Story of Captain Cook - John Lang

Cook is Raised to the Rank of Lieutenant—He Begins his First Voyage Round the World

In 1768 there came for James Cook another great step upwards. For some years before this date the British Government had been sending out ships to explore the then almost unknown South Seas. The Dolphin  and the Tamar, under Commodore Byron and Captain Mouatt, left England in 1764 and returned in 1766, having sailed round the world, and discovered several islands. Then the Dolphin, and the Swallow, under Captain Wallis and Captain Carteret, were sent out.

Before these two last-named ships could return, the King decided to send yet another vessel to the South Seas, this time for the purpose of watching what is called the Transit of the bright star Venus across the face of the sun. Astronomers in England knew that this transit would take place in the month of June 1769, and they thought that the best place from which to see it would be one of the islands that had lately been found in those seas.

Now, the Royal Society wanted to send out in this ship some of their men who knew a great deal about the stars, and they desired that one of these scientific men, a Mr. Dalrymple, should command the ship during the expedition.

But Sir Edward Hawke, who was then at the head of the Admiralty, said that Mr. Dalrymple was not a sailor, and did not belong to the Navy, and that none but a naval man could command a King's ship. Mr. Dalrymple refused to go unless he was made captain.

The Admiralty looked about for the naval officer who would be the best suited to lead such an expedition, and they decided that no one could do better than Mr. James Cooks.

Accordingly, in 1768 he was promoted to be lieutenant, and was appointed to the command of the expedition.

So came the second great step in Cook's life.

Not only was he made leader of the expedition, but he was allowed to choose his vessel. He chose a Whitby ship, the Earl Pembroke, which was bought by the Admiralty and taken to Deptford to be fitted out. There she was re-christened the Endeavour.

Before sailing she was armed with twenty-two guns, and had a crew of eighty-four seamen and marines. When the scientific members of the expedition and their servants came on board, she carried in all ninety-five persons.

She was a Vessel of only 370 tons. A tiny craft she seems to us of the present day, who know better the huge steamships of 10,000 or 12,000 tons. But, small as she might be, she was a giant compared with some of the ships with which Drake sailed two hundred years before, or with those of Cavendish in 1586. Of the three ships commanded by Cavendish, the biggest was of no more than 120 tons; the smallest but of 40 tons. In such cockle-shells men in those days braved the hungry seas and raging weather of that most stormy part of all the world, Cape Horn.

Before the Endeavour  sailed on her voyage, Captain Wallis, in the Dolphin, came home, bringing news of the discovery of Otaheite, one of a group to which Cook afterwards gave the name of the Society Islands. Captain Wallis Judged that Otaheite was the spot from which to view the Transit of Venus, and Cook was ordered to make his way to that island.

He left the Thames on 30th July 1768, and dropped down Channel to Plymouth Sound, which he reached in a fortnight. There the Endeavour  lay waiting for a fair wind till Friday, 26th August, when the real voyage began.

The first place at which the ship called was the beautiful island of Madeira. There, when the anchor was being let go, the master's mate, Mr. Weir, was carried overboard by it, and was drowned. Seamen are very superstitious, and probably most of the crew thought that this mishap had come because their ship had sailed from England on a Friday. That is a day which is believed by sailors to be a very unlucky one.

From Madeira the Endeavour, on 18th September, steered for South America, making for Rio de Janeiro, one of the most beautiful harbours in the world, where she arrived on 13th November.

Fifty-six days is a very long time to take to sail between Madeira and Rio, but ships in those days were very slow.

At first, when starting to sail south from Madeira, there is beautiful weather. Fleecy white clouds float in a sky of sapphire blue, and a wind from the north-east blows steadily. Day follows day, and there is never need to touch a rope nor to trim a sail. Day after day the blue sea sparkles and leaps in the sunlight, crisp, little waves breaking white at the ship's bows. Flying-fish in coveys flash out of the water, and skim away to leeward. The ship bowls steadily along, with a gentle swing that soothes to sleep. At night there is no sound but the lap and swish of the water, and on deck the muffled footfall of the officer of the watch.

But soon this glorious weather ends. When the ship is yet some degrees to the north of the equator, the wind drops. There is a dead calm. The vessel rolls heavily to one side, then, with sudden jerk, rolls back to the other, every timber and bulkhead creaking and groaning. Hour after hour the useless sails flap with the noise almost of thunder. Now there is no longer any comfort on board. The sun scorches down on the decks till the pitch melts in the seams between the planks; in the cabins the heat is almost too great to let men breathe. A slight puff of wind may come, but before the yards can be braced round and the sails trimmed, it dies away.

Then, maybe, the sky grows inky black; thunder roars with ear-splitting crash, and rain deluges down till the decks swim inches deep.

Some morning, too, very early, over the lonely, heaving, oily-looking sea, perhaps there are seen great water-spouts rearing their heads to the threatening clouds. Around the vessel they stalk, almost as if they were live things that might rush on the ship to overwhelm her.

Ships have lain for weeks in such weather, rolling day and night till their yard-arms almost dip in the sea on either side, never a breeze coming to cheer the hearts of the crew, and to take them out of "the doldrums."

And so it must have been with the Endeavour. But at last she drifts into a light air that gives her steerage way. Gradually the breeze freshens from the south-east, till once more she bowls along in fine weather, and Rio is reached.

Outing the passage from Madeira, the naturalists on board the Endeavour  discovered new species of sea-birds, and they also found out what causes the sea sometimes to shine and flash during the darkest nights. At times, in the tropics, the appearance is so brilliant that a vessel almost seems to be sailing through an ocean of sparkling jewels. Far astern, the wake left by the ship stretches out like a shining ribbon, and the waves that break against the bows fall back in a foam of fire. Till this voyage, it was not known that this luminous appearance is caused by the presence in the sea of myriads of very small animals, each of which gives out a whitish light.

At Rio Cook expected to be treated with the same kindness that he had received from the Portuguese at Madeira. But the Brazilian Viceroy was not a very clever man. He could not understand the reason of the Endeavour  coming to Rio, and he did not believe that sensible people would go so far as Cook said they were going, merely to look at a star. He thought that they must be spies of some kind, and he refused to let anybody from the Endeavour go ashore. Even Cook himself was not allowed to land without a Brazilian officer being constantly at his elbow to watch what he did. Cook protested, but it did no good. The Viceroy was too stupid and narrow-minded.

At last, after lying at Rio till 5th December, the Endeavour  again sailed, after Cook had received a letter from the Viceroy wishing him a good voyage. But she got no farther than the mouth of the bay, for there, Fort Santa Cruz fired into her. The Viceroy had not sent orders that she might leave!

There she was kept for two days, a guard-boat rowing continually round her, till the necessary order came. At last she was allowed to leave her anchorage, and to sail away along the coast on her course to the south. To reach Otaheite (or, as it is now called, Tahiti.), it is necessary to get round Cape Horn, the most southerly point of South America. To get to the west side of this famous cape, there are several ways. One is by the great strait called the Strait of Magellan, which was discovered in 1520 by the Portuguese sailor of that name. Another is by the Strait of Le Maire, much farther to the south, and nearer to Cape Horn. This way was discovered in 1616 by James Le Maire, a Dutch sailor.

It lies between the barren country called Tierra del Fuego and a rocky island to which Le Maire gave the name of Staten. Farther to the south and west are many islands, one of them Horn Island, the south end of which is the dreaded Cape Horn.

Staten, and the other neighbouring islands, lie there lonely and grand, the giant seas eternally dashing themselves in fury against their desolate rocks, and falling back in cataracts of foam on to the clinging seaweed. Almost without cease the wild west wind bellows and roars around their crags. Eternally the great sea-birds wheel and soar over the mountainous waves. Seals and penguins visit their rocks, but other life there is none; all is barrenness and desolation. Plants and trees, where they exist, grow stunted and poor in the shelter of valleys where the foot of man comes never. Out to sea, nothing meets the eye but hurrying-clouds and wild heaving water, white with foam where the monster billows are breaking, pierced now and again by a spouting whale. Truly, "the uttermost end of the earth!"

On 11th January 1769 the Endeavour sighted the coast of Tierra del Fuego. On the 14th she entered the Strait of Le Maire, a tremendous sea running at the time off Cape San Diego.

Cook anchored several times in the strait, and at the Bay of Good Success, on the mainland, he stayed for a week taking in wood and water.

Here a few of the party, Mr. Banks and Dr. Solander, with some of the crew, went ashore to look for new sorts of plants and animals. On one of their journeys they came near to losing their lives.

They had climbed over a high hill, and forced their way through thick, stunted undergrowth for many hours, till they were quite tired out. Though the season was the middle of summer—January is a summer month south of the equator—the wind was bitterly cold, and a snow-storm came on. Unable to find their way back to the ship, they looked for a sheltered spot where they might light a fire.

But some of the men in the blinding snow had strayed from the rest of the party, and they could not be found. "Whoever sits down will sleep; and whoever sleeps will wake no more," Dr. Solander had told them, when the snow began to fall. Yet the Doctor was the first to sit down to rest, and it was difficult to wake him, and to get him again on his feet. Of the others, three of those who had been separated from the rest of the party were never awakened. In the morning they were found dead. During great cold, when heavy snow is falling, with a high wind, sleep quickly steals over a man who is out in the storm. "Just a minute I must rest," he thinks; and he sinks down. If he be alone, and no help comes, he wakens no more in this world. Such has been the end of shepherds on the moors, and of other men, even in this country.

Though the cold is so great in the extreme southern parts of South America, the natives wear few clothes. The skin of some animal thrown over their shoulders is almost their only covering; but they smear their bodies with paint, or clay, and their dirt may help to keep them warm. Perhaps, however, in this they are not worse than our forefathers, the ancient Britons.

Whilst the naturalists of the Endeavour  were using their time in these explorings, Lieutenant Cook was busy taking soundings and bearings everywhere in the strait, so that he might be able to draw correct charts of the coast and islands. He found that the passage by the Strait of Le Maire is very much better and quicker than that by the Strait of Magellan, and much less dangerous.

To get through the Strait of Magellan, Captain Wallis in the Dolphin took three months, and he was many times in great danger, owing to strong currents and often-changing winds. Cook, on the other hand, from opposite the east entrance of the Strait of Magellan round Cape Horn to its western end, was sailing for no more than thirty-three days.

On 26th January 1769 the Endeavour  left Cape Horn astern, and headed for Otaheite. On the 4th of April she sailed past some of the South Sea Islands, and on the 13th of that month she let go her anchor in Matavai Bay, Otaheite, after a passage of eight and a half months from London.

What a Paradise were these islands to the crew of the Endeavour  coming direct from bleak and stormy Tierra del Fuego! There, they left snow and bitter weather, barren rocks and cold grey sea; plants and trees few in number, and stunted in growth. Here, they find soft, warm air, and bright sunshine; water sparkling and blue. Birds and butterflies of every gay colour flit amongst the green-leaved bushes, and a gentle breeze whispers through the feathery fronds of the palm trees that grow almost to the edge of the sea.

The natives, too, were very different from those seen in Tierra del Fuego. There they had been dirty, savage-looking, and dull-witted; here they were clean and smiling, their chocolate-coloured skins shining with health. The men were handsome and well-made, and the women, with their pleasant faces, and big, soft brown eyes, seemed like beautiful brown fairies.

None of the natives of Otaheite carried weapons. In their canoes they crowded round the Endeavour, and were ever civil and friendly, and ready to help the white men.

But they could not resist stealing whatever they could lay hands on. And this led to trouble.

When Lieutenant Cook, with Mr. Banks and Dr. Solander, and a boat's crew, went ashore to fix on the best spot from which to view the Transit of Venus, they had a small tent rigged in which to rest. To guard this tent, whilst they themselves went farther inland, they left a sentinel and a party of marines, in charge of a midshipman. Scarcely had they got out of sight when one of the natives crept up behind the sentinel, and, snatching away his musket, ran off with it. The midshipman ordered the marines to fire, and the thief was shot dead. Lieutenant Cook was very angry when he heard of this, because he had taken great pains to make friends with the people who lived on the island, and now, through this hasty act, all his trouble was thrown away. Try as he might to reassure them, for some time the natives kept away.

At length they became more confident, and once more sold food and other things to the ship. Beads were chiefly given at first by the crew of the Endeavour  in exchange for food, but after some days the natives had had enough of the beads, and gave little for them. Then nails were used. For a four-inch nail a native would give as many as twenty cocoa-nuts.

Captain Cook


On the 1st of May the observatory from which it was intended to watch the Transit of Venus was finished, and some of the instruments to be used in viewing it were taken ashore and left in a tent, under guard. Next morning, when Lieutenant Cook and Mr. Green went ashore to set up their quadrant (the instrument most necessary for use in observing the transit, and one without which the chief object of the voyage must fail), it was nowhere to be found! The case in which it had been packed was empty.

Search, high and low, failed to find it, and an offered reward was of no effect. The quadrant was gone, though a sentry had never been farther than a few yards from the tent all night.

It was only after long search that the instrument was found by Mr. Banks, hidden away amongst the trees.

On the night of June 2nd, few of the officers of the Endeavour  slept, so great was their anxiety for a cloudless day on the morrow, for on the 3rd the transit was to take place.

Luckily there was not a cloud in the sky during the whole of that day, and good sights were got. Thus the first great object of the voyage had succeeded.

But whilst Lieutenant Cook and the others had been busy with their observations, it was found that some of the crew had taken that chance to break into one of the store-rooms. They had stolen a large quantity of nails, in order that they too might do a little trading on their own account with the natives.

This was a very serious theft, because if nails became too common, the natives would cease to value them, and would then give very little food in exchange. All means were tried to find the thieves, but only one of them was caught. He was tied up and given two dozen lashes, but nothing could make him tell the names of the men who had joined him in the theft. Others of the crew, however, were flogged for stealing from the natives, and many were the troubles that came to Cook, either from the thefts of the natives, or from the bad behaviour of his own men.

A short time before the day on which the Endeavour  was to leave Otaheite, two of the marines one night disappeared. From the natives Cook learned that these men had run away inland, and had married two girls belonging to the island, and that they meant to pass the rest of their lives in Otaheite.

Cook sent a corporal of marines and a petty officer of the ship to try to get the deserters to return to their duty. And as it was of great importance that they should be got, he told some of the native chiefs that till the men returned they themselves would be kept on board ship. The natives on shore, however, when they heard this, sent a message that till the chiefs were set free neither the deserters nor the men sent after them should be returned.

Cook then sent the long-boat with an armed crew, to take them, and to bring them back to the ship. Tootahah, one of the most friendly chiefs, was told that if he wanted to be set free, it would be wise for him to send some of his tribe to help in getting the men back. This had the desired effect. The men were brought in next day, and the chiefs were set at liberty.

When the Endeavour  sailed from Otaheite on 13th July, two natives, Tupia, who had shown great liking for the English, and a boy of about thirteen, went with the ship, to the great grief of their weeping friends. Tupia was afterwards very useful as an interpreter, and the sight of him on board made the natives of other islands more trustful.

At Huaheine, one of the large islands not far from Otaheite, Oree the king came off in his canoe. As a mark of friendship, he offered to change names with Lieutenant Cook, and until the Endeavour  sailed he always called Cook "Oree," and himself "Cookee."

Before leaving this group of islands Cook hoisted the Union Jack over, and in name of the King of England took possession of Ulietea, Huaheine, Otaha, and Bora Bora. But they no longer belong to England. Tahiti, and New Caledonia, a magnificent island which Cook discovered on his second voyage round the world, now belong to France. And there are in the Pacific and elsewhere other beautiful islands over which our flag once waved, that have been given up, or have been allowed to slip out of our hands.