Captain James Cook

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Captain James Cook


English Explorer

James Cook was one of the foremost figures of the so-called "Age of Exploration." During his career, Cook circumnavigated the globe twice, and captained three voyages of discovery for England. He made significant contributions to the fields of surveying, cartography, advanced mathematics, astronomy, and navigation. The detailed records of his voyages and contacts with various native peoples are considered the first anthropological survey of the Pacific Islands, Australia, and New Zealand. Cook's voyages sparked European and American interest in Pacific colonization.

James Cook was born in Marton-in-Cleveland, Yorkshire, England. As a youth, he received a modest education, but was a dedicated self-study of mathematics, surveying, and cartography. Cook was apprenticed to a small shop owner, but later left to join a merchant collier fleet at Whitby. Cook earned his mate's certificate, but his merchant career was cut short by his decision to enlist with the Royal Navy in 1755 at the outbreak of the Seven Year's War (the American phase is known as the French and Indian War, 1756-1763).

Cook was sent to America in 1756 not only as a seaman, but also as a cartographer. His first charge was to conduct soundings and draw charts of the St. Lawrence River. Cook's charts were later used by British forces for their attack on Quebec. He was next named surveyor of Newfoundland and carried out that project until 1767. Cook's maps were so precise that many were used for a century.

As Cook gained renown for his cartography, he also submitted a paper to the Royal Society on astronomical observation and navigation. His work on determining location using the moon commanded the attention of not only scholars but also the British government. In 1768, Cook was appointed to command an expedition to the Pacific—the first of three great voyages. The stated purpose of Cook's Pacific expedition was to observe the transit of Venus. At the completion of that task, Cook continued to record significant discoveries. In the South Pacific, he discovered and named the Society Islands. Cook then sailed to New Zealand, which he reported upon favorably as a potential site for British colonization despite the lack of domesticated animals. Venturing from New Zealand, Cook sailed to the eastern coast of Australia and charted the coastline before claiming the land for Britain. On the return voyage, Cook's crew was stricken with disease—a then common occurrence at sea. Onethird of his crew died from malarial fever and dysentery.

Cook was scarcely back in Britain for year before he received his next appointment. He was granted two ships, the Adventure and the Resolution, and sent back to the Pacific to further complete the exploration of the Southern Hemisphere. Cook was charged with finding a southern continent that was thought to exist in the extreme South Pacific. The mysterious continent was supposed to be temperate with fertile land. Cook left Britain in 1772 and sailed for the extreme southern Atlantic. Pushing his way through freezing temperatures and ice flows, Cook sailed along the edge of Antarctica. The frozen Antarctic was certainly not the fabled southern continent. Cook's circumnavigation of the southern Pole put an end to the legend. Cook again stopped in New Zealand, this time introducing some European plants and domestic animals into the indigenous landscape. He discovered, charted, and named several more islands as he finished his journey.

On both voyages Cook made pioneering provisions for his crew. To avoid scurvy, which usually plagued sailors on long sea crossings, Cook made sure that his crews' quarters were clean and well ventilated. He also provided a diet that included lemons, cress, and sauerkraut. Although Cook lost 30 men on the first voyage, only one perished from disease on the second. None of the deaths were caused by scurvy.

Cook embarked on his third and final voyage in 1776, turning his efforts to the Pacific coast of North America in search of the fabled Northwest Passage. Enroute he discovered present-day Hawaii, which he dubbed the Sandwich Islands, in January 1778. Cook enjoyed a record of very amicable relationships with the native peoples he encountered on his expeditions, and his initial contact with in the Sandwich Islands was no exception. After a fortnight, the ships left Hawaii for the American Pacific Northwest, where Cook created detailed maps that were used in later explorations, including the Lewis and Clark expedition. However, Cook failed to locate the Columbia River and thought that Victoria Island was part of the mainland. Despite these flaws in his cartography, Cook's expedition, and his records of contact with various native peoples who possessed great natural resources, created a new interest in trade and settlement in the Pacific Northwest.

By January 1779, the ships were once again anchored in the Hawaiian Islands. This time, however, their reception was distinctly unfriendly. Cook decided to leave the islands within a month, but was forced back by a storm only a week later. The native population was by now openly hostile and when one of Cook's cutters (a small boat) was stolen, Cook took the tribal chief hostage to guarantee the boat's return. In the ensuing commotion, a shot was fired. The natives then attacked the sailors, killing Cook in the process. He was 51.