Royal Naval Museum




Biography: Captain James Cook


James Cook was born on 27th October 1728, at Marton in Cleveland. His education was basic and mainly self taught. At the age of twelve, he was bound as apprentice to the shopkeeper in Staithes, near Whitby. His apprenticeship did not last long when there was a disagreement between apprentice and master. In 1746, Cook took another apprenticeship in a Whitby shipping company involved with the east coast coal trade. Cook stayed with this firm for several years. Cook had a natural aptitude for mathematics and he quickly became a skilful navigator. However, in 1755, Cook’s ambitions outgrew the merchant navy, and although he had been offered his first merchant command, he volunteered for the Royal Navy as an able seaman on board the HMS Eagle, under the command of Captain Hugh Palliser.

Cook’s qualities quickly brought him advancement, and in July 1757 he was appointed as Master of HMS Pembroke, after only two years service. Cook attracted notice for his efficiency during the surveying of the St. Lawrence River; this survey was to have a decisive part in the capture of Quebec and the conquest of Canada. After the fall of Quebec in 1759, Cook was appointed Master of HMS Northumberland under the command of Captain Lord Coleville and was engaged in further survey work of the St Lawrence River, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland coasts. Cook arrived back in Britain in October 1762 and after a brief encounter, married Elizabeth Batts of Barking on 21 December. In April 1763, Cook was appointed by the Admiralty to survey the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. Cook was given command of the schooner HMS Grenville to undertake this work until 1767. During 1766, he made observations of an eclipse of the sun visible in Newfoundland; this and other findings were communicated to the Royal Society and, along with personal recommendations, his reputation grew. During this period of surveying, his wife Elizabeth also gave birth to two sons and a daughter during the limited time available to him at home.

The Royal Society with the Admiralty began to draw up plans for an expedition planned to Tahiti to record observations of the transit of Venus across the sun during 1769. The society at first nominated Alexander Dalrymple to lead the expedition, but the Admiralty refused to allow an non-naval person taking command of a naval vessel. Cook, already being a warranted officer, was an acceptable alternative. Cook received a Lieutenant’s commission on 25th May 1768, and was given command of the bark, HMS Endeavour. Before leaving Britain, his wife Elizabeth gave birth to another son.

The scientific expedition to observe the transit of Venus was extended, through secret orders from the Admiralty, as a voyage to search for the southern continent Terra Australis Incognita, a landmass believed to exist in the southern hemisphere. Cook was also to explore the coast of New Zealand, which was still thought to be part of a much larger landmass, before returning to Britain. The Endeavour sailed from Plymouth on 25th August 1768 and arrived at Tahiti on 10th April 1769. Cook was very strict on cleanliness on board ship and ensured his crew had a good diet consisting of citrus juices, among other things, that prevented the outbreak of scurvy on the voyage.

The transit of Venus was successfully recorded on 3rd June. Cook then departed on the second mission of the voyage and arrived at of New Zealand on the 7th October 1769. He then sailed round both islands and disproved the theory that the country was part of a larger southern continent. On his return to Britain, Cook chose to go via the Cape of Good Hope and while doing so could chart and explore the east coast of New Holland (Australia). He intended to head for Van Diemens Land (Tasmania)which was thought to be connected to Australia, but gales drove him north and he arrived at Point Hicks on the south eastern corner of Australia on 21st April 1770. He anchored at Botany Bay and it was there where the first native aborigines were encountered.

Cook continued to sail northwards until he reached the Great Barrier Reef, where the Endeavour got stuck in the coral reef. She was successfully refloated and sailed to the mouth of a river for repairs and sailed off on the 6th August. Cook sailed round the remainder of the east coast, and once this was done he decided to determine whether Australia was separated from New Guinea. Cook explored and charted the Endeavour Strait and then left for Batavia for a refit.

The Endeavour reached Batavia on 10th October 1770. Despite their general good health throughout the voyage, outbreaks of malaria and dysentery spread amongst the crew while they were ashore and many died before the ship sailed again. Endeavour finally reached England on 12th July 1771. The voyage had not been as successful as it had been hoped for since the existence of Terra Australis Incognita as a vast area south of Australia had still not been totally disproved. However, Cook’s voyage had made significant discoveries in relation to the lands and waters of the southern hemisphere and the people and places encountered. New information about the flora and fauna was carefully recorded and specimens brought back for examination. On his return home, he found that sadly his youngest son, Joseph, born just before the voyage had started, had died at the age of three months, shortly after his father’s departure. His daughter, Elizabeth, had died just a few months before her father’s return. The ship that had served him so well was refitted and made two voyages to the Falkland Islands with supplies before being sold and returned to the merchant service as a collier, her previous role.

A second voyage was planned to continue to search for the Terra Australis Incognita, and if found, claim it as a British possession. Lord Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, appointed Cook to lead the expedition and was promoted to the rank of Commander. He was given two vessels for the voyage, HMSs Resolution and Adventure. Cook was to command the Resolution and Captain Tobias Furneaux was selected to command the Adventure. They departed on 13th July 1772, shortly after his wife had given birth to another son. On board Cook’s ship was a copy of the chronometer, invented by clockmaker John Harrison, which was to undergo trials for the calculation of longitude on the voyage.

Cook sailed south east to attempt to locate the land discovered in 1739 and thought to be part of a large southern landmass. Cook discovered that it was in truth only an island. Sailing further south, the voyagers became the first people to cross the Antarctic Circle in January 1773. After continuing to sail a course along the 60 degree latitude of almost one third of the globe’s circumference, Cook proved that no southern continent could exist. In February, the two ships had become separated and they reunited at a preordained rendezvous at Queen Charlotte’s Sound, New Zealand in May. In early June, the two ships departed New Zealand and headed eastwards towards Pitcairn Island, waters that had not previously been charted. Striking north, he then headed once more for Tahiti, arriving on 16th July 1773. There the crew could rest and restock the ship. In early September, the ships left heading towards the Society Islands (which Cook had re-named the Friendly Islands). After a brief stay, Cook then headed towards the Tonga Islands and then in October, the ships headed back towards Queen Charlotte Sound for a second sweep along the Antarctic. The ships again became separated and this time were not reunited. Furneaux left New Zealand in December 1773 and sailed back to Britain via the Cape of Good Hope and thus becoming the first circumnavigator to cross the world in an easterly direction, arriving back at Britain on 12th July 1774.

Meanwhile, Cook continued to explore the Antarctic region, finally putting to rest the theory of a southern continent. Before returning to Britain, Cook decided to explore uncharted Pacific waters and although not making any new discoveries, was able to make accurate charts. In December 1774, he headed homeward and before reaching the Cape of Good Hope, discovered previously unknown islands that he named South Sandwich Islands. The ship arrived in Portsmouth on 29th July 1775, a year after the return of Furneaux.

Shortly after his return, Cook was appointed as a Captain at the Greenwich Hospital. He was also elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society and gave a paper on the health of seamen. For this, he was awarded the Society’s annual prize, the Copley Gold Medal, in 1776. He was also promoted to the rank of Post-Captain and asked to advise on planning for a new expedition to search for the a north-west passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Although initial plans did not include Cook as leader, at a meeting at the Admiralty, much jubilation greeted his spontaneous announcement that he would indeed lead it.

For Cook’s third, and ultimately final, voyage, the Resolution and another naval vessel, HMS Discovery were to be used. His friend, Captain Charles Clerke was to command the Discovery. Another member of the officers selected for the voyage was William Bligh, who, like Cook himself, was a skilled navigator and cartographer. Bligh was appointed as Master in the Resolution. Cook departed from Plymouth on 12th July 1776, without the Discovery due to Clerke being imprisoned on account of debts left by his brother. Cook left orders for the ship to meet the Resolution at Cape Town as soon as possible. However, both ships were in poor shape and this made for difficult sailing. The ships made their way to Tasmania and the Queen Charlotte Sound before heading for the Society Islands and Tahiti. Leaving Tahiti in December 1777 and pausing at Christmas Island, they continued northwards until they reached an uncharted group of islands which was Hawaii. Cook continued towards America and made a detailed survey of the coast of Alaska. He returned to the Hawaiian islands and surveyed the coast there. In January 1779, the ships anchored in Kealakakua Bay. On going ashore, Cook was greeted like a god by the Polynesians. However, the need for the natives to furnish this “god” with their gifts placed a heavy burden on their resources and when Cook’s ships finally left on 4th February, there was great relief.

Unfortunately, it was to be short lived. On 8th February, after a brief stop to collect wood and water, the ships were hit by a fierce gale that split the foremast of the Resolution. Cook decided to risk going back to Kealakakua Bay to avail himself of all the facilities that could be gained there. This time, the relationship between the ships and the natives was strained. The Polynesian’s habits of stealing items from the ships increased and on 13th February, tools being used to repair the ship were stolen. The native who was thought to be responsible was flogged by Clerke, but it was found that another native had also stolen them. A party was sent to pursue the culprit, but this incensed the natives and the party were attacked and only just managed to escape. The Discovery’s cutter was then stolen and Cook went ashore with a party of marines to bring the native’s chief back as a hostage. The Chief was prepared to go with Cook, but a large group of natives grew hostile and attempted to resist Cook’s attempt to arrest their Chief. Cook was attacked but managed to fire a warning shot to ward them off. The mob then attacked him with clubs and stones, and when he was on the ground, he was last seen being bludgeoned and stabbed to death. His body was dismembered and eaten by the natives. However, Captain Clerke, assuming command of the expedition, refused to leave without the remains of his friend and Captain. Finally, what remained of Captain Cook was returned to the ship and they were committed to the sea with full naval honours on February 22nd. Clerke was also suffering from tuberculosis and deputed the navigation of the remainder of the voyage to William Bligh. The ships sailed on 23rd February and returned to Britain on 4th October 1780, bringing the sad tidings of not only Cook’s savage death but the death of Captain Clerke on 22nd August 1779.

The Royal Society struck a gold medal in Cook’s honour, to go with that struck to commemorate his departure on his second voyage. His wife, Elizabeth, survived him by fifty six years, having spent only four years of their married life together. She was to witness the loss of their two eldest sons at sea and the loss of their last while at studying at Cambridge. In November 1874, an obelisk was placed near the spot where James Cook was murdered.

A reading list for further information is available.

© Royal Naval Museum Library, 2004
The information contained in this information sheet is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a bibliography of further reading materials, if available.

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