the High Cheif who initially agreed to go with him to his ship, however, when near the landing the Cheif's wife came to him begging him not to go. Here is where the scuffle begins. Panic sets in, and a musket is fired and the fight is on. In this turmoil, Cook is hit and dies in the ongoing struggle, which ends with the retracement of Cooks crew to their anchored ships.

After Cook's death, Clerke, who was dying of tuberculosis, took over the expedition and sailing north, landed on the Kamchatka peninsula where the Russians helped him with supplies and to make repairs to the ships. He made a final attempt to pass beyond the Bering Strait and died on his return at Petropavlovsk on 22 August 1779. From here the ships' reports were sent overland, reaching London five months later. Following the death of Clerke, Resolution and Discovery turned for home commanded by John Gore, a veteran of Cook's first voyage, and Captain James King. After passing down the coast of Japan they reached Macao, in China in the first week of December 1779 and from there followed the East India trade route via Sunda Strait to Cape Town. Finally, in October 1780 both ships arrived back in England.

Cook's Legacy for Navigation and Science

Cook's 12 years sailing around the Pacific Ocean contributed much to European knowledge of the area. Several islands such as Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) were encountered for the first time by Europeans, and his more accurate navigational charting of large areas of the Pacific was a major achievement.
To create accurate maps, latitude and longitude need to be known. Navigators had been able to work out latitude accurately for centuries by measuring the angle of the Sun or a star above the horizon with an instrument such as a backstaff or quadrant. Longitude was more difficult to measure accurately because it requires precise knowledge of the time difference between points on the surface of the Earth. Cook gathered accurate longitude measurements during his first voyage due to his navigational skills, the help of astronomer Charles Green and by using the newly published Nautical Almanac tables, via the lunar distance method - measuring the angular distance from the Moon to either the Sun during daytime or one of eight bright stars during night-time to determine the time at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and comparing that to his local time determined via the altitude of the Sun, Moon, or stars. On his second voyage Cook used the K1 chronometer made by Larcum Kendall, which was the shape of a large pocket watch, 13 cm in diameter. It was a copy of the H4 clock made by John Harrison, which proved to be the first to keep accurate time at sea when used on the ship Deptford's journey to Jamaica, 1761-62.

Cook succeeded in circumnavigating the world on his first voyage without losing a single man to scurvy, an unusual accomplishment at the time. He tested several preventive measures but the most important was frequent replenishment of fresh food. It was for presenting a paper on this aspect of the voyage to the Royal Society that he was presented with the Copley Medal in 1776. Cook was the first European to have extensive contact with various people of the Pacific region. He correctly concluded there was a relationship among all the people in the Pacific, despite their being separated by thousands of miles of ocean. Cook came up with the theory that Polynesians originated from Asia, which was later proved to be correct.

Cook was accompanied on his voyages by many scientists, whose observations and discoveries added to the importance of the voyages. Joseph Banks, a botanist, went on the first voyage along with fellow botanist Daniel Solander from Sweden. Between them they collected over 3,000 plant species. Banks became one of the strongest promoters of the settlement of Australia by the British, based on his own personal observations.

A number of the junior officers who served under Cook went on to distinctive accomplishments of their own.
William Bligh, Cook's sailing master, was given command of HMS Bounty in 1787 to sail to Tahiti and return with breadfruit. Bligh is most known for the mutiny of his crew which resulted in his being set adrift in 1789. He later became governor of New South Wales, where he was subject of another mutiny - the only successful armed takeover of an Australian colonial government.
George Vancouver, one of Cook's midshipmen, later led a voyage of exploration to the Pacific Coast of North America from 1791 to 1794.
George Dixon sailed under Cook on his third expedition, and later commanded an expedition of his own.

Cook's contributions to knowledge were internationally recognised during his lifetime. In 1779, while the American colonies were at war with Britain in their war for independence, Benjamin Franklin wrote to captains of American warships at sea, recommending that if they came into contact with Cook's vessel, they were to: "... not consider her an enemy, nor suffer any plunder to be made of the effects contained in her, nor obstruct her immediate return to England by detaining her or sending her into any other part of Europe or to America; but that you treat the said Captain Cook and his people with all civility and kindness, as common friends to mankind". Unknown to Franklin, Cook had met his death a month before this "passport" was written.

Cover  <<  Sail Away  <<  Discoverers and Navigators  <<  . last updated: 28-Jun-2012