COOK, James (1728-1779)

COOK, James (1728-1779)
discoverer of eastern Australia, captain in the navy
was born at Marton, Yorkshire, England, the second son of James and Grace Cook, on 27 October 1728. His father was a farm labourer at the time, but improved his position by becoming bailiff of Airy Holme Farm, near Ayton, in 1736. The boy was sent to a village school and obtained a little elementary education. At 13 years of age he began working for his father on the farm, and four years later obtained a position in a grocer's shop at Staithes, a village about to miles from Whitby. He was there for about 18 months when an unfortunate incident led to his leaving. The young man had noticed a shilling of unusual design in the till, and exchanged it for one of his own. But his master had also noticed this shilling and missing it accused Cook of having stolen it. His explanation was accepted, but not liking having been suspected Cook decided to leave. He was then bound apprentice to John Walker, a member of a coal shipping firm at Whitby, and made his first voyage in the Freelove, a ship of some 450 tons. His next ship was the Three Brothers, on which he remained until the end of his apprenticeship in 1750. In 1752 he was appointed mate of the Friendship, and three years later he was offered the command of it. He must have made some study of navigation in the meantime, and probably had improved his general education. He was now 27 years old, evidently on good terms with his employers, as few men at that time would have had the chance of commanding a ship at so early an age. Cook had, however, decided to enter the navy, and was accepted for service as an A.B. on 17 June 1755. He joined H.M.S. Eagle and a few weeks later became master's mate. The Eagle fought a successful action against a French ship in May 1757, and while it was being refitted Cook left it. He was given a master's warrant and on 30 July joined H.M.S. Solebay as master. In October he was transferred to H.M.S. Pembroke. In June 1758 the Pembroke was working in conjunction with the transports conveying the British troops for the assault on Quebec and, shortly before this, General Wolfe and Cook met in connexion with the positions to be occupied by some of the vessels. It had been part of Cook's duties to ascertain the safe channels between the shoals of the river. Cook was on the Northumberland in May 1760, surveying the St Lawrence, and had acquired a considerable knowledge of marine surveying, as his chart of the river, which is still in existence, shows. He also studied mathematics and astronomy about this period: In January 1761 Cook received a special grant of £50 for his work in mastering the pilotage of the St Lawrence. He was still on the North American station in the summer of 1762, but the Northumberland returned to England in November. In April 1763 he was sent in the Antelope to Newfoundland to make a survey of its harbours, and he spent the next five years on this work, returning each winter to England. In August 1766 he carefully observed an eclipse of the sun at one of the Burges Islands, near Cape Ray, and communicated a report of it to the Royal Society. Cook prepared many of his charts for publication, and it is a tribute to their excellence that they were not finally superseded for over 150 years.
Cook was now at the turning point of his career. The Royal Society desired to send a competent observer to the South Pacific, so that the transit of Venus should be observed on 3 June 1769. After much discussion of ways and means, it was announced in March 1768 that the King had made a grant of £4000 for the cost of the expedition. Cook's account of the 1766 eclipse of the sun had impressed the council of the Royal Society, and on 26 May 1768 he was promoted lieutenant and given command of the expedition. His ship, the Endeavour, was only 100 feet long with a draught of 13½ feet, and was a slow sailer, but she was well fitted for her special work. There was no secret about Cook's sailing instructions in relation to the transit of Venus, but he also received secret instructions from the admiralty to seek for a southern continent, and "take possession of convenient situations in the country in the name of the King of Great Britain". These instructions were published for the first time by the Navy Records Society in 1928, and Sir Joseph Carruthers (q.v.), in his Captain James Cook, R.N., argued that the southern continent that the admiralty had in mind was Australia, of the eastern side of which, except for a small portion of Tasmania, nothing was then known. The evidence, however, is against this view, though when Cook had carried out his instructions to proceed south from Tahiti in search of this continent, and then westward until he fell in with the eastern side of New Zealand, it was quite within their spirit for him to have searched for the eastern side of Australia.
The Royal Society decided on King George III Island (Tahiti) as the site of their station, and one of their fellows, Sir Joseph Banks (q.v.), also became a member of the expedition, with a suite of nine persons, including Dr Solander (q.v.) and three artists. On 25 August 1768 the Endeavour sailed with 94 persons on board and nearly 18 months' provisions. It arrived off Rio de Janeiro on 13 November, sailed round the Horn about the end of January, and reached Tahiti on 13 April 1769. The last voyager to arrive there had had about a hundred cases of scurvy on board. Cook had not a single case. He had insisted on cleanliness in the men's quarters, and had persuaded the men to eat sauerkraut with their salt meat. Banks had adapted himself quickly to the travelling conditions, became very helpful to Cook, and at Tahiti took charge of the bartering between the ship and the natives. There were seven weeks to spare before the date of the transit, which were occupied in botanizing and studying the habits of the natives. The day of the transit was fortunately cloudless, and Cook and his fellow observer, Green, were able to see it in the best circumstances. They were disturbed to find that they were not in exact agreement as to the moment of contact, but similar discrepancies occurred among observers in other parts of the world, and it was found that the cause was that the disc of Venus was distorted owing to irradiation, when apparently making and breaking contact with the sun. Cook, after spending three months at Tahiti, sailed to the westward and discovered the Society Islands, and then went to the south, and on 7 October 1769 sighted the North Island of New Zealand. During the next six months he sailed completely round New Zealand and chartered the coast line. He had now only provisions for four months, and he had to decide whether he would return by Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope. He decided to turn to the west and make for Van Diemen's Land. But the wind forced him to the north, and the first land he sighted was Point Hicks, near the present boundary of New South Wales and Victoria. He reached here on 20 April 1770, and following the coast to the north came to Botany Bay on 29 April. Proceeding to the north the Endeavour just escaped being totally wrecked on the night of 11 June, when she went aground, and was got off with difficulty, seriously leaking. The ship was successfully beached at the mouth of the Endeavour River and temporarily repaired. Cook was glad to be able to find a way outside the Great Barrier Reef, and on 22 August 1770, on reaching Torres Strait, he landed again and took formal possession of the coastline to 38° S. On 11 October he arrived at Batavia and remained 11 weeks while the Endeavour was repaired. Cook had not had a single death from scurvy, but at Batavia malaria and dysentery were rife, and no fewer than 31 of his complement died from these causes. The Cape of Good Hope was reached in March, and Cook landed in England on 13 July 1771. He had been away some six weeks less than three years. On 14 August he was presented to the King, and was given a captain's commission.
Cook started on his second voyage on 13 July 1772. Before leaving he had visited his parents at their cottage, now re-erected at Melbourne. The admiralty apparently was not satisfied that the often spoken of southern continent did not exist, and Cook was now to settle the question once and for all. He had two ships, the Resolution, 462 tons, and the Adventure, 336, and several of the men who had been on the Endeavour sailed with him again. The Cape was reached on 30 October, and on 22 November a course was set for the Antarctic regions. He then turned to the east, skirting the floating icepack. On 17 January 1773 Cook was the first explorer to cross the Antarctic circle, but finding the ice increasing, turned more northerly. On 8 February the two vessels parted company during a gale, but it had been agreed that should that happen they should meet at Queen Charlotte's Sound, New Zealand. The Adventure arrived first, the Resolution following six weeks later. They left on 7 June, but an outbreak of scurvy on the Adventure led to Cook's altering his course and going to Tahiti. On starting again, various islands were discovered to the west and south, and Queen Charlotte's Sound was reached again by the Resolution on 3 November 1773. The ships, however, had become separated and the Adventure was not seen again on this voyage. The Resolution proceeded to the south-east, and on 30 January 1774 reached 71°10' S. which stood as a record farthest south for 50 years. Turning north again and then westerly, Cook reached Easter Island and then made for Tahiti again, which he reached on 22 April 1774. He searched for and identified the group of islands which de Quiros had occupied in 1606, and then went to Queen Charlotte's Sound again, arriving on 17 October. He sailed for home by way of Cape Horn on 10 November 1774. On New Year's day, soon after passing the Horn, he sighted the island he named South Georgia, proceeded east and south and then east until he reached the meridian of Greenwich, and, shortly after, his outward bound track, having completed his circuit of the Antarctic. On 23 February 1775 he sailed for the Cape of Good Hope, which was reached on 22 March, and on 30 July he arrived in England.
During Cook's absence the account of his first voyage and of some earlier voyages by other men had been prepared for the press by Dr John Hawkesworth. The editor had taken many liberties with the text and largely spoilt it, but nevertheless it had been much read and Cook had become famous. On 9 August he was presented to King George III and given his commission as post-captain. He was also appointed fourth captain of Greenwich hospital, with residence and £200 a year and allowances. Cook busied himself preparing the account of his second voyage for publication, but soon afterwards was selected to lead an expedition to the Arctic regions by way of the Pacific, to search for an inlet running towards Hudson Bay or Baffin Bay. He left on the Resolution on 12 July 1776 and reached the Cape in November, where the Discovery, a small vessel of 229 tons, joined him. The two vessels sailed for New Zealand and reached Queen Charlotte's Sound on 12 February. Leaving for Tahiti 13 days later, Cook met head winds and found it would be impossible for him to do any useful work in the Arctic regions until a year later than he had intended He reached Tahiti on 12 August 1777. From there he proceeded to the Society Islands and in December sailed to the north. In January 1778 the Hawaiian group was discovered, and on 2 February the ships sailed for the north-west coast of America. At the end of March Vancouver Island was reached, and a month was spent repairing the Resolution. The ships anchored in Behring Strait on 9 August 1778, but on sailing to the north it was found that winter was coming on so fast that nothing useful could be done. On 26 October Cook sailed for Hawaii, spent some time in charting the island, and on 17 January 1779 anchored on the west side of it. While carrying out some surveys the Resolution sprung her top-mast, and Cook returned to his previous anchorage at Kealakekua Bay. On the night of 13 February the Discovery's cutter was stolen, and on the following day Cook decided to seize the king, or an important chief, as a hostage for the return of it. A fight began between the natives and the marines who fired a volley of musketry. While reloading they were rushed by the natives who killed four of them while Cook, turning at the water's edge to give an order to the boats, was stabbed in the back, dragged ashore and killed. Lieutenant Wilkinson who was in charge of the nearest boat made no attempt to go to Cook's help, and has been blamed for his captain's death. But the whole incident occurred so quickly that it is doubtful whether Cook could have been saved. His remains were not recovered for some days, but on 21 February 1779 were buried at sea. The ships endeavoured to carry out their programme, and passing Behring Strait again were stopped by ice on 19 July 1779 in 70° 33' N. They returned by way of the Cape of Good Hope and arrived in England on 4 October 1780.
Cook married on 21 December 1762 Elizabeth Batts. Of their six children three died in infancy, and the three surviving sons all died comparatively young leaving no descendants. Mrs Cook lived to a great age in very good circumstances until her death in 1835. She was given a grant of arms, a pension of £200 a year, an allowance for the children, and half the profits from the publication of Cook's journals. During his absence the Royal Society had awarded him the Copley medal for his work in preventing scurvy, and it struck a special medal in his honour, which was sent to Mrs Cook with an expression of the regret of the whole Society of which Cook had been elected a fellow in 1776.
Cook was a good-looking man of over six feet in height, somewhat spare, but strong, strictly cleanly, and temperate in both eating and drinking. In spite of a hasty temper he was benevolent and humane, with a strong understanding and a genius for taking pains. In spite of the aloofness that is characteristic of all good captains, he was beloved and respected by both officers and men. He was quite fearless, and when danger came was the bravest and cheeriest man on board, but to this was added a wise caution and a sense of the proximity of land which seems to have been almost an instinct. More than once Cook altered course without apparent reason when the ship was running into danger. It did not matter whether he were among the fogs of the Antarctic or the intricacies of the Great Barrier Reef, his seamanship was always excellent, ranking him with the great navigators and discoverers of all time. Statues to his memory are at Sydney, Melbourne and London, and other memorials are at many places in England and at Tahiti, Hawaii, New Zealand, Canada and France. The best portrait of him is probably that by Nathaniel Dance, R.A., which has been frequently reproduced. He was also painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, P.R.A., and other well-known artists.
A. Kitson, Captain James Cook; R. T. Gould Captain Cook; H. Zimmerman, Voyage Round the World with Captain Cook; J. R. Muir, The Life and Achievements of Captain James Cook; G. Campbell, Captain James Cook; J. Carruthers, Captain James Cook; see also various editions of the three voyages and the Bibliography of Captain James Cook, Public Library, Sydney, 1928.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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