Cambridge Historical Reader: Primary - Cambridge Press

The Story of Captain Cook

This is the story of a poor boy, who, by hard work and the good use of his brains, became one of Britain's greatest sailors.

James Cook was born at Marton, a little village in north Yorkshire, nearly 200 years ago. His father was only a poor labourer, who worked on a farm; and his little son, James, when only eight years old, was sent into the fields to scare the birds, and to make himself useful in other ways.

His master's wife, seeing that he was a bright little fellow, taught him his letters; and, later, a gentleman paid for him to be sent to the village school. When about thirteen, he became an apprentice in a grocer's shop, in a little seaport town, not far from his home.

Here he would often talk with sailors, who would tell him of voyages to the Arctic seas in search of whales; of days and nights spent on the stormy North sea, fishing for cod and herring; and so the sounds and sights of the great sea would be ever before him.

Captain Cook


One day, he left the shop, and walked across the moors to the town of Whitby. In the harbour lay a ship, which was just about to set sail. Cook went on board, and begged to be taken with the captain, if only as the ship's boy.

The captain did so, and the young lad was so ready to learn that, by the time he was twenty-four, he had become the ship's mate, that is, he stood next to the captain.

During these years he learnt about all the parts of a ship and its rigging; how to sail and steer the vessel, and how to save it in time of danger. He was fitting himself for the great work which he had to do later in life.

Three years after this he joined the navy, and here, too, he got on just as quickly as when on a merchant ship. This was because he was always working and studying, for he did not waste his time, as many of his fellow seamen did.

Soon, he became master of a ship, and was sent to North America to make charts, or maps, of part of the sea there. So well did he do this, that a greater piece of work was given him in another part of the world.

Whitby harbour


This was to explore the great Pacific ocean. Very little was known about it at that time, although ships had sailed across it for hundreds of years.

In his ship, the "Endeavour," captain Cook sailed round New Zealand. He proved, what no one knew before, that there were two large islands there. From New Zealand, he sailed on, until he came to Australia—the largest island in the world.

Other sailors had been there before his time, but had made no maps or charts. So it was almost an unknown land. Captain Cook, however, sailed all along the east coast, made a very careful chart of it, and wrote about the people, plants and animals he found there.

So pleased was king George III when Cook returned home, that the captain was sent out again in command of two ships. He was to try to find a great continent, which was thought to be lying far away to the south.

For months, the ships sailed among icebergs and floating ice, until they could get no further; but no southern continent could be found. He discovered other places in the Pacific during the voyage, and when he reached home again great honours were given him.

It was not very long before captain Cook started on his third and last voyage. This time, he was sent to find a new way to India, called the North-West passage, and again his way lay amid icebergs and bitter cold.

He went farther north than anyone had been before; but, after a time, he sailed back to some beautiful islands in the Pacific, to get water, fruit and food. These were known as the Sandwich islands. Here, Cook was well known, for he had discovered these islands on his first voyage. The natives were pleased to see him, and supplied him with most of the things he wanted.

But, sad to say, he lost his life there; and a very simple thing was the cause of it. One night, some natives swam out to his ship, and stole a boat. Next morning, captain Cook went ashore to find out who had taken it.

The chief of the island said he knew nothing about it, and this made the captain very angry. So he said he would take the chief back to his ship, and keep him there, till the boat was found.

Thinking their chief would be killed, the natives came down to the beach, armed with spears and knives. Some of Cook's men fired on them, and then one of the islanders killed the captain, who was still on the beach, with a spear.