Cook, Explorer, Navigator and Cartographer
James Cook FRS RN (7 November [O.S. 27 October]
1728 – 14 February 1779) was an English
explorer, navigator and cartographer, ultimately
rising to the rank of Captain in the Royal Navy.
Cook was the first to map Newfoundland prior to
making three voyages to the Pacific Ocean during
which he achieved the first European contact with
the eastern coastline of Australia and the Hawaiian
Islands as well as the first recorded circumnavigation
of New Zealand.
Cook joined the British merchant navy as a teenager
and joined the Royal Navy in 1755. He saw action
in the Seven Years' War, and subsequently surveyed
and mapped much of the entrance to the Saint Lawrence
River during the siege of Quebec. This allowed
General Wolfe to make his famous stealth attack
on the Plains of Abraham, and helped to bring
Cook to the attention of the Admiralty and Royal
Society. This notice came at a crucial moment
both in his personal career and in the direction
of British overseas exploration, and led to his
commission in 1766 as commander of HM Bark Endeavour
for the first of three Pacific voyages.
Cook charted many areas and recorded several islands
and coastlines on European maps for the first
time. His achievements can be attributed to a
combination of seamanship, superior surveying
and cartographic skills, courage in exploring
dangerous locations to confirm the facts (for
example dipping into the Antarctic circle repeatedly
and exploring around the Great Barrier Reef),
an ability to lead men in adverse conditions,
and boldness both with regard to the extent of
his explorations and his willingness to exceed
the instructions given to him by the Admiralty.
Cook died in Hawaii in a fight with Hawaiians
during his third exploratory voyage in the Pacific
was born in relatively humble circumstances in
the village of Marton in Yorkshire, today a suburb
belonging to the town of Middlesbrough. He was
baptised in the local church of St. Cuthbert's
where today his name can be seen in the church
register. Cook was one of five children of James
Cook, a Scottish farm labourer, and his locally
born wife Grace Pace. In 1736, his family
moved to Airey Holme farm at Great Ayton, where
his father's employer, Thomas Skottowe paid for
him to attend the local school (now a museum).
In 1741, after 5 years schooling, he began work
for his father, who had by now been promoted to
farm manager. When he had time off from the farm,
he'd take himself off up nearby Roseberry Topping,
climbing which gave him his first taste for adventure
and exploration which was to stay with him for
life. Cook's Cottage, his parents' last home,
which he is likely to have visited, is now in
Melbourne, having been moved from England and
reassembled brick by brick in 1934.
In 1745, when he was 16, Cook moved 20 miles to
the fishing village of Staithes to be apprenticed
in a grocery/haberdashery business, where he first
felt the lure of the sea while gazing out of the
After 18 months, not proving suitable for shop
work, his boss William Sanderson took Cook to
the nearby port town of Whitby and introduced
him to John and Henry Walker. The Walkers were
prominent local ship-owners and Quakers, and were
in the coal trade. Their house is now the Captain
Cook Memorial Museum. Cook was taken on as a merchant
navy apprentice in their small fleet of vessels
plying coal along the English coast. His first
assignment was aboard the collier Freelove, and
he spent several years on this and various other
coasters sailing between the Tyne and London.
As part of this apprenticeship, Cook applied himself
to the study of algebra, geometry, trigonometry,
navigation and astronomy, all skills he would
need one day to command his own ship.
His three-year apprenticeship completed, Cook
began working on trading ships in the Baltic Sea.
He soon progressed through the merchant navy ranks,
starting with his 1752 promotion to Mate (officer
in charge of navigation) aboard the collier brig
Friendship. In 1755, within a month of being offered
command of this vessel, he volunteered for service
in the Royal Navy, as Britain was re-arming for
what was to become the Seven Years' War.
Despite the need to start back at the bottom of
the naval hierarchy, Cook realised his career
would advance more quickly in military service.
On 17 June he began as able seaman aboard HMS
Eagle under the command of Captain Hugh Palliser.
He was very quickly promoted to Master's Mate.
By 1757, within two years of joining the Royal
Navy, he passed his master's examination qualifying
him to navigate and handle a ship of the King's
married Elizabeth Batts (1742-1835), the daughter
of Samuel Batts, keeper of the Bell Inn, Wapping
and one of his mentors, and wife ..., on the 21st
of December 1762 at St. Margaret's Church in Barking,
Essex. The couple had six children: James (1763-1794),
Nathaniel (1764-1781), Elizabeth (1767-1771),
Joseph (1768-1768), George (1772-1772) and Hugh
(1776-1793). When not at sea, Cook lived in the
East End of London. He attended St. Paul's Church,
Shadwell, where his son James was baptised. Stepney
Historical Trust has placed a plaque on Free trade
Wharf in the Highway, Shadwell to commemorate
his life in the East End of London.
of Royal Navy career
the Seven Years' War, as master of Pembroke (his
second command, after Solebay), Cook participated
in the siege of Quebec City before the Battle
of the Plains of Abraham in 1759. He showed a
talent for surveying and cartography and was responsible
for mapping much of the entrance to the Saint
Lawrence River during the siege, allowing General
Wolfe to make his famous stealth attack on the
Plains of Abraham.
surveying skills were put to good use in the 1760s,
mapping the jagged coast of Newfoundland. Cook
surveyed the northwest stretch in 1763 and 1764,
the south coast between the Burin Peninsula and
Cape Ray in 1765 and 1766, and the west coast
in 1767. Cook’s five seasons in Newfoundland
produced the first large-scale and accurate maps
of the island’s coasts; they also gave Cook
his mastery of practical surveying, achieved under
often adverse conditions, and brought him to the
attention of the Admiralty and Royal Society at
a crucial moment both in his personal career and
in the direction of British overseas discovery.
Following on from his exertions in Newfoundland,
it was at this time that Cook wrote, he intended
to go not only:
"... farther than any man has been before
me, but as far as I think it is possible for a
man to go."
1766, the Royal Society hired Cook to travel to
the Pacific Ocean to observe and record the transit
of Venus across the Sun. He sailed from England
in 1768, rounded Cape Horn and continued westward
across the Pacific to arrive at Tahiti on 13 April
1769, where the observations were to be made.
However, the result of the observations were not
as conclusive or accurate as had been hoped. Cook
later mapped the complete New Zealand coastline,
making only some minor errors. He then sailed
west, reaching the south-eastern coast of the
Australian continent on 19 April 1770, and in
doing so his expedition became the first recorded
Europeans to have encountered its eastern coastline.
 On 23 April he made his first recorded direct
observation of indigenous Australians at Brush
Island near Bawley Point, noting in his journal
"...and were so near the Shore as to distinguish
several people upon the Sea beach they appear'd
to be of a very dark or black Colour but whether
this was the real colour of their skins or the
C[l]othes they might have on I know not."
On 29 April Cook and crew made their first landfall
on the mainland of the continent at a place now
known as the Kurnell Peninsula, which he named
Botany Bay after the unique specimens retrieved
by the botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander.
It is here that James Cook made first contact
with an Aboriginal tribe known as the Gweagal.
After his departure from Botany Bay he continued
northwards, and a mishap occurred when Endeavour
ran aground on a shoal of the Great Barrier Reef,
on 11 June. The ship was badly damaged and his
voyage was delayed almost seven weeks while repairs
were carried out on the beach (near the docks
of modern Cooktown, at the mouth of the Endeavour
River). Once repairs were complete the voyage
continued, sailing through Torres Strait and on
22 August he landed on Possession Island, where
he claimed the entire coastline he had just explored
as British territory. He returned to England via
the Cape of Good Hope and Saint Helena, arriving
on 12 July 1771.
journals were published upon his return, and he
became something of a hero among the scientific
community. Among the general public, however,
the aristocratic botanist Joseph Banks was a bigger
hero. Banks even attempted to take command
of Cook's second voyage, but removed himself from
the voyage before it began, and Johann Reinhold
Forster and his son Georg Forster were taken on
as scientists for the voyage. Cook's son George
was born five days before he left for his second
after his return, Cook was promoted from Master
to Commander. Then once again he was commissioned
by the Royal Society to search for the mythical
Terra Australis. On his first voyage, Cook had
demonstrated by circumnavigating New Zealand that
it was not attached to a larger landmass to the
south; and although by charting almost the entire
eastern coastline of Australia he had shown it
to be continental in size, the Terra Australis
being sought was supposed to lie further to the
south. Despite this evidence to the contrary Dalrymple
and others of the Royal Society still believed
that this massive southern continent should exist.
Cook commanded HMS Resolution on this voyage,
while Tobias Furneaux commanded its companion
ship, HMS Adventure. Cook's expedition circumnavigated
the globe at a very high southern latitude, becoming
one of the first to cross the Antarctic Circle
on 17 January 1773. He also surveyed, mapped and
took possession for Britain of South Georgia explored
by Anthony de la Roché in 1675, discovered
and named Clerke Rocks and the South Sandwich
Islands ('Sandwich Land'). In the Antarctic fog,
Resolution and Adventure became separated. Furneaux
made his way to New Zealand, where he lost some
of his men following a fight with Maori, and eventually
sailed back to Britain, while Cook continued to
explore the Antarctic, reaching 71°10'S on
31 January 1774.
Cook almost encountered the mainland of Antarctica,
but turned back north towards Tahiti to resupply
his ship. He then resumed his southward course
in a second fruitless attempt to find the supposed
continent. On this leg of the voyage he brought
with him a young Tahitian named Omai, who proved
to be somewhat less knowledgeable about the Pacific
than Tupaia had been on the first voyage. On his
return voyage, in 1774 he landed at the Friendly
Islands, Easter Island, Norfolk Island, New Caledonia,
and Vanuatu. His reports upon his return home
put to rest the popular myth of Terra Australis.
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 and
the charts of the southern Pacific Ocean he made
with its use were remarkably accurate - so much
so that copies of them were still in use in the
mid 20th century.
Upon his return, Cook was promoted to the rank
of Captain and given an honorary retirement from
the Royal Navy, as an officer in the Greenwich
Hospital. His fame now extended beyond the Admiralty
and he was also made a Fellow of the Royal Society
and awarded the Copley Gold Medal, painted by
Nathaniel Dance-Holland, dined with James Boswell
and described in the House of Lords as "the
first navigator in Europe". But he could
not be kept away from the sea. A third voyage
was planned to find the Northwest Passage. Cook
travelled to the Pacific and hoped to travel east
to the Atlantic, while a simultaneous voyage travelled
the opposite way.
his last voyage, Cook once again commanded HMS
Resolution, while Captain Charles Clerke commanded
HMS Discovery. Ostensibly the voyage was planned
to return Omai to Tahiti; this is what the general
public believed, as he had become a favourite
curiosity in London. Principally the purpose of
the voyage was an attempt to discover the famed
Northwest Passage. After returning Omai, Cook
travelled north and in returning from forrays
on the Alaskan coast (see below) in 1778 became
the first European to visit the Hawaiian Islands.
In passing and after initial landfall in January
1778 at Waimea harbour, Kauai, Cook named the
archipelago the "Sandwich Islands" after
the fourth Earl of Sandwich, the acting First
Lord of the Admiralty.
From the South Pacific he travelled northeast
to explore the west coast of North America, landing
near the First Nations village at Yuquot in Nootka
Sound on Vancouver Island, although he unknowingly
sailed past the Strait of Juan de Fuca. He explored
and mapped the coast from California all the way
to the Bering Strait, on the way identifying what
came to be known as Cook Inlet in Alaska. It has
been said that, in a single visit, Cook charted
the majority of the North American northwest coastline
on world maps for the first time, determined the
extent of Alaska and closed the gaps in Russian
(from the West) and Spanish (from the South) exploratory
probes of the Northern limits of the Pacific.
The Bering Strait proved to be impassable, although
he made several attempts to sail through it. He
became increasingly frustrated on this voyage,
and perhaps began to suffer from a stomach ailment;
it has been speculated that this led to irrational
behaviour towards his crew, such as forcing them
to eat walrus meat, which they found inedible.
Cook returned to Hawaii in 1779. After sailing
around the archipelago for some eight weeks, he
made landfall at Kealakekua Bay, on what is now
the 'Big Island' of Hawaii. Cook's arrival may
have coincided with the Makahiki, a Hawaiian harvest
festival of worship for the Polynesian god Lono.
Indeed the form of Cook's ship, HMS Resolution,
or more particularly the mast formation, sails
and rigging, resembled certain significant artifacts
that formed part of the season of worship.
Similarly, Cook's clockwise route around the islands
before making landfall resembled the processions
that took place in a clockwise direction around
the island during the Lono festivals. It has been
argued (most extensively by Marshall Sahlins)
that such coincidences were the reasons for Cook's
(and to a limited extent, his crew's) initial
deification by some Hawaiians who treated Cook
as an incarnation of Lono. Though this view was
first suggested by members of Cook's expedition,
the idea that any Hawaiians understood Cook to
be Lono, and the evidence presented in support
of it was challenged in 1992).
The original painting by Cleveley was discovered
in 2004 and depicts Captain Cook as a violent
One of the most famous reproductions of Cleveley's
Death of Cook hangs at the Honolulu Academy of
Arts. It depicts Captain Cook as a peacemaker.
The death of Captain James Cook at Kealakekua
Bay, Hawaii. In: "A Collection of Voyages
round the World ... Captain Cook's First, Second,
Third and Last Voyages ...." Volume VI, London,
1790. Archival Photograph by Mr. Sean Linehan,
After a month's stay, Cook got under sail again
to resume his exploration of the Northern Pacific.
However, shortly after leaving the Big Island,
the foremast of the Resolution broke and the ships
returned to Kealakekua Bay for repairs. It has
been hypothesized that the return to the islands
by Cook's expedition was not just unexpected by
the Hawaiians but unwelcome because the season
of Lono had recently ended (though this presumes
that Cook was connected in some way with Lono
and Makahiki). In any case, tensions rose and
a number of quarrels broke out between the Europeans
and Hawaiians. On 14 February at Kealakekua Bay,
some Hawaiians took one of Cook's small boats.
Normally, as thefts were quite common in Tahiti
and the other islands, Cook would have taken hostages
until the stolen articles were returned. Indeed,
he attempted to take hostage the King of Hawaii,
Kalaniopu'u. The Hawaiians prevented this, and
Cook's men had to retreat to the beach. As Cook
turned his back to help launch the boats, he was
struck on the head by the villagers and then stabbed
to death as he fell on his face in the surf.
The Hawaiians dragged his body away. Four of the
Marines with Cook were also killed and two wounded
in the confrontation.
Some scholars suggest that Cook's return to Hawaii
outside the season of worship for Lono, which
was synonymous with 'peace', and thus in the season
of 'war' (being dedicated to Ku, god of war) may
have upset the equilibrium and fostered an atmosphere
of resentment and aggression from the local population.
Coupled with a jaded grasp of native diplomacy
and a burgeoning but limited understanding of
local politics, Cook may have inadvertently contributed
to the tensions that ultimately brought about
The esteem in which he was nevertheless held by
the Hawaiians resulted in his body being retained
by their chiefs and elders (possibly, as some
claim, for partial human consumption, though this
remains contentious) and the flesh cut and roasted
from his bones. This was a similar burial ritual
reserved for the chiefs and highest elders of
the society. Some of Cook's remains, disclosing
some corroborating evidence to this effect, were
eventually returned to the British for a formal
burial at sea following an appeal by the crew.
Clerke took over the expedition and made a final
attempt to pass through the Bering Strait. Following
the death of Clerke, Resolution and Discovery
returned home in October 1780 commanded by John
Gore, a veteran of Cook's first voyage, and Captain
James King. Cook's account of his third and final
voyage was completed upon their return by King.
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.
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. But longitude was more difficult
to measure accurately because it requires precise
knowledge of the time difference between points
on the surface of the earth. Earth turns a full
360 degrees relative to the sun each day. Thus
longitude corresponds to time: 15 degrees every
hour, or 1 degree every 4 minutes.
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 (5 inches) 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,
Ever the observer, Cook was the first European
to have extensive contact with various people
of the Pacific. He correctly concluded there was
a relationship among all the people in the Pacific,
despite their being separated by thousands of
miles of ocean (see Malayo-Polynesian languages).
In New Zealand the coming of Cook is often used
to signify the onset of colonisation.
James Cook also came up with the theory that Polynesians
originated from Asia, which was later proved to
be correct by scientist Bryan Sykes.
Cook was accompanied 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
There were several artists on the first voyage.
Sydney Parkinson was involved in many of the drawings,
completing 264 drawings before his death near
the end of the voyage. They were of immense scientific
value to British botanists. Cook's second expedition
included the artist William Hodges, who produced
notable landscape paintings of Tahiti, Easter
Island, and other locations.
His contributions were recognized during his era.
In 1779, when 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, to:
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.
site where he was killed in Hawaii is marked by
a white obelisk and about 25 square feet of land
around it is chained off. This land, though in
Hawaii, has been given to the United Kingdom.
Therefore, the site is officially a part of the
UK. With the jurisdictions reversed exactly
the same sort of situation exists at Runnymede
where the U.S. has extraterritorial jurisdiction
over a monument to John F. Kennedy.
Cook appeared on a United States coin, the 1928
Hawaiian Sesquicentennial half dollar. Minted
during the celebration marking the 150th anniversary
of his discovery of the islands, its low mintage
(10,008) has made this example of Early United
States commemorative coins both scarce and expensive.
The first tertiary education institution in North
Queensland, Australia was named after him, with
James Cook University opening in Townsville in
1970. Numerous other institutions, landmarks and
place names reflect the importance of Cook's contribution
to knowledge of geography. These also include
the Cook Islands, the Cook Strait, and Cook crater.
Tributes also abound in post-industrial Middlesbrough,
and include a primary school, shopping square
and the Bottle 'O Notes a public artwork by Claes
Oldenburg erected in the town's Central Gardens
in 1993. His nearby birthplace of Marton is the
location of both the James Cook University Hospital,
a teaching hospital, and the Captain Cook Birthplace
Museum. The Royal Research Ship RRS James Cook
was built in 2006 to replace the RRS Charles Darwin
in the UK's Royal Research Fleet. (Credit:
Cooks Online Casino