The English explorer, navigator, and cartographer James Cook (1728-1779) is famous for his voyages in the Pacific Ocean and his accurate mapping of it, as well as for his application of scientific methods to exploration.
James Cook was born in Yorkshire on Oct. 27, 1728, into a poor family. At the age of 18 he found employment with a shipowner in his native village of Whitby and made several voyages to the Baltic Sea. When the Anglo-French war broke out in 1755, he enlisted in the Royal Navy and saw service on the Eagle as an able-bodied seaman. In a month's time he was promoted to master's mate and 4 years later to master. In 1759 he also received command of a ship and took it to Canada, where he joined the operations in the St. Lawrence River. He performed well enough so that the senior officer of the British fleet put him in command of the flagship.
After the war ended in 1763, Cook was given a schooner, Grenville, and was charged with surveying the coasts of Newfoundland, Labrador, and Nova Scotia. For 4 years he sailed up and down these coasts, and when the task was done his findings were of such importance and usefulness that the government had them published.
Upon his return to England in 1767, Cook found the British Admiralty planning to send a ship to the Pacific Ocean to observe the transit of Venus and also to explore new lands in that area. Cook was picked to command the vessel, and on Aug. 26, 1768, in the Endeavour he left Plymouth, accompanied by an astronomer, two botanists, a landscape artist, and a painter of natural history. Sailing south and west, he touched the Madeira, Canary, and Cape Verde islands, then went to Rio de Janeiro, rounded Cape Horn into the Pacific, and reached Tahiti on April 13, 1769. On June 3 the transit of Venus was observed, and on July 13 he left the place.
Arriving at New Zealand on October 7, Cook set about at once to make an accurate chart of the waters of the two islands; it took him 6 months. He then sailed along the east coast of Australia, which he named New South Wales and for which he claimed possession in the name of the king. He sailed on through the strait separating Australia from New Guinea, to Java, around the Cape of Good Hope, and reached England on June 12, 1771. In recognition of his achievements—circumnavigating the globe, charting new waters, and discovering new land—he was promoted from lieutenant to commander.
One year later Cook stood ready for a second voyage, this time to verify the report of the existence of a great southern continent. On July 13, 1772, he left Plymouth in the Resolution and, accompanied by another vessel, Adventure, sailed southward along the African coast and around the Cape of Good Hope, crossing the Antarctic Circle in January 1773. Finding no great southern continent, he pointed his ship toward New Zealand. This was the starting point for a long cruise in the South Pacific, as he explored the New Hebrides, charted Easter Island and the Marquesas, visited Tahiti and Tonga, and discovered New Caledonia and the islands of Palmerston, Norfolk, and Niue. In January 1775 he was on his way back to England by way of Cape Horn, reaching home on July 29. Thus Cook completed his second Pacific voyage, once again having made a significant contribution by his mapping and charting and his explorations and discoveries.
To those accomplishments Cook added one in nautical medicine, for he had proved that a crew, if properly fed, could make a long voyage without ill effects. He lost only 1 man to disease out of a crew of 118. This feat won him the Copley Gold Medal of the Royal Society and election as a fellow of that distinguished scientific and philosophic association.
Then came the third and last voyage of Cook's life. Advanced to captain in August 1775, he was now given command of a new expedition to the northern Pacific to search for a passage around North America to the Atlantic Ocean. Once again the great seaman sailed in the Resolution, with another vessel, Discovery, leaving Plymouth on July 12, 1776. He went down the African coast, around the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, to New Zealand (which he reached in March 1777), northward to Tahiti and to an island sighted on Christmas Eve and named for the occasion, then to the discovery of the Hawaiian Islands, reaching in February 1778 the coast of North America at 44°55 (present Oregon). He continued northward along the coast to the Bering Sea and through the Bering Strait to the Arctic, but no northern passage could be found. He turned southward to Hawaii for much-needed repairs, fresh supplies, and sunshine in preparation for a return to northern Pacific waters.
But, as fate would have it, Cook did not live to continue the voyage. On Feb. 14, 1779, he was stabbed to death in a skirmish with some natives. Where he fell, an obelisk later would be erected but, as one of his biographers noted, his true monument was the map of the Pacific Ocean.
Further Reading on James Cook
The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery, edited by J.C. Beaglehole (3 vols., 1955-1967), is an invaluable source. The best biography of Cook is Allan Villiers, Captain Cook, a Seaman's Seaman: A Study of the Great Discoverer (1967). See also Hugh Carrington, Life of Captain Cook (1939); John Reid Muir, The Life and Achievements of Captain James Cook (1939); Christopher Lloyd, Captain Cook (1952); and R.W. Cameron, The Golden Haze: With Captain Cook in the South Pacific (1964). More general works are J.C. Beaglehole, The Exploration of the Pacific (1934; 3d ed. 1966); Ian Cameron, Lodestone and Evening Star: The Epic Voyages of Discovery, 1493 B.C.-1896 A.D. (1966); and Alan Moorehead, The Fatal Impact: An Account of the Invasion of the South Pacific, 1767-1840 (1966).