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James Cook

the first European to land on New Zealand, discoverer of the Hawaiian Islands, etc.

James Cook was born in Marton, England, near York, on October 27, 1728. He was apprenticed to a shipping company at 15, and worked aboard ships carrying coal to English ports during his first voyages.

James Cook

Early Career

Cook joined the British Navy in 1755, during the Seven Years' War. In 1759, he undertook and completed a dangerous mission to survey the St. Lawrence River. The charts he drew contributed greatly to the British capture of Quebec later that same year. In 1762, he was present at the recapture of Newfoundland and subsequently employed in surveying portions of the coast. From 1763 to 1767 he served as "Marine Surveyor of the Coast of Newfoundland and Labrador." While establishing himself as a very capable navigator and chart-maker, Cook also established a position within the scientific community by observing and reporting on the solar eclipse of August 5, 1766, at one of the Burgeo Islands, near Cape Ray.

left: Cook's chart of Newfoundland
Cook's chart of Newfoundland

First Voyage

In 1768, Cook was appointed to lead a scientific expedition to Tahiti. He sailed from England aboard the Endeavour on August 12 of that year, and arrived at Tahiti on April 13, 1769. On June 3, he observed Venus pass between the Earth and the Sun, and his report on the phenomenon helped astronomers refine their calculations concerning the size of Venus. Having completed the official part of his mission, Cook then embarked on the part of his mission that until then had been kept secret from his crew, to find Terres Australes Incognita, a continent geographers believed existed somewhere in the South Pacific.

From Tahiti, Cook sailed to New Zealand, and in October of 1769 became the first European to land on that island (Dutch explorer Abel Tasman had sighted the island in 1642 but had never landed). After determining that New Zealand was in fact an island and not part of a larger continent, Cook continued on to Australia. He subsequently charted the entire eastern coast of Australia and, on April 28, 1770, sailed into Botany Bay and claimed the entire region for Great Britain. From Australia he sailed through the strait separating Australia from New Guinea, along the Indonesian Archipelago, into the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, and back to England. He never found the fabled southern continent.

When the Endeavour returned to England in July 1771, Cook became the first ship commander to circumnavigate the globe in a single ship. (Ferdinand Magellan had commanded the first expedition to circumnavigate the globe in 1519-1522, but he had started with five ships and did not live to see the voyage completed.) He was also the first ship commander to prevent an outbreak of scurvy during an extended voyage, which he did by insuring his crew had an ample supply of fresh citrus fruits and vegetables in its diet.

Second Voyage

Although Cook had failed to find the southern continent on his first voyage, geographers still believed it existed so he was appointed to lead a second exploratory expedition. He left England aboard the Resolution on July 13, 1772, along with the Adventure. Rather than sail across the Atlantic and then into the Pacific as he had done on the first voyage, Cook decided to sail down the west coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, and then south. Having reached a point further south than any previous explorer he began sailing east. Although he had to navigate through iceberg-laden waters and often had to fight through blinding fog, he eventually circumnavigated Antarctica, but the heavy ice and fog prevented him from seeing any land. He subsequently spent the better part of two years criss-crossing the South Pacific in search of the Southern Continent, and became the first European to visit the Cook Islands, New Caledonia, and many other South Pacific islands. He returned to England on July 25, 1775, and was almost immediately promoted to Captain and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Third Voyage

On July 12, 1776, Cook set out with the Resolution and Discovery for his third voyage, this time to search for a Northwest Passage between Europe and Asia. As he had for his second voyage, Cook sailed around Africa into the Indian Ocean and then into the South Pacific. After stopping at New Zealand and other Pacific islands, he headed north. In January of 1778 he came upon a previously uncharted group of islands in the middle of the Pacific; he called them the Sandwich Islands, in honor of the Earl of Sandwich, Britain's Chief Naval Minister, but we now know them as the Hawaiian Islands.

the death of James Cook
the death of James Cook

After briefly exploring the Hawaiian Islands, Cook headed east and sailed along the west coast of North America from central California to Alaska, becoming the first European to set foot on Vancouver Island along the way. He then sailed through the Bering Strait into the Arctic Ocean. He was forced to turn back, however, after encountering a massive wall of ice that towered as much as 12 feet in some areas, and returned to Hawaii in August. Cook and his crew had enjoyed the tropical climate of Hawaii for several months when in February of 1779 an islander stole a boat from the Discovery. Cook was stabbed to death by one of the islanders while investigating the theft, on February 14, and was buried at Kealakekua Bay. His crew returned to England in October of 1780.

map of Cook's voyages
map of Cook's voyages

SEE ALSO
Venus
New Zealand
Abel Tasman
Australia
New Guinea
Ferdinand Magellan
Northwest Passage
Hawaiian Islands

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The Robinson Library >> Geography >> History of Discoveries, Explorations, and Travel

This page was last updated on 02/04/2017.