James Cook was a British sailor and explorer. He is credited with the discovery of numerous islands in the Pacific Ocean and exploration of several continents. Cook commanded three voyages of discovery for Great Britain, and sailed around the world twice. Captain Cook's voyages led to the establishment of colonies throughout the Pacific by several European countries.
Birth and youth
James Cook was born in 1728, at Marton-in-Cleveland, Yorkshire, England, the second son of James and Grace Cook. The Cook family moved to Aireyholme Farm, three miles from Great Ayton, when James was a small boy. He attended the local village school under the auspices of Thomas Skottowe, landlord of the farm that James father worked on. He displayed a special aptitude for mathematics, and taught himself astronomy, as well.
James started work as a farm hand and labored on Skottowe's land until 1744. Then at 16, he apprenticed in a grocer/haberdashery shop as a grocer's assistant in Staithes, England. During his sojourn at Staithes, James learned the art of handling a small boat and navigating a passage to shore in the dark.
After about 18 months, Cook announced that he did not have the temperament to be a shopkeeper and that he wanted to go to sea. The shop master introduced James to John Walker, a trader in the port of Whitby, England. Walker took the youth on as a merchant navy apprentice on one of Walkers collier* ships, aboard which James learned his seamanship.
A seafaring life begins
Cook served his first tour at sea, working the East Coast coal trade, on the collier Freelove, a 450-ton vessel. During the off season, Cook assisted in the rigging of the Three Brothers, a 600-ton ship under construction by the Walker family.
During the winter months, when the weather was too severe and the sea too heavy to ply, Cook and other apprentice lads staying at the master's house, worked days on the ships, and spent long evenings reading the skills required to be masters of their own ships. Cook eventually was promoted to Master, the highest non-commissioned rank.
At the outbreak of the Seven Years' War, also known as the French and Indian War, in 1754, rather than accept a promotion to Captain in the Merchant Navy Service, James Cook volunteered for the Royal Navy as an Able Seaman at a time when undermanned crews "press ganged" men into the service. Cook enlisted in 1755, and began to serve on the 60-gun ship Eagle.
Thanks to his abilities as a seaman and navigator, Cook attracted the attention of Sir Hugh Palliser, who employed Cook to investigate and survey the North Atlantic waters off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Subsequently, the Royal Society of London published Cook's observations of a solar eclipse off the coast of Newfoundland. Cook would spend more than eight and a half years charting previously unknown islands.
On December 21, 1762, Cook married Elizabeth Bates, the daughter of one of his mentors. The couple would produce six children.
The first voyage
The navy appointed Cook as the leader of a scientific expedition. At age 40, he began the first of three voyages on August 25, 1768, on the H.M. Bark Endeavour from Plymouth, England. The purpose of Cook's first voyage was twofold:
To time the transit of Venus across the face of the sun. Those observations were to calculate the distance from the sun to the earth.
The second half of the mission was to search for a continent south of Tahiti. Cook's instructions from the Royal Society were to answer the long-contemplated question: Does the continent of Terra Australis or "Terres Australes," exist, or is there only ocean in the unexplored part of the Southern Hemisphere?
The search for the southern continent was not successful.
After a three-year voyage, the Endeavour made it back to Dover, England, on July 13, 1771. Cook was presented to King George III and was made a Naval Commander.
The second voyage
The purpose of Cook's second voyage was to circumnavigate the globe as far south as possible to confirm the location of a southern continent. Cook's second voyage began on July 13, 1772, from Plymouth, England. He took two refitted Whitby coal ships, the Resolution and the Adventure.
On the voyage, he circled Antarctica in the Resolution, but the ice surrounding the continent prevented the sighting of land. The existence of Antarctica remained unproven until 1840.
Cook continued his mapping of the South Pacific, adding Tonga, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Fiji, the New Hebrides, and New Caledonia, among others. He returned to England in 1775, and was promoted to Captain and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, receiving their highest honor for his geographic exploration.
The third voyage
In July 1776, Cook set sail on his third voyage, again aboard the Resolution. His mission was to look for a possible northern sea route, or Northwest Passage, the the North American continent.
In 1778, Cook became the first known European to reach the Hawaiian Islands. Later that year, Cook sailed up the northwest coast of North America, and was the first European to land on what would be called Vancouver Island in British Columbia. He continued up the coast through the Bering Strait, and entered the Arctic Ocean. Great walls of ice blocked the expedition, so Cook headed back for the Hawaiian Islands.
An untimely end
During his return voyage to England, Cook stopped at the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) for repairs and died there of wounds suffered at the hands of the Hawaiian natives. At the time of his death, Captain James Cook was 51 years old.
*Collier: a coal ship.
See also George Vancouver .