Captain Cook

(James Cook )


Captain James Cook is one of most highly regarded naval commanders of all time, although unlike most other famous captains, his career is not associated with any well-known naval battles. His fame rests entirely upon three brilliantly executed voyages of exploration, and his notable achievements in cartography and navigation. He is also credited with greatly reducing the incidence of scurvy among his sailors by including vegetables in their diets, although the precise cause of the disease was not fully understood at the time.

Cook was born to a humble family in Northern England and went to sea on a merchant vessel at age 18. He was from the beginning of his career, methodical, conscientious, and eager to gain the knowledge necessary to good navigation, which required the study of advanced math and astronomy, as well as the mastery of many ship-board skills. He excelled in all things and was promoted to 'Mate' and later 'Captain' of a merchant ship at a young age. At just this time however, the Royal Navy was gearing up for the impending Seven Year's War, and Cook volunteered for service. One of his first assignments was to assist the mission of James Wolfe in his efforts to capture Quebec. Cook distinguished himself as an excellent cartographer and his maps of the St. Lawrence were used in Wolfe's campaign.

In the years following the war, Cook continued to work mapping and charting the seaways of Canada. His work was so outstanding that it was brought to the attention of the Admiralty Board, and he was selected to lead and ambitious "scientific" voyage of exploration to the South Seas. His first voyage, which took three years, resulted in many discoveries, particularly in the region of New Zealand and Australia, and provided the best maps yet available of the southern Pacific. The successful voyage brought great fame to himself as well as to the scientists who accompanied him.

A second voyage was planned. This time Cook explored the Antartic and for the first time clearly mapped the area, and discredited a number of myths regarding mysterious islands in the region. His third voyage, which also lasted three years, took him up the coast of North America, where he charted California, Vancouver Island, and Alaska, all the way up to the Behring Straight. Although he failed in his mission to find a Northwest Passage by sailing north of Alaska, he again succeeded in producing first rate maps of a relatively unknown region of the Pacific. On his return from Alaska, however, Captain Cook was unexpectedly killed during a minor altercation with the natives.

In the mid-eighteenth century, when Cook made his voyages, most ships stayed very close to existing commercial routes. The Atlantic Ocean was well known, but the Pacific was largely unexplored, both due to is lack of commercial routes, and also to the fact that sailors tended to die of scurvy and other diseases on long trips. One of Cook's great contributions to sea-faring was the care he took for the health of his crew. The mortality of the sailors on each of Cook's journeys was remarkably low for the age, and his methods were emulated by the Royal Navy.

Key events during the life of Captain James Cook:

James Cook born in Northern English to a humble Scotman.
Went to sea at 18 in the merchant navy.
Promoted to 'Mate' on a trading ship after serving with distinction.
Joined the Royal Navy
Break-out of Seven Years War.
Supported Wolfe's campaign in Quebec. Mapped critical portions of St. Lawrence River.
Spent five years charting and mapping the coast of Newfoundland.
First Voyage: Cape Horn, Tahiti, New Zealand, Botany Bay, Great Barrier Reef, St. Helena.
Second Voyage: Antartic Circle, South Sandwich Islands, New Caledonia, Easter Island
Third Voyage: California, Vancouver Island, Alaska, Bering Straight, Hawaii.
Died in an altercation with natives on Hawaiian island.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
The Story of Captain Cook  in  Cambridge Historical Reader—Primary  by  Cambridge Press
There Is Nothing New under the Sun'  in  Our Empire Story  by  H. E. Marshall
How a Great White Bird Came to the Shores  in  Our Empire Story  by  H. E. Marshall
Cook Discovers New Zealand  in  A Book of Discovery  by  M. B. Synge
Captain Cook's Story  in  The Struggle for Sea Power  by  M. B. Synge

Book Links
Story of Captain Cook  by  John Lang

Image Links

Captain Cook
 in Cambridge Historical Reader—Primary

Shouting their war-whoops, they dashed at him
 in The Story of Captain Cook

Cook had taken great pains to make friends with the natives
 in The Story of Captain Cook

Nearly a hundred icebergs were round the ship
 in The Story of Captain Cook

Walrus Hunting
 in The Story of Captain Cook

He staggered and fell
 in The Story of Captain Cook

Cook told the Maoris that he had come to set a mark upon their islands.
 in Our Empire Story

Captain James Cook
 in A Book of Discovery

Captain Cook
 in The Reign of Queen Victoria

Short Biography
William Bligh Highly regarded officer of Cook, who was the subject of Mutiny on the Bounty.
George Vancouver Discovered Puget Sound, Vancouver Island, Columbia River; claimed region for Britain.
Joseph Banks Botanist who accompanied Cook on his first voyage of exploration.
General Wolfe Defeated the French at the Battle of Quebec, giving Canada to Britain. Died during battle.
William Pitt Statesman who masterminded the rise of the British Empire during the critical 18th century.